Angelina Hergenreder doesn't usually give money to the homeless men who call out to her as she leaves her hostess job at a restaurant on the 16th Street Mall. But the man who asked for spare change one Wednesday evening in early April was so polite — even after she'd denied his request — that when Hergenreder returned her movies to McDonald's, she bought him a cheeseburger. Then she took it over to the panhandler and gave him a dollar, too.
The nineteen-year-old do-gooder was crossing the mall, ready to catch her bus, when suddenly someone grabbed her left arm from behind and pulled it up, yanking her in the opposite direction. Hergenreder screamed and tried to hit whoever had her arm in his grasp. "I thought I was being attacked," she says. But then the man caught her other arm, identified himself as an undercover police officer, and briefly flashed his badge.
By the time the undercover cop pulled Hergenreder back by the 7-Eleven, where she'd handed the buck and the burger to the homeless man, another undercover officer was arresting him. The cop who'd grabbed Hergenreder took the burger and tossed it in the trash, then threw the dollar at her. He said he could arrest her for giving something of value to a panhandler after dark, she remembers. When she questioned whether such a law existed, the cop told her to leave. She then asked for the officer's name and badge number, but he told her that he "didn't have time for that," she says. If she wanted to complain, he said, she could write to the mayor.
"And that's when I walked away," Hergenreder says. "I wasn't going to try anything after that."
But she did relay the story to her uncle, a Denver police officer who used to work undercover on the mall, and he called the Denver Police Department. The DPD offered to arrange for Hergenreder to meet with the undercover cop, but she declined. "I really wouldn't have anything nice to say to him," Hergenreder explains.
Instead, she filed an official complaint that's been forwarded to the DPD's internal affairs bureau.
According to Commander Deborah Dilley, whose jurisdiction includes the 16th Street Mall, the undercover officers had been watching a man with an extensive arrest record for panhandling and heroin when they saw Hergenreder hand him the money. As she walked away, one officer called after Hergenreder to stop, Dilley says, and when she didn't respond, the other officer pursued her. Dilley characterizes the incident as a "miscommunication between the officers," and says that the one officer has been disciplined for refusing to identify himself to Hergenreder. (Dilley declines to elaborate on the discipline action — which could range from an oral reprimand to termination — because it's a personnel matter.)
"This is a perfect example of someone saying 'I don't think I was treated right by the police' and the police taking note of it and following up on it," Dilley says. "Certainly we did take steps to ensure this doesn't happen in the future."
But then, the police have taken such steps before, when officers refused to give their names or business cards in violation of DPD policy. In April 2006, Evan Herzoff, a student at the University of Colorado at Denver and local CopWatch volunteer, was videotaping an arrest in Capitol Hill when officers demanded his identification. After he provided it, they said he was free to go. But when Herzoff asked for an officer's business card, he was arrested for trespassing and taken to jail ("Watch and Learn," June 8, 2006).
Herzoff took his case to the ACLU of Colorado. Last week the ACLU reached an $8,500 settlement with the city, which agreed to issue a training bulletin reminding DPD officers that retaliation may not be taken against citizens who ask for their identification.
That's not enough to satisfy Hergenreder. "I don't want to let this go. It was ridiculous," she says. "I've worked on the mall for four and a half years, and I walk home late at night, and I've never had anyone put their hands on me — except a cop. They're the ones you have to worry about. That's just insane."
It's not illegal to give money or other items to the homeless, although the Downtown Denver Partnership, which oversees the mall, encourages people to give to organizations that help the homeless rather than hand money directly to panhandlers. A recent study conducted by the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District and the Denver Office of Economic Development showed that Denverites give out about $4.6 million a year. "If that were redirected to an agency to be put to use toward moving people off the street and toward permanent housing, we could do so much more with that money," says Sarah McClean of the Downtown Denver Partnership.
It's also not illegal to be homeless and panhandling on the mall — although it is against city ordinances to beg within twenty feet of an ATM or a bus stop, to panhandle "aggressively" or to do it after dark.
Although those ordinances are geared toward panhandlers rather than good Samaritans, Hergenreder isn't the first to complain about being treated roughly by cops while helping out. On January 31, Cherie Swenson was also returning movies to the McDonald's on the 16th Street Mall when she saw a drunk man shivering in a wheelchair outside the Taco Bell. She made a detour into Ross Dress for Less, bought a fleece blanket for five bucks, and walked up to 61-year-old Antonio Reyes, or "Cuba," as he's known on the mall. There were a couple of uniformed cops nearby, but she didn't think anything of it. "It wasn't obvious that the police were interacting with him," she says, "and since there's always so many police on the 16th Street Mall, I wasn't going to stop."
But when Swenson tried to give Reyes the blanket, the police came over and told her not to. Officers Jarrod Tinnin and Robert Stack clearly didn't appreciate her questioning their authority, she says, and diverted their attention from Reyes to her, asking for her ID.
Stack told a different story on the ticket he issued to Swenson for interference. She stepped between the officers and Reyes, for whom they had a signed complaint for trespassing at Taco Bell, and tried to hand him the blanket. Stack wrote that he and Tinnin "told the defendant several more times to back away and to stop interfering or she would be arrested."
While the cops were focused on Swenson, Reyes rolled off. When Stack caught up with the wheelchair, Reyes tried to pull out his penis in order to urinate on Stack, according to Swenson's ticket. In the hubbub, Stack dropped Swenson's ID.
Swenson picked up her ID and started walking off. When Tinnin told her to hand her ID over again, Swenson refused and was placed under arrest. For the first time in her life, she spent a night in jail.
"I was hungry and it was intimidating," she remembers. "I hadn't been convicted of any crime, and people were really rude to me. They wouldn't give me any information. The cell was overcrowded and dirty, and the water fountain was disgusting."
Eventually Swenson pleaded guilty to the interference charge in exchange for a deferred sentence. If she stays out of trouble for the next six months, the charge will stay off her record.
But until then, she has no plans to stay off the mall. "I have a distrust for police now," Swenson says, "but not the homeless. When I see someone in need that I feel like I want to give to, I'll still give to them."
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Both the DPD and downtown business groups say they're helping the homeless in their own way.
"There are many things that the DPD has done very innovatively with the homeless to make sure we are serving both communities — the homeless community, which is often underserved, and the other community that's not always so comfortable with the homeless community," Dilley says. In fact, the DPD has designated two officers to do homeless outreach, and their policing responsibilities include putting the homeless in touch with resources to get them off the streets. "There are very few cities in the nation that have anything like what we have," she adds.
According to a survey just released by the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District, pandhandling is way down on the mall. That could be because of more resources for the homeless — or more policing of the homeless and their would-be helpers. In addition to six new foot-patrol officers that Denver added to downtown streets in March, the Downtown Denver Business Improvement District has been funding extra Sunday foot patrols with off-duty officers since April 22.
Hergenreder got the bum's rush a few weeks before those patrols started, and it was enough to put an end to any do-gooding on the mall. "I don't think I'll ever give money to anybody again, even during the day, because I'm afraid to," she says. "Not down here on the mall, anyway. Not ever."