DENVER — In his State of the City address Monday morning, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock drew comparisons between the fight against racism and the novel coronavirus, insisting that the only way forward is through brutal, and likely uncomfortable, honesty.
“In these last few months, we’ve faced uncertainty, upheaval and loss,” Hancock said at the beginning of the address. “But we have also acted with resolve. Resolve to define together what a better city looks like – and attain it.”
Regarding the novel coronavirus, he said the city has made many moves in the right direction — creating two 24-hour shelters, providing personal protective equipment for those on the front lines, organizing the testing site at the Pepsi Center, rent and mortgage support — but still, it’s not enough.
He said he’s asking residents to “stay the course” to save lives and help the economy recover but acknowledged that politics is interfering.
“A mask isn’t a political statement,” he said. “Social distancing isn’t an attack on freedom. These temporary public health measures are about social responsibility, yours and mine – to ourselves, each other and the welfare of our city, state and nation.”
He said Denver authorities will continue to make their coronavirus-related decisions based on science.
In preparation of a possible COVID-19 spike in the fall, Denver is now working to ensure a six-month reserve of PPE.
In addition, the city’s Long-Term Recovery Committee — which is chaired by City Council member Albus Brooks and Chief of Staff Alan Salazar — developed a Recovery Action Plan “to support workers, businesses and workplace safety, address public health disparities, and ensure community feedback and equity in our recovery efforts,” Hancock said. The committee was created to plan Denver’s recovery strategy once its emergency operations response to COVID-19 is demobilized, according to the city's website.
The coronavirus has created a $227 million budget shortfall for the city, which will mean hard cuts, he said. While he didn’t specify where those cuts would come from, he said the city will maintain essential services.
To help rebuild the economy, he said the city has planned out multiple measures.
First, the work on bond and critical infrastructure programs where resources are already secured will be accelerated, and other public projects will stay on track. Second, Denver will drive toward a better job strategy that includes better pay, benefits and advancement opportunities. This includes a partnership with members of the business community to create both employment and training opportunities in emerging industries for residents, Hancock said.
He also addressed a second massive issue causing waves and tension around Denver and the United States: racism and law enforcement.
“It cannot be ignored,” Hancock said. “And we have not ignored it in Denver.”
He listed previous steps the city has taken to build a community-oriented public safety approach, which included moves like required body cameras for Denver police (which will be extended to the sheriff’s department this year), rewriting a more progressive use of force policy in 2018, and expanding the co-responder program to help, not arrest, people in crisis.
Regarding the latter point, Hancock said the city recently started a pilot program that dispatches health professionals and social workers to some 911 calls instead of an armed officer. If successful, the city will expand the program, Hancock said.
“We must understand that to begin a debate about racism and its generational impacts by zeroing in on the actions of law enforcement, is to acknowledge just one symptom of a virus that is killing us,” he said. “Excessive and deadly force by law enforcement disproportionately towards people of color is a symptom of the deadly virus – racism.”
He explained that just like COVID-19, brutal honesty about the issue must be addressed to find a solution.
“Racism is a public health crisis,” Hancock said. “We must finally address it like we do every public health crisis. We need the vaccine.”
In Denver’s case, that vaccine could be the Denver Institute of Equity and Reconciliation.
More than 50 experts from backgrounds — civic and civil rights, faith, diversity, public safety, inclusion — have joined this new initiative.
“Our vision is for this institute to become the national leader in research of racism, bias, inclusion, practices of reconciliation, and development of programs and trainings for law enforcement, and the public, private and education sectors,” Hancock said.
He said more information on this new initiative will be released soon.
A third major talking point during Monday's State of the City was Denver’s approach to homelessness.
“There is an uncomfortable truth about the challenge of homelessness in our society,” Hancock said. “It’s the same truth underlying the challenge of income inequality, a hollowed-out middle class, an alarming disparity in access to opportunity, and the challenges of mental health and poverty.
Hancock said the current encampments cannot persist, so the city is taking a new approach to helping individuals who are experiencing homelessness. The city will create Safe Outdoor Spaces to temporarily give those individuals a managed, safe and sanitary place to find services. The location of these spaces was unknown as of publishing time.
In addition, Hancock asked for the support of a proposal by Councilwoman Robin Kniech and city shelter operators and service providers to help fund better shelters, expanded services and additional housing options for homeless individuals.
“To those who think homelessness is just a Denver issue, I invite you to consider the commonality of our humanity and the power of collective action,” Hancock said. “That is the only way it will be finally resolved.”
Hancock’s State of the City address touched on other hot button topics as well, including:
- Affordable housing: Hancock announced that the city will waive fees and speed up approvals for five affordable housing projects and five green projects. The details around these exact projects are not yet clear.
- Youth violence: Hancock called the growing risk of youth violent crime “unacceptable” and said he “will never allow it to be normalized in our city.” To help youth, City Attorney Kristin Bronson will work with members of Hancock’s administration to create a community-driven plan to show them support. This will be addressed “from a public health perspective, not just a law enforcement perspective,” Hancock said.
“This city behind me – our city is full of possibilities,” Hancock said at the end of the address. “Possibilities that you helped shape. With resolve, we will come out of this better than we were before. It’s going to take hard work. But we can do it, and I have hope.”