Remembering the City as It Was

Even in retirement, I can’t visit my old police districts without reflecting on all the stories & people lost to history

By Joseph Padilla  |   Nov 30, 2018

“You worry too much,” my friend told me as we walked with our wives on the streets in the downtown section of Denver. I had just cautioned him to keep an eye out for someone walking behind us. I thought for a minute about what he said, and I replied,

“No, I’ve seen too much.”

We were in an area I knew well.  As a police officer, I spent many years patrolling these streets and am very familiar with what they had been like. It’s hard to forget the years of battling crime while chasing and fighting bad guys in these neighborhoods. It’s hard for me to not feel apprehensive when walking in an area I didn’t feel was safe, not too many years ago. I still see remnants of the criminal activity we dealt with; which the new people moving in are totally unaware of.

How Times Change

Since retiring I haven’t spent much time in inner-city Denver. But, after walking with our friends, I realized the Denver I know is changing. It’s becoming more affluent and many of the people I dealt with as a police officer are being priced out. Brew pubs, expensive restaurants, and unrecognizable trendy places are replacing the seedy bars, drug houses, and crime ridden areas I was familiar with.

Our friends live in a beautiful home in the heart of the city. Their neighborhood is undergoing a transformation similar to many areas of Denver. Property values are increasing, businesses are opening, and children play in parks once occupied by drug addicts and loitering drunks.

This is not an opinion on gentrification, but about the thoughts of what cops have seen, even when all outward signs of what happened there—the history—are disappearing.

According to Wikipedia, gentrification is described as “a process of renovating deteriorated urban neighborhoods by means of more affluent residents.” It goes on to state that “Gentrification often shifts a neighborhood’s racial/ethnic composition and average household income by developing new, more expensive housing, businesses and improved resources.”

Denver is a large, centrally located city and vibrant. It was bound to change. Despite rising home prices, and the hardships that creates for many, much of the change has been for the better.

Although the city is no longer the same, I still see it as it was. I spent years handling robberies, assaults, homicides, burglaries, traffic accidents and too many other calls to forget the victimization of people living there. When I return to these neighborhoods, the memories of what I saw comes rushing back.

I know this is the same for many retired cops and first responders. What we dealt with cannot be erased or forgotten. When driving on certain roads or intersections, I’m reminded of the people who lost their lives in traffic accidents. Driving by specific bars or businesses, I recall shootings or crimes that occurred in them. Many of the stores, apartment complexes, and homes that dot the city have unique memories I carry with me. For the young cops, this will happen to them one day.

Not all of the memories are tragic, of course. Several are of the wonderful people I’ve interacted with throughout the years, or the funny things that happened on the job. More than once I’ve started laughing without telling anyone why. When asked what was so funny, I just had to smile and say nothing: Some cop humor can’t be explained.

In fact, not much of what we’ve seen in our careers can be talked about. When driving with my family I’ve seen locations that reminded me of what I saw or did as a cop. It wouldn’t be fair to them to point out a store and say I remember a shooting in there or point out an apartment complex and describe a sexual assault that we handled inside of it. And some things are too difficult to talk about, such as where a fellow officer lost their life.

Conclusion

Much of what police officers have seen and dealt with is destined to become lost to a history of a distant time. This is how I’m starting to feel about Denver. So much of the outstanding work done by law enforcement officers I’ve worked with will never be known.

Only old crime reports filed away in police archives will document what actually happened in a city’s neighborhoods, but they don’t tell the entire story. Missing from them are the effect’s those crimes had on the people involved. To those who saw a city through the eyes of a cop, we will always remember it as it was.

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Joseph Padilla

Joseph Padilla

Captain Joseph Padilla (ret.) has commanded the Gang, Juvenile and Traffic Operations and Civil Liability/Professional Standards Bureaus of the Denver Police Department. He has managed several large events including the traffic and transportation plan for the Democratic National Convention, the World Series, Presidential visits, large protests, parades and other high profile activities. He previously served as the manager of the Investigative Support Center for the Rocky Mountain H.I.D.T.A. (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) program. During his thirty-plus year career Joe has survived several critical incidents, including being involved in fatal police shootings. He has received his department's Medal of Honor (including being nominated for the Presidential Medal of Valor), three Medals of Valor, two Distinguished Service Crosses and numerous other commendations. He is a graduate of the 235th session of the FBI National Academy and retired from law enforcement in 2015.
Joseph Padilla

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