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In Fort Collins, Love Wins

Peace, Unity & The Pursuit Of Equality

While the action in Denver has taken center stage for Colorado, they are far from the only place in our state seeing protests. Media attention being turned toward Denver should be no surprise.  Images and video from the protests have flooded the internet showing initially peaceful gatherings becoming dicey as riot gear clad police units resort to mace, tear gas, and rubber bullets to disperse crowds while some protestors abandon the peaceful tactics, against organizers’ urging for nonviolent protest, and turn to rioting that damages both government and privately owned property. Criticism of both sides has been widespread. With social media events showing protests scheduled as far as a month out and the demands of protestors yet to be resolved, it is near impossible to predict how and when the unrest will end. SB20-217, a bill aimed at increasing integrity and accountability, and restricting certain practices for law enforcement in Colorado, is currently working its way through the state legislature and was introduced as a response to protestors demand for police reform. 

Here in Fort Collins, as they have in many communities, protests have remained peaceful so far in spite of the politically and emotionally charged nature of the issue at hand. Many of the differences between Denver and Fort Collins, such as demographics and population size, undoubtedly impact the way protests have progressed. One difference you can immediately notice is the determination of our local police force to not escalate the situation. The decision to avoid riot gear and barricades is one Fort Collins Chief of Police, Jeff Swoboda, arrived at intentionally. “These are our neighbors, our kids, our teachers. Until people show that this is gonna go bad, the police shouldn’t be the ones raising the temperature,” Swoboda says of the decision to engage with protestors peacefully and in their everyday uniforms. While the Fort Collins Police Department already operates in line with many of the reforms presented in SB20-217, Swoboda is open to making further improvements to his department. In terms of responding to the community he serves, Swoboda says, “I’m spending a lot of time right now just listening, being present and hearing people and not getting defensive.” acknowledging that the citizens of Fort Collins are ultimately who he works for and are the best source of insight to how he should lead the department. “I’m the police chief for 100% of the community so even if 95% of the community loves the police department, that’s not good enough.”

Demetriece Langston, a Denver resident with family in Fort Collins and one of the organizers of the initial Fort Collins protest noticed and appreciated the difference. “They make you feel like it’s illegal to protest,” Langston said of his recent experiences protesting in Denver, citing the heavily armed police forces in the area and aggressive tactics as disrupting what were initially peaceful gatherings. Langston says Fort Collins officers were respectful and supportive of their right to protest. Another aspect Langston points to as ensuring a peaceful event in Fort Collins was a well defined plan and clear leadership of the protest, something he says is not prevalent enough in the much larger Denver protest groups. During his speech Langston says he was sure to acknowledge their peaceful presence, “We don’t want people to think it’s black people against police or people against police or all cops are bad” he says, “that’s not the case whatsoever.” Langston acknowledges SB20-217 as a good first step to reform but would like to see other changes, such as more selective screening processes and more extensive initial training for potential police candidates. 

Briana Long, a Fort Collins resident and participant of protests in both cities described the police presence in Fort Collins as, “no different than on a Friday night,” noting that meeting a wall of police in riot gear immediately intensified the situation at the state capitol. Long was one of those met with tear gas in Denver and was proud to see her home community unified around the issue in a peaceful manner. Langston and Long suggested that in addition to policy reforms communities like Fort Collins can work to improve racial disparities by first acknowledging them then making conscious efforts to include minority groups and cultures in the government and community events and by supporting minority owned businesses and creating opportunities to share and learn about the different cultures in their area.

For Swoboda, improving his department and their relationship with members of the community is all about communication and honesty, “I think a big part of it is making sure that as the leader of the organization I continue being accessible to the community and being honest when there are things that we need to change or when we fall short of expectations.”