Denver police chief: ‘No legal way’ to sweep Auraria Campus protesters

DENVER (KDVR) — Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas was grilled by members of the Citizen Oversight Board on Friday morning, resulting in the chief telling the board he refused to sweep the pro-Palestine protest encampment from the Auraria Campus a second time.

The first sweep was on Friday, April 26, and resulted in 45 arrests. Of those, 40 were Auraria Campus Police arresting protesters on trespassing, whereas five were by the Denver Police Department on alleged assaults on officers. Thomas said Auraria Campus asked for aid in removing the students, saying they were trespassing, and Denver police offered support to the campus police.

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However, he said there was a plan heading into the dispersal of the protest that was not followed perfectly.

“The objective was to remove the tents, which were in violation of the campus policy, and that’s why (Auraria) had declared that they were trespassing,” Thomas told the oversight board. “When the tents were taken down, it was part of the plan that just wasn’t appropriately executed, for Auraria Campus to take possession of those tents so that the students who owned them could recover them.

“But they, for whatever reason, chose to just leave them laying along the side and as you might imagine, (the protesters) just came and re-erected the tents and we were back at square one,” Thomas continued. “At which point in time, they asked us to come back and engage in the operation again, and that’s when I shut it down and said I’m not doing that again.”

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One of the board members asked Thomas to explain how the department has ensured it is not infringing on any First Amendment rights. He said the area is a public space, and while Tivoli Quad may be a location for job fairs and other permitted events, there’s no legal way to remove the student protesters.

“I think the school would prefer that the group leave the area. I just don’t think that there is any legal way to do that — well, I know that there’s no legal way to do that unless they truly do something that creates an unlawful assembly,” Thomas said. “There’s no intelligence at this point to suggest that that’s imminent.”

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The police chief also said he had not anticipated such a high number of arrests.

“My thought in mind was that it would result in a small number of arrests, and that wasn’t the case,” Thomas said.

He also said that he chose not to send Denver officers back to the encampment later on April 26 because the crowd had grown “significantly larger” and he did not believe it was safe or appropriate to go back in.

“There have since been a number of negotiations with the group to remove the tents — we’ve been involved in those negotiations and I’ve been explaining to the leadership at (Auraria) 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 told the Citizen Oversight Board.

Thomas said the department continues to monitor the situation and is in a position to escalate the police response if there is a possible clash between opposing protests or if the pro-Palestine protest grows violent.

“If it remains a peaceful demonstration, all we will do is just monitor the situation,” Thomas said. He also noted that the department has been aware of pro-Israel protest, and will move in to keep the opposing groups separate if there are possible clashes.

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