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."
McBride says that since February, "things have improved a lot" at the house, but he contends that this change of behavior is only a reluctant response to neighborhood pressure. "They know now when they do the loud stuff, they know we're going to react," he says. "They're only reacting to the neighborhood changing."
Dave Emge, a city housing code enforcement inspector, has made several visits to the home in the past year to check on the city's continual attempts to get the Walkers to upgrade such things as the home's floors and fixtures. "I've never had any problems with 'em," says Emge. "I'm happy if something gets fixed every visit."
Since January, according to police, there have been only eight calls summoning police to the house, and one of those was the execution of the search warrant. But as temperatures rose at the end of May, so did calls about heavy traffic and drug use.
Last month undercover cops visited the house three times, say police, and purchased crack from Walker and Young. Police say officers bought $20 worth of crack on the first two visits and $40 worth on the last visit, which secured a search warrant.
"If you've got an addict in the house, that's not probable cause to take the house," Kenneth Walker contends. He admits there's drug use in the house, but he denies selling narcotics to anyone. "Me and Alvin didn't sell no drugs out of there," Walker says. "They're going to lose on that."
Both Walkers say the raid went way beyond the pale: Police lobbed in a flash-bang grenade to disorient those inside and then kicked the door down. Both brothers recall a cop telling them, "You folks might as well pack up. The city owns this house."
Dondo says police threw clothes on the ground and emptied the family's containers of cologne, cereal, baby powder and grits. "They came in to destroy," says Kenneth Walker. He also claims that police took $200 in cash he was carrying, and it hasn't been returned.
Kenneth contends that he was kicked several times by SWAT officers, even when he was not in a position to harm them. "They're out to get the house," he says. "If they're doing their job, they don't have to beat people down like that." His arraignment is scheduled for August 24, and he's trying to scrape money together to post bond. Then, he says, "I'm gonna take 'em to court. I'm gonna beat it."
The brothers also say the cops cinched them up with straps pulled so tight their sides became numb.
But SWAT Sergeant Tony Iacobetta, who oversaw the raid, argues that this is the way it's done. "These guys don't come in and dance with you," he says of his troops. "They're gonna put you down and cuff you."
Iacobetta says he didn't see anyone get pushed around but does admit that, because of the high adrenaline in the SWAT team, "maybe some of the guys are a little rough getting them down."
To the Walkers, the raid was the clearest sign yet that the police have them targeted, aided by the efforts of well-connected neighbors like McBride, who runs the Mayor's Commission on Youth.
"Nobody wants to take anyone's home away," says Officer Bini. "I like to think all of us would like to see them become viable members of the neighborhood."
Dondo Walker believes that can best be accomplished by letting the family be. "If we're more a problem to ourselves than anyone else, who are they to complain?" Walker says. "Other than the fact they're trying to take the house, we don't bother no one."
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