May 13, 2024 - News

Denver advocates accuse mayor of competing with them after creation of neighborhood safety office

Illustration of a police badge, with yellow and black stripes overlaid on it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Community advocates are at odds with the mayor's office over a new plan to curb violence.

The latest: Mayor Mike Johnston announced Monday he's creating an Office of Neighborhood Safety to oversee violence-prevention strategies that don't involve law enforcement.

Why it matters: It's a reversal from last fall, when he rejected a city council member's proposal to direct $1.5 million to establish the office and instead increased the city's public safety spending by 8%.

  • His initial "no" was due to a lack of support from a supermajority of council members, and not having the "right" partners or funding in place.

Catch up quick: Following his refusal, a task force to reimagine policing, which was formed in 2020 after George Floyd's murder, announced its plans in February to start a community-led Office of Neighborhood Safety.

Friction point: Now, the task force is accusing the mayor of "co-opting" and "competing" with its efforts.

  • Plus: Johnston's announcement came the same day the task force had scheduled a gathering of local and national experts to come up with a violence prevention action plan for its neighborhood safety office.

What they're saying: "Rather than shifting investments to community-based initiatives," the city is "expanding their own bureaucracy" and "competing against us for limited funding," Lisa Calderón, a criminal justice advocate who works with the task force, said in a statement.

  • Johnston defended his decision, saying reducing violence "requires central city-based leadership" and that his administration is open to "partnering with anyone in the community who wants to do work on this."
  • An advisory board of roughly a dozen mayor- and city council-appointed community members will help guide the new office's mission and work, he said.

The big picture: Johnston said the new office will take on management of the Department of Safety's existing Public Safety Youth Programs, Office of Community Violence Solutions, Assessment, Intake and Diversion Center, and Support Team Assisted Response program, known as STAR.

  • To make it happen, Johnston is pulling $11 million from the safety department and moving 65 full-time city employees to support the Office of Social Equity & Innovation, under which the newly announced office will be housed.

Between the lines: The Office of Social Equity & Innovation has been rife with turnover — having four leaders in four years, resulting in at least six different mission statements — and was deemed inefficient and ineffective in a scathing 2022 report from the Denver auditor's office.

What's next: Community task force coordinator Robert Davis and Calderón have pledged to pursue their neighborhood safety plans without Johnston.

  • This "initiative belongs to the community, and we will see it through to fruition," Davis said.
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