Target Neighborhood: Sun Valley
Denver Police District Makes Community Knowledge a Priority
Commander Paul Pazen of the Denver Police Department was raised on the city’s Northwest Side, where he now serves, a largely Latino community diverse enough to include East and West Africans, Jewish Orthodox, Asians, Italians, Irish and others.
The area includes the Sun Valley neighborhood, where nearly 80 percent of households live below the poverty line, a community that received an Innovations in Community Based Crime Reduction (CBCR) Planning and Implementation award in 2014. District 1 has the highest percentage of public housing developments in Denver and a legacy of antagonism and distrust between law enforcement and local residents. In the 1970s, protests for Latino rights in the community led to clashes with the police, even a bombing and several deaths.
Commander Pazen, who also is the coordinator for the CBCR program in Denver, acknowledges that not every officer he leads in District One has his advantage. “If a young officer grew up in the suburbs or out of state, they don’t have the same reference and perspectives as someone who’s been here a long time,” he says. When a young officer starts responding to calls, the Police Academy’s diversity training is months in the past, he explains, and in any event each community is unique in its history, demographics and intangibles.
And so, to help District One be at its best to serve and protect, Pazen has instituted several innovative programs that both give his officers a deeper appreciation of the residents with whom they interact every day and sow the seeds for better relationships in the community, particularly with young people.
For the past three years, police officers new to District One attend an annual six-hour training, a kind of welcome to the community, with presenters from the neighborhood, including a social service provider, a local rabbi and a former gang member. The discussions range from why Orthodox Jews won’t drive on the Sabbath to a personal story of the journey from being incarcerated to being a father and small business owner. It’s a two-way conversation, with the officers sharing their experiences as well.
Connections such as these are in line with how Commander Pazen approaches community relations. Over the years, he has built lasting relationship with the Denver Housing Authority, for instance, from the executive branch to property managers, and he emphasizes to District One officers the advantages of establishing authentic relations with residents who live in the diverse family and senior public housing and subsidized housing in the district.
The community training also provides details that can make officers more effective. For example, the biggest local park is officially named Columbus Park, but since marches and battles with police at the site decades ago, Latinos in the community still call it La Raza Park. “When an officer has that understanding and uses that name in context with someone in the community, it builds legitimacy in a situation that could be an unintentional point of contention,” Commander Pazen explains.
Every police officer in District One, regardless of rank, is slated to attend Effective Police Interactions with Youth, an evidence-based program created in Connecticut that covers youth behavior, adolescent brain development and strategies for positive youth encounters for law enforcement. Commander Pazen’s team also offers Bridge the Gap, a youth outreach program that brings three dozen or so young residents together with District 1 officers for a five-hour session. More than 500 young people on the Northwest Side have participated to date.
Created and run in partnership with the Office of Independent Monitor, a law enforcement citizen oversight board appointed by the mayor, Bridge the Gap is designed to be something besides just a lecture: It starts with a spoken word artist, stops for a communal meal and, notably, includes trainings for the participating youth on knowing their rights when dealing with police, led by a defense attorney at a local nonprofit.
“It’s really been powerful because it’s deeper than the surface level contact,” Commander Pazen says. “I’ve seen a young man starting the day off by insulting police officers, and by the end he is hugging an officer, saying they’ll keep in touch.”
Dellena Agulia is the manager of mental health issues for Servicios de La Raza, which provides culturally informed social services on the Northwest Side. “We see a lot of folks on parole, individuals who are undocumented, a transient population,” she says. She says that Commander Pazen, who is the president of the agency’s board of directors, has a genuine interest in the problems faced by residents in the community, such as poverty, stress and discrimination.
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