By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
The afternoon of July 24, a squad of Denver SWAT cops stormed the Walker family's home at 2639 Humboldt Street to serve warrants on Kenneth Walker and his cousin Alvin Young for possession of a controlled substance.
On Walker, they say, they recovered six-hundredths of a gram of crack cocaine in his shoe. A rock. One hit. It doesn't sound like much, and it's only one-hundredth of a gram over the guideline set by the Denver district attorney for which cases to file in drug court. But it may be enough to finally force the Walker family out of their home.
The house has become emblematic of the inconsistencies in Denver's nuisance-abatement ordinance. Neighbors have been trying for more than a year to do something about the Walkers and their home, and police have received complaints ranging from fistfights to drug dealing to pit bull battles to domestic violence ("This Property Is Condemned," March 5).
Despite 49 police calls for service between 1993 and 1997--and a stabbing early this year--the city has been unable to invoke against the Walkers its controversial ordinance because no one could prove anything illegal had taken place inside the house.
Now, with one cocaine bust, the city is poised to move in. And that brings outcries from opponents of the ordinance, who fear the law's hotly debated section that gives authorities the power to seize property.
"This nuisance ordinance is one of the most Draconian end runs around the Bill of Rights I've ever read," says Mark Silverstein, legal director of the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The ordinance has tremendous potential for abuse that far outweighs any potential for fighting crime. It gives an incredible amount of power to police, tremendous room for selective enforcement and selective prosecution."
Police point out that seizure is a last option. "The ultimate goal is to gain voluntary compliance," says Captain Marco Vasquez. "If we seize it, we feel like we failed."
Dondo Walker, the youngest sibling, is glum about the prospects. "The odds since the death of our parents is stacked against us," he says. "We're not perfect people. We got our share of problems. But if you watched any of these other houses long enough, you'd find problems there, too."
To which Lieutenant David Bricker, who runs the police department's nuisance-abatement division, says, "Selling narcotics is a very serious charge. It will call for anyone involved in the transaction, or who should have known what was happening, to vacate."
Which could mean everyone. Bricker says his office is working on an abatement plan designed to get the Walkers to comply voluntarily with the ordinance. But failing that, more extreme measures are possible: seizing the property--and forcing those within it to vacate--for a specified period of time or forcing the owners to sell the home.
Jim Thomas, who supervises code enforcement for the Denver City Attorney's Office, says 97 percent of cases are resolved through voluntary compliance, and court proceedings are rare. He adds that although the Denver District Attorney's Office has confiscation authority, the police have only seizure power under the ordinance. "We won't take title to anyone's property," he says.
However, one person's voluntary compliance is another's forcible removal. This past spring, a Capitol Hill tenant was forced out of his apartment by the city after he was busted with a small quantity of methamphetamine, despite his landlord's wishes that he stay ("Public Nuisance No. 1," April 9).
In the Walker drug case, police also arrested cousin Alvin Young for alleged possession of a controlled substance. Brother Michael Walker was picked up on a warrant for a traffic violation in Morgan County and is currently in jail there. Young posted bond, but Kenneth Walker is still in Denver County Jail on a $2,500 bond.
That leaves brother Dondo, 28, who works in the lumber business and just moved into the house in June. Like other Walker siblings, Dondo is smart and friendly--though weary with every knock on the door. The police? Zoning? Code enforcement? Pesky neighbors?
Dondo complains that the police harass them. He says cops routinely visit and shine their lights through the window. One time, he says, three squad cars pulled up, and six cops questioned him--Walker says the cops admitted there was no call for service that night, and they had come by for no reason.
"Part of our job is to drive around and put the lights on houses with criminal activity or heavy traffic," says Officer Joe Bini of District 2's Weed and Seed anti-drug unit. "That's just part of the procedure. No one's picking on the Walkers. We've given them every opportunity."
Dondo Walker strongly disagrees, saying, "They're bringing all this drama to my family on this nickel-and-dime shit, and we're not the problem." Of the SWAT raid, he asks, "Was that worth the taxpayer dollar?"
"You tell me," responds Bini. "We are acting on behalf of the taxpayer. So it must be worth the taxpayer dollar. Quality of life in that neighborhood is not nickel-and-dime."
"If they didn't have crack in the house," adds neighbor John McBride, "they wouldn't have sold it to the police officer. To try to portray them as some kind of victims is a reach for me, who lives beside them."