THE HOT ZONE
Anyone contemplating renting out a room in a residence that's not up to code might want to consider this: Apart from gang members and assorted dime-store hoods, the fastest-growing segment of Denver's heat-packing population is the city's Department of Zoning Administration. In fact, every single one of the concealed-gun permits issued in the past year has gone to a City of Denver zoning officer.
"They have a compelling need," explains Detective David Metzler, a spokesman for Denver police chief David Michaud, who is responsible for issuing all permits in the city. "They ride with the narcs; they need a gun."
That makes Denver's needs different from other municipalities. A short Westword survey turned up no other demographically comparable city that permitted its zoning officers to carry guns on their rounds. Last year Phoenix inspectors had to wage a tough battle for permission just to carry Mace. (Even Colorado Springs, which grants concealed-carry permits to almost anyone who applies, does not permit its zoning officers to carry weapons.)
Nor is everyone in Denver thrilled with the prospect of code inspectors carrying guns--including some zoning officers themselves. Tom Kennedy gave up his gun last year. Although he declines to discuss the incident, those familiar with it say Kennedy's decision came after he found himself holding a gun to the head of a young man whose house he'd been inspecting.
"I'll work the cases for them," Kennedy now says. "But I won't do it with a gun."
Recently, state lawmakers declined to pass laws that would have allowed more people to carry concealed weapons. So while there continues to be no statute preventing Denver residents from applying for a permit to carry a concealed weapon in the city, there may as well be: The police department has been so successful in discouraging potential applicants that only seven or eight people have actually bothered to fill out the forms in the past year.
Chief Michaud has granted permits to four of them--all zoning inspectors who specialize in what's called nuisance abatement.
That's the technical term for preventing someone from using a building for prostitution, drug dealing or gambling. According to separate city ordinances, it also means houses whose residents consistently make too much noise--by discharging their firearms, for instance--and, in a recent addition to the laws, any building used for "gang-related activities."
While most of these things are against the law even before building-code ordinances are considered, law enforcement officers like to add on the zoning violations. The additional charges allow them to put pressure on landlords to take responsibility for tenants and to clean up properties. If that doesn't work, a zoning violation also gives police the authority to seize the building.
The city has begun to expand its nuisance-abatement program. Two months ago Dan Yount, a lieutenant with the Denver police department, was named nuisance-abatement coordinator. He is working on streamlining and codifying the way the zoning and police departments work together to handle nuisance cases.
And to keep up with the new approach, the city has increased the number of zoning officers handling difficult abatement cases from one to four. Which is why it needed the four gun permits.
One of those zoning permit holders is Mike Bradshaw. A former police officer, Bradshaw is accustomed to adding his handgun to the list of items he brings to work. Still, he says he recognizes the difference between his former and current jobs. "The weapon I carry is strictly for personal protection, not for law enforcement," he says. "I believe in running away and saving it for another day. I'm into self-preservation, basically."
Bradshaw says he's been lucky enough never to have used his gun during an inspection. But he adds that it's nice to know that he's got one in his briefcase if anything should get out of hand in, say, a crack house. "I guess there's some apprehension. But there's some enjoyment in the fact that I have personal protection," Bradshaw says.
Not all of his colleagues feel that way. At the urging of the zoning department, Tom Kennedy applied for a permit to carry a concealed weapon a couple of years ago. But he didn't like it.
"I'm not a police officer; I'm working on cases with the police department," Kennedy says. "I don't need the gun. I can do the nuisance enforcement without it."
Zoning and code enforcement departments in other cities apparently agree. "That's not done here," says Victor Morrison-Vega, director of the Neighborhood Services Department in Phoenix. In fact, he adds that while the Arizona Legislature recently loosened that state's concealed-weapons laws, Phoenix retained an ordinance that specifically prohibits city employees other than police officers from arming themselves on the job.
Morrison-Vega says part of the reason for that is political. Even though several of his zoning officers have found themselves in confrontations with tenants, investigations into questionable police conduct have meant that "the atmosphere around here is not conducive to letting anybody else carry weapons."
In addition, Morrison-Vega says he worries that giving his officers guns would further erode what he sees as a graying of the boundaries between traditional police work and housing inspection.
"More and more, we're getting involved in things that once were police issues," he says, adding that "the police department has occasionally asked us to act as a shield for them." Instead of arming his code-enforcement officers, Morrison-Vega says they simply carry police radios and call for backup when an inspection looks as though it might be tricky.
City officials in Sacramento and Seattle line up behind Phoenix. "I don't like the idea of our staff carrying any kind of weapon," says Dennis Kubo, manager of the California capital's Housing Code Enforcement Section. "We instruct our staff: `If you're not sure, call the police.'" Like Phoenix's officers, Sacramento's zoning enforcers carry police radios.
And while Valerie Heide-Mudra, director of Housing and Zoning Enforcement in Seattle, admits that her staff has discussed the possibility of carrying weapons, the policy there remains no guns. "We encourage our inspectors to use the buddy system," she says.
Denver officials say that the policy of encouraging its nuisance-abatement zoning officers to carry weapons will continue as long as they are put into positions of danger. "It's the safety factor," says assistant administrator Chuck Funayamo. (City zoning administrator Dorothy Nepa, who helped institute the concealed-carry policy, was on vacation last week and unavailable for comment.)
That prospect will remain a point of contention for other city employees--particularly those whose job descriptions might get them mistaken for armed zoning inspectors. "I grew up in rural West Texas, where people knew how to use guns," says Sterling Drumwright, who, as the city's public-health administrator, oversees Denver's housing inspectors and animal-control officers--none of whom carry weapons. "But this is a whole different deal."
He worries the zoning department's concealed-carry policy will lead combative residents to assume that all city inspectors pack heat. That could change the housing department's traditionally nonconfrontational way of doing business. "Our housing inspectors are armchair psychologists," he says. "We certainly run into hard cases, and our guys are able to read that."
Drumwright says he believes that municipal property inspectors and police need to stay on their respective sides of the fence. "When it comes down to a situation where arms might be necessary," Drumwright says, "we either need to be out of there, or the police need to be there.
"I would prefer that zoning inspectors were not armed. It just seems to me that there are other ways to handle this.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.