The Denver Police Department has embarked on a plan to compile a high-tech database of information on kids who hang out on the 16th Street Mall, a move that civil libertarians and youth advocates warn has dangerous implications because it will open police files on kids who've done nothing illegal.
The police department recently granted its Mall Patrol Unit $1,220 for a computer database that authorities say is aimed at keeping track of runaway youths who hang out on the mall. The unit is waiting for camera equipment and a computer scanner so officers can match faces to names in a catalogue of kids they'll carry with them as they patrol the thirteen-block stretch of downtown.
Dave DeForest-Stalls, a former pro football player who runs The Spot, a youth center a few blocks away from the 16th Street Mall, thinks the cops have intentions above and beyond simply identifying kids who have run away from their homes.
"This proposed program makes it very clear that the police want every young person not carrying a Gap bag out of that area," he says. "The DPD and the downtown property owners have already systematically violated the civil rights of kids on the mall, and this is just the next step. It's not surprising, but it's shameful that they'd go so blatantly against a specific group of people."
Denver's plans go beyond what authorities do in many cities--even New York City.
"The premise is that unless you commit a crime, the police department shouldn't have a file on you," says Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York City American Civil Liberties Union chapter. "In New York there's even a law which says that the cops have to destroy a person's photo if they're not convicted within a year. These kids you're talking about in Denver aren't even criminals. To go after them and have their photos on file simply because of their status is un-American. There's stereotyping going on here. A kid might not be up to any good, but that's the police department's job to separate them from others who are minding their own business. You go after people for their conduct, not for who they are."
DeForest-Stalls predicts that the result of the new program will be an increase in false-information citations that will drive the kids from the mall.
"Any charge can be grounds enough for a thorough ID check, which could turn up outstanding warrants and send the kids to jail," he says. "But even if you just get hit with providing false information, the kid still has to pay $29 in court costs and show up for court. And, kids being kids, they tend to miss court dates, which results in a warrant right there. Basically, this database is a way for the cops to get kids out of sight. Either they'll go to jail, or they'll get sick of the hassle and hang out somewhere else."
Officer Dick Kushdilian, the Mall Patrol officer who came up with the database idea, thinks DeForest-Stalls is being shortsighted. Kushdilian says that the new system is needed because at least half of the kids he comes in contact with don't have IDs. The DPD already has files on most of the kids from previous encounters, he adds, and the DPD doesn't throw out files on individuals, even if no charges are ever filed against them.
"If we really wanted to get these kids off the mall we could do it," says Kushdilian. "There are all kinds of over- and underhanded techniques we could use. I'm not going to try and play poker or bluff these kids into providing false information just because I'm going to have this book with me. I've got better things to do than entrap these kids into giving false statements."
The kids in Skyline Park don't believe it. "Having our photos in a book would definitely not be good," says Cristi Casey, a twenty-year-old who stopped by the park to catch up with some friends and wound up getting her identification checked by a police officer. "The cops already check our IDs every day just to harass us. It'd be even worse if they had our pictures with them."
Casey, who's wearing the standard-issue mall-kid uniform of baggy pants and a sweatshirt--along with a personalized pendant that spells out FOXY--says the police are just looking for another way to get them away from the mall's shops and restaurants. "If people were doing things wrong, that's okay," she says. "But if you're just hanging out, they still give you a hassle. I'll admit that some of us are bad--really bad--but the majority of us aren't doing anything illegal."
Kushdilian argues that the 16th Street Mall is the spot for runaways and that it's the Mall Patrol's duty to find them whether they want to be found or not.
"By building a catalogue of runaways," he says, "it's going to help us because we're not going to be dealing with the same kid week in and week out. Instead of having to go through the process each time you run into a kid, we can ID them once and share the information with the other officers working the Mall Patrol. Our aim is to catch the kids early before they get entrenched in the street lifestyle. This database will help."
Despite any good intentions the police say they have, the ACLU's Siegel says the program sounds questionable. It reminds him of two recent cases in New York in which the police were compiling photos of specific groups of kids simply for reference purposes. In the first instance, Siegel says, police were keeping old high school yearbooks in precinct stations so that whenever a youth crime was committed, they could use the yearbooks to identify possible suspects in lieu of mug shots. The practice was discontinued after the ACLU protested.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
"There was another instance where I got a call from a reporter in Queens," Siegel recalls. "He had a tip that the police were taking pictures of Chinese youths who frequented a local park on the grounds of increased Chinese gang activity. The allegation I heard was that the police were taking the pictures and keeping them as a separate database for future crimes. The police denied this allegation, but it sounded a lot like what's being attempted in Denver."
Sergeant Bill Hoffman of the Mall Patrol says the database isn't anything that sinister. "These kids will say that they're eighteen years old," he says, "or, if they're younger, they'll say that their parents have moved--anything so we can't get them back home. Obviously, we don't want to return them to an abusive home, but if their parents are looking for them, we've got to try."
But Roxane White, executive director of Urban Peaks, a center for runaway youths, says that applies to only a handful of the kids she deals with. "There are two kinds of runaways," White explains. "About five percent of them have parents who are truly looking for them and have filed missing-persons reports. Those are the kids that you hope the police pick up. But the rest of them are young people whose families are homeless, or they're kids who left home because of abuse or neglect. And there's not much the police can do about that, because there's no place for them to go except shelters like ours--and we're full. We've been sleeping forty kids when we only have room for thirty."
DeForest-Stalls says he plans to fight the mall-kid database. "Very soon the DPD and the city are going to be staring down the barrel of a class-action civil lawsuit," he says. "This latest move is frightening and disturbing, especially when you look at the things that adults get away with on the mall. It's ridiculous when the cops are trying to run these kids off while they'll tolerate drunk yuppies acting stupid. But I guess as long as the adults are buying their beer on the mall, they're okay.