Under siege but still on the beat: Two shifts with Pueblo Police

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Even with COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the mass political turmoil surrounding law enforcement catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd, for Pueblo Police officers, it’s just another day on the job.

In early June, Pueblo Police Chief Troy Davenport spoke openly about his disgust towards Floyd’s death. But while public condemnations are one thing, what do the frontline officers who deal with the public everyday think, and how are they going about their jobs?

PULP went on a ride-along in late June with two Pueblo officers to get a deeper sense of their jobs. In a way, it was also about building trust between reporters and the police.

The Pueblo Police has around 275 officers and staff and the number can fluctuate depending on recruiting class, funds, and attrition. It’s a force that oversees a city of 110,000 Puebloans that has gone from majority white to majority Hispanic in the past decade.

Depending on what viral story gets posted about Pueblo, the city often finds itself on the list of one of the most violent places in Colorado.

Recently, the department faced increased scrutiny for having the highest per capita officer-involved shootings in the state of Colorado.

For a city that seems to have all the components to make a volatile mix, it hasn’t seen an incident on the level of Elijah McClain in Aurora, or George Floyd in Minneapolis. Despite this, local NAACP and other organizations have still asked for reform.

Under the noon southern Colorado sun, Pueblo is quiet, almost sleepy from the summer heat, so we spend the first few hours of the watch cruising through northwestern Pueblo. Despite a logistical setback that had me sitting in the lobby for an hour, I’m finally riding with Pueblo Police Officer Cody Nielson as he begins second watch.

Officer Nielson is soft-spoken and quiet. He’s young, but he has been on the force for three years.

The first call of the day is to a Smoker’s Friendly, a smoke shop located just north of downtown Pueblo.

Nielson takes down some notes about a recent disturbance involving a lady experiencing homelessness harassing the cashier.

We circle through the parking lot looking for the offender, but the suspect has moved on. Nielson pulls into a parking lot to chat with another officer responding to the call.

Their conversation quickly changes to the training they had before their watch began regarding the new police oversight bill that just passed through the Colorado Senate.

Nielson doesn’t think the bill will change much about how the Pueblo PD operates since he sees the department as being progressive and already doing much of what the bill asks.

“As long as I stay within my policies and procedures. I’m fine,” said Nielson.

For officers, there is a sense that they are under siege from bad policing around the nation. The protests that have swept the country are loud and clear in their demands: it’s time for criminal justice reform.

These calls for change feel personal as officers believe protestors don’t see the day-to-day changes Pueblo Police have made. Bad officers in other departments, along with a perception that mainstream media is out to get them, create unease in their jobs.

Along this line, there is a sense of unease at having a journalist sit in their car.

As the oppressive heat lingers over the Steel City the lack of calls seems to open Nielson up to talking. He grew up on a farm in eastern Colorado and says he loves the open plains and grasslands. While Nielson thought about being a Division of Wildlife Officer, he’s known that law enforcement was something he’s wanted to do for a while. He likes to snowboard and be in the mountains.

He’s friendly with the community. He waves to community members, holds the door for a lady at the gas station, and by the way he speaks about his town, it’s clear that he loves working and being part of the Pueblo community. As he talks about still feeling supported by Puebloans, Officer Nielson has a tone of pride talking about working in Pueblo.

“None of us got this job to hassle people,” said Nielson, who comes from a law enforcement family. Nielsen still sees being a police officer as an effective and legitimate way to help the community.

With the growing schism between the public and law enforcement, officer Nielson represents something that may have been lost in the national narrative.

National policy may change, the public’s perception may change, and how police interact with civilians may change, but Nielson will still be in his squad car patrolling his beat. He may not like the way things change, but he’ll keep at it because he believes his work is helping his community and keeping the public safe. And even if many people call for his job to disappear, he still believes that the community and government of Pueblo largely support him.

Officer Devon Dawson, at twenty-two years old, is a youngster on the force. He’s got a two-year-old kid, a new house, and a dog who won’t stop peeing on his carpet. He laughs easily, speaks his mind, and by all accounts loves his job. His Crown Vic’s A/C doesn’t quite work like it’s supposed to, so as we drive, the car provides only a mild escape.

“Do you know most officers don’t like having riders?” Dawson asks me. From their perspective, as a journalist I could be part of the institution that they feel has been targeting them.

This attitude is fleeting though, because Dawson sees this as an opportunity to show the public his perspective.

For Dawson, being on the force is about serving his community and enforcing law and order. He always wanted to be in the police force and went to UCCS for criminal justice before joining the Pueblo Police Academy and working his way up to an officer.

“Every day we are out here making people’s lives better and then they come out and say our jobs are unessential,” said Dawson, shaking his head as he refers to the new calls to defund the police.

So for Dawson, it’s hard to understand the calls for massive police reform. “I respect your right to do it, but try to see both sides of your argument,” said Dawson. One of his biggest qualms is that he feels the actions of a few officers in other cities are calling into question the motives of all officers.

“I don’t know any of us who wakes up and wants to shoot someone,” said Dawson.

Our first call is to a house Dawson knows well. In a dirt yard, a healthcare worker and a mother meet us outside.

Her daughter, who is autistic and has a history of behavioral problems, was assaulting the caretaker who helps the single mom. The daughter, who, at fourteen, is no stranger to the police, steps outside and yells at the officers.

Another officer who just arrived asks to step inside and talk to the daughter.  He talks to her and calms her down. He says he’s probably had forty calls to the house and knows the daughter well.

Dawson and the other officer listen to the mother vent and discuss some options for getting her daughter help. The mom, who just found out all five of her children are on the spectrum, is nearly in tears. “I have hundreds of hours of training and I could never do what you do…you’re an angel,” the second officer tells her.

“Honestly, we are social workers…we carry a lot of different hats,” said Dawson.

I ask him if he sees merit in any of the demands of the Black Lives Movement, like having social workers and unarmed response units go to some cases.

He turns his computer towards me. A long list of calls is waiting: attempted suicide, child abuse, domestic abuse. “What’s the worst that could happen for any of these calls,” he asks. The way Dawson sees it, the worst-case scenario is always someone trying to kill the responding officer or someone else on the scene. Dawson believes that, in a dangerous world, armed officers are the ones best equipped to respond to these types of calls.

We pull into an empty lot so Dawson can make some calls following up with a child abuse case. He backs his car up to a brick wall and says, “We are so paranoid. I always try to have my back up to something.” Dawson tells me that he hears about people putting hits out on cops in some Pueblo neighborhoods and that he sees people getting more confrontational since the Black Lives movement began.

To the officers, fear has always been a way police protect themselves. They are taught to believe that everyone might harm them so they are always ready – concern that every situation could go bad is a form of protection.

Officer Dawson tracks down the family from the child abuse report to do a welfare check. When we arrive at the house, the father and son are outside.

Dawson engages him in a few minutes of small talk about the new sod the dad just put in. When he brings up the welfare check, the father looks over at the kid, “what’d you say?” The kid fidgets uncomfortably and shrugs.

There are a number of boxes police have to mark during a welfare check, so Dawson talks to the kid alone then goes into the house to make sure he has food, water, and shelter.

Dawson walks a fine line doing this type of call. He’s got to ensure that the child is okay, but in doing so the parents become visibly annoyed with their son. Dawson works to divert blame from the child, saying that he’s only here because of some old files that resurfaced.

Once again, here are the many hats that both Dawson and Nielson say they wear. In Dawson’s words, they go from policing to acting as social workers, father figures, and sometimes just a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes they are the only help someone in need will ever see. All that wrapped up in a bulletproof vest with a gun on their belt.

As the heat cooks Pueblo, the list of waiting calls grows.

Dispatch calls out an accident not far from us, so Dawson asks if I’m ready before flipping the lights. We gun it west, scraping the bumper of the old Ford as we go through intersections and pass cars.

The accident is chaotic. Amidst it all, the husband of one of the people involved pulls up. An officer asks him to move his car, as it’s parked illegally, but the man shrugs him off and tries to walk away. When stopped, he’s confrontational and eventually tells the police that he’s one of them. He flashes a card identifying himself as a sheriff’s department correctional officer. After the accident one of the officers calls the sheriff to file an official complaint, but he’s informed that the man in question was fired in February. The officers involved crack a smile because they’ve got him impersonating an officer – a felony that’ll earn him a night in jail at the very least.

We go to his address where we are met by two sheriffs and several other Pueblo officers. At his house, he meets us outside with his wife behind him. By the way he begins to talk in circles, he knows he’s in trouble.

He tries to backtrack, saying he’s not fired but just not working and receiving workman’s comp. No one’s buying it and they place him under arrest. It’s an easy arrest.

They string two handcuffs together because the man has an injured shoulder, and walk him quietly to the car. His wife, who is sobbing, asks what she should do. The man responds easily, “bail me out, and don’t forget to turn off the water.”

Dawson fists bumps one of the sheriffs. They got him.

There is a certain brotherhood amongst the officers. They are united together in their creed, but also in that, in a world of uncertainty, other officers represent people they can trust to have their back. When that man impersonated one of them, he broke the law, but he also intruded on the internal ethic of the brotherhood.

Similarly, the Black Lives movement represents a different type of attack because it challenges the internal narrative of law enforcement – that rather than the saviors of law and order in their communities, they are the villains. In the current political climate, some argue that the thin blue line, long touted as the line between chaos and order, serves to cover up injustices when officers close ranks.

For the police officers who put themselves in the way of harm every day, the power of their narrative is crucial. In a way, it justifies the risks they take. If they die in the line of duty, at least they will do so as heroes. It is central to their worldview. In this context, calls that challenge the idea of police as protectors are so contentious because they not only challenge the status quo but challenge people’s own perceptions of themselves as beneficial members of society.

“The loudest people get heard first. Once it’s done, that’s when reason comes out,” Dawson tells me. There’s a sense that this will pass and Dawson and other officers will still be there, following the policies and procedures that come down the line.

As for systemic changes, Dawson doesn’t see a problem with how his department functions, so there’s no need to change. “We are all judged by the actions of a few,” he said. Dawson doesn’t see a way that he can do anything about the officers who killed George Floyd. That’s not the way he operates, that’s not the way his department operates, and when people call for sweeping reform, he feels they don’t understand. “We aren’t all people who stand on necks.”