John Colson: A good outcome in Carbondale case, but more to be done
Hit & Run
Every so often an ongoing news story comes to a conclusion that can justifiably be termed “a happy ending,” and the case against Carbondale resident Michael Francisco is one such outcome.
After some five months of investigation, considerable outrage among Carbondale’s fairly close-knit community and calls for the town to drop the case, that is exactly what happened — earlier this month, all charges against Francisco were scheduled to be dropped under a request from prosecutors and Francisco’s defense attorney, Michael Edminister.
To refresh readers’ memories, Francisco, who is Black, Caribbean and was 55 years old at the time, was arrested last Christmas Eve by Carbondale police after being accused of pointing his finger and grimacing or making some other hostile facial expression in the direction of a white clerk in the Carbondale City Market shopping center.
Minutes after that alleged incident, while Francisco was at the self-checkout section of the grocery store, police officers (called to the scene by Police Chief Kirk Wilson, who was in the store at the time and was asked to intervene) came into the store, demanded to see Francisco’s identification and told him he would have to leave the store.
Francisco, who had once worked at the Carbondale store before taking a job at the City Market in Aspen, declined to show his identification and demanded to know why he was being ejected from the store. In the end of that confrontation, he was grabbed by the officers and taken to the floor before being hauled outside and driven to the police station.
At the station, he was released after being charged with several minor infractions, and ordered to appear in municipal court to face the charges.
At subsequent court hearings, a phalanx of supporters showed up to demand that the case be dismissed, initially to no avail.
Fast forward to last week, those charges were summarily dropped following a very brief period of “deferred prosecution” and a mediated sort of restorative justice meeting between Francisco and Chief Wilson.
I should note that, as yet, there has been no indication of a public, formal apology directly to Francisco from either the police department or the town, though Carbondale Mayor Dan Richardson penned a newspaper commentary in which he indicated he was sorry the incident had occurred.
I’m not sure if Francisco or his supporters are entirely satisfied with the way things turned out, or with the reports of introspection and possible changes in policy on the part of the police department. In fact, I’m not sure I’m satisfied.
I couldn’t help remembering, as soon as I heard about these lamentable, even disgraceful actions by our police department, that this is not the first time Carbondale police have overreacted to a situation and been later chastised for it.
I’m thinking of the 2004 “tasing” of longtime local personage Stephen “Social” Horn, by then CPD Off. Jose Muñoz, after Muñoz reportedly witnessed Horn roll through a stop sign on his way to deliver hay bales to a street party in the center of Carbondale.
The tasing took place near the intersection of Fourth and Main streets, a few blocks from the alleged traffic infraction, which is where Horn pulled over after Muñoz activated the lights atop his police cruiser.
According to Muñoz, Horn was acting erratically, and the officer felt threatened when Horn got out of his car and walked toward Muñoz, so he shot him multiple times with a taser gun.
According to Horn, he drove the couple of blocks to where he finally pulled over in order to be close to where he was to deliver the hay bales and got out to go over and talk with Muñoz, whom Horn knew personally.
Cut to the chase, so to speak, it ultimately turned out that Muñoz was something of a hot head, and that nearly a decade earlier was disciplined after he grabbed a guy by the throat and hair in a local bar when the guy told Muñoz to “speak English” in addressing patrons at the bar (many of whom were Hispanic).
Muñoz, according to official police files released on a judge’s order, said he felt the man’s remark had been a racial slur that required a response.
In both these cases, I think it’s justifiable to conclude that at least some of the town’s police officers are in need of a little sensitivity training, whether racially oriented or otherwise.
It also appears that the town’s move toward review of the police department’s policies and procedures, and toward establishment of some sort of citizen oversight commission, probably are warranted and perhaps overdue.
Police and tax collectors are just about the public’s most frequent points of contact with our local government, and it’s unfortunate that both of those examples of officialdom are fraught with potential for conflict.
And whether it’s a small town or a big city, misunderstandings, biases and other factors can lead to trouble, which is why we need as much transparency and dialogue as we can manage to avoid that kind of trouble.
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