Parents and students at a Wheat Ridge private school are blasting the city police department’s handling of an incident that took place on campus last month, where two students were ordered by officers to the ground at gunpoint and detained with handcuffs.
Police, looking for two burglary suspects, converged on Alpine Valley School on Sept. 9. The two boys whom police briefly detained had no connection to the burglary.
The Wheat Ridge Police Department received criticism from several people with ties to Alpine Valley, an alternative learning school at 4501 Parfet St., during a Sept. 23 city council meeting, where council members were urged to look into making changes to police policy, as a result of what occurred.
“My expectation for Wheat Ridge is that police officers should be peacekeepers and peacemakers, not the stern enforcers we often see on television shows depicting police,” said Larry Welshon, a teacher at Alpine Valley School.
Wheat Ridge Police Chief Dan Brennan said this week that the police department is taking the concerns seriously and that his department is currently investigating the incident.
“We’re looking into all the concerns expressed by students, parents and administrators and, until I’ve had an opportunity to look at the facts, it would be premature to talk about what had happened,” Brennan said.
According to Welshon and several parents and students who spoke during the council session, when police arrived on campus, they were greeted by 14-year-old Carlos Duran-Rael, who was outside playing a game.
“I asked (the officer), ‘May I help you?’ and he pointed his gun at me and said something along the lines of, ‘Put your hands where I can see them and get down on your knees,’” Duran-Rael said.
Duran-Rael said he was ordered to the ground and put in handcuffs before police asked him questions having to do with why he was on the school property and what he was doing there.
The boy said that a female officer did not believe that he was a student, saying to Duran-Rael at one point, “’Are you going to do this the hard way or the easy way, because this whole thing will be easier if you tell us the truth’,” according to the boy.
Shortly after Duran-Rael was detained, another student, 15-year-old Neil Poe, said he was ordered to the ground and also placed in handcuffs after he walked out of the building.
Poe said that an officer told him, “’you look like someone who would rob a house.’”
Welshon said police ignored him when he told them that the boys were students. When he asked officers why they put handcuffs on the boys, they told him it was for “police protection,” according to Welshon.
“I submit to you that our Wheat Ridge police may be becoming militarized,” Welshon told council members. “As evidenced by the drawing of a weapon by an officer on an unarmed cooperative youth at his school and the handcuffing of another student who simply exited the school building at the wrong time.”
Brennan said that police were looking for two people who had just attempted to break into a home in the nearby 4700 block of Parfet Street. Two people who matched the description of the suspects were seen running through a field, in the area of the school.
The police chief said that the officers felt that the suspects’ descriptions were similar to those of the two boys, but Brennan also acknowledged that the police had received “varying descriptions.” Brennan also said that it’s important to note that the suspects “were heading toward the school and disappeared right around the school.”
The boys were released after being detained for about 15 minutes. The assailants were never caught.
Brennan said the department did not receive complaints about the incident until Sept. 19, just four days before the council meeting. Brennan said that he is in the process of collecting the facts and that he will be conducting interviews with all of the parties.
Brennan said that it’s common for police to detain persons suspected of a felony and for officers to draw their weapons while doing so.
“It’s not a militaristic kind of thing so much as an officer safety kind of thing,” he said.
The police chief also said that he understands that there is a necessary “balancing act” involved when looking into these kinds of situations, meaning that the department must take citizens’ concerns seriously, while also understanding the dynamics involved in any given situation that police face.
“My purpose and my goal is to look at the totality of the circumstances here,” Brennan said. Brennan, who is a 10-year police chief, stressed that he values transparency in his department and that he will be “taking a real, serious look at policy, training and tactics.”
At the same time, Brennan said that cops have difficult jobs.
“Police officers don’t always have the ability to look at things in hindsight,” he said.
Jane Poe, Neil’s mother, said that she never received a call from the police department while her son was being detained. And Angela Duran said she shutters to think about what could have happened had her son made a wrong move.
“The many scenarios to which my son could have been shot and killed for doing nothing more than playing at school haunt my dreams,” she said.
The incident also drew the ire of parents whose children were not directly involved in the incident.
“I really think you have 25 kids who need several officers to go out there and explain what went on,” said Maureen Hartlaub of Littleton, whose 9-year-old boy attends Alpine. “They need to know why a child who says to them, ‘May I help you?’ has a gun pulled on him.”