Homeless: Denver Police Officers Threw Away Possessions Without Warning

It was less than ten degrees and snowing when Denver police officers began rousing people from their tents and lean-to shelters near the Samaritan House at Park Avenue and Lawrence Street around 6 a.m. last Tuesday, remembers Peter, a homeless man. In the midst of the storm, the police told Peter and others to get inside one of the nearby homeless shelters or else face a citation or arrest.

But according to Peter, the DPD didn't just come to move the homeless along or get them out of the weather. They brought a Public Works dump truck with them, and began throwing some of the homeless individuals' possessions into it. “They took everything. They told you, ‘You get one chance. Take two bags of what you want and then get away from everything because it’s all going in the dumpster,'" Peter told a videographer associated with the livestream channel Unicorn Riot

Another woman explained how the police treated her property: “Cops come and throw our things away and don’t give a shit…My life, I’m starting all over again. I’m back in the garbage bags again."

After seeing the videos, Westword reached out to Denver Police Department spokesman Sonny Jackson, who confirmed that officers had contacted homeless individuals on Tuesday morning, and that their objective was two-pronged: to get the homeless out of the storm and inside where it was warm and safe, and to clear the sidewalks of the obstacles which the homeless had put there.

"Nothing of value was removed," says Jackson, who explains that when belongings are discarded by Denver police during a sweep, it is done on a case-by-case basis, depending on the material's value.

Of course, value is a subjective assessment, and one man's trash may be another man's treasure. Some of the homeless confronted by police last Tuesday feel that they had very important possessions taken from them. According to Denver Homeless Out Loud, this included survival gear like tarps and blankets.

Peter, the homeless man interviewed on video, says that police threw away a nice purse, embedded with rhinestones, that he had and was worth some money.

This is hardly the first time that the DPD has been criticized for confiscating items belonging to the homeless, or throwing away items left behind when the homeless were arrested. According to Denver Homeless Out Loud, this happens regularly. In April 2015, the organization conducted a survey of 441 homeless individuals and discovered that 61 percent of those surveyed had had belongings taken by Denver police or city employees. Only 19 percent of those individuals ever got their possessions back. 

The state ACLU has also called out the DPD for disposing of people's possessions without notice or due process. "Property can't be treated like it's trash," says Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado. This is because the Fourth Amendment prohibits the unlawful seizure of property. In 2012, the ACLU sent the DPD a letter following allegations that Denver police had illegally confiscated and destroyed property belonging to protesters with the Occupy Denver movement. The letter cited a California case, Lehr v. City of Sacramento, which affirms that homeless citizens cannot have their property destroyed on the spot without the city providing an opportunity to retrieve it after confiscation.

But it does not seem that the homeless who lost belongings last Tuesday will have any such opportunity. As another woman interviewed by Unicorn Riot (pictured below) put it, "They step on it, they break it, and they threw it in the garbage truck. No warning."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker