May 3, 2024 - News

Denver police chief: Officers won't sweep Auraria Campus as long as it's peaceful

A sign in the foreground reads FROM THE RIVER TO THE SEA planted on a lawn, while several camping tents of various colors are visible in the background. In the far background, a large brick and historic building is visible during a sunny day.

The pro-Palestinian encampment at the Auraria Campus in Denver. Photo: Esteban L. Hernandez/Axios

Denver police won't sweep the growing pro-Palestinian encampment at the Auraria Campus as long as it remains peaceful, chief Ron Thomas told a civilian watchdog group on Friday.

Why it matters: The chief's statements show a changing strategy for the agency, who last week, together with the sheriff departments, assisted Auraria police in arresting roughly 40 people at the encampment.

  • Thomas made the decision to send police officers last week after the campus requested their assistance, he said Friday during the public Citizen Oversight Board meeting.

The intrigue: Thomas said he was asked by the campus to again send police to the encampment after more tents were erected following Friday's arrests, but he declined. Thomas did not specify what day.

  • The Auraria Campus includes the Community College of Denver, Metropolitan State University and the University of Colorado Denver

What they're saying: "I've been explaining to [campus] leadership...that we absolutely aren't going to just go in and sweep out this peaceful protest just because they're occupying a space on your campus that you'd like to use for something else right now," Thomas said.

  • He said Denver police would only get involved if illegal activities, like assault or property damage, take place. Campus administrators say the encampment violates their camping ban.

The latest: Protesters on Thursday rejected an offer from school administrators to donate $15,000 to the International Committee of the Red Cross if students ended their encampment.

  • A post on X, formerly known as Twitter, from Students for a Democratic Society, one of the groups organizing the protest, said their demonstration won't end "until our demands are met," including removing school money from companies operating in Israel.
  • The campus administration said in a statement it remains open to finding a solution.

Between the lines: No use of force reports were filed by Denver police after last week's arrests, Thomas said as most people were arrested for trespassing.

  • He said his officers didn't use any force or "less-than-lethal munitions" like pepper spray.

Yes, but: Officers were observed shoving protesters last week, and people arrested said they felt the officers were "fighting" with students and being unnecessarily aggressive.

  • "When the police came and arrested my friend here, [protesters] were completely peaceful — there was no need for any of that," organizer Steph Wittstruck told us earlier this week.

What we're watching: Thomas said he was unsure how the campus could enforce its policies without larger agencies like Denver police or Colorado State Patrol, noting the campus police department is relatively small.

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