Late last year, just prior to the Denver Police Department's launch of a crackdown on crime in the area around Union Station following safety complaints from the Regional Transportation District, officials with RTD toured the Harm Reduction Action Center, which promotes a syringe-exchange program and assorted educational and health-related efforts aimed at a wide variety of drug users.
Lisa Raville, the center's executive director, sees that visit and other outreach from RTD as significant. She's an outspoken critic of the current enforcement efforts at Union Station, which she characterizes as a doomed return to failed policies that have simply caused drug users who'd been congregating there to relocate elsewhere, including the Colfax and Broadway area anchored by another RTD facility, Civic Center Station. But she's also among the primary advocates for safe-use sites designed for injection-drug users — a concept that was approved by Denver City Council in 2018 but never came to fruition because it required enabling legislation that the Colorado Legislature didn't pass.
While Raville says she's pleased that "RTD boardmembers have been willing to come to the center and talk about what's going on there, why people are using fentanyl, the moving around of folks, and what alternatives might look like that aren't criminalization and incarceration," she'd be even happier if RTD got behind safe-use sites. "I'd love it if they said, 'Yes, we're supportive' publicly," she acknowledges.
RTD general manager and CEO Debra Johnson didn't do so in an email interview with Westword. But she provides more details about the reasons for the trek to 112 East Eighth Avenue, where the center is located, as well as the district's view of the situation by the Union Station and Civic Center Station bus facilities.
"I, along with then-Chief of Police and Emergency Management Bob Grado, visited the Harm Reduction Action Center in December 2021 to educate myself regarding substance-abuse issues experienced by individuals in the Denver metro area and to better inform myself as to the motivations of individuals who were utilizing Denver Union Station, and specifically the restrooms in the bus concourse, to use illicit substances," Johnson confirms. "I encouraged members of the board of directors to tour the facility as well, strictly for educational purposes."
This timing wasn't coincidental. "As you may recall, I made the decision to close the restrooms at Union Station following the discovery of traces of fentanyl on December 3, 2021," she says. "Due to supply-chain issues sourcing doors, electrical components, and other materials, the reopening of the restrooms has been delayed. RTD Police is now finalizing a staffing plan to monitor the restrooms, ensuring that customers can access them for their intended use."
Johnson says she's grateful to Raville "for her passion and compassion, and for taking the time to educate me on substance-abuse issues from a humanitarian perspective." But she stresses that the district wouldn't be in favor of hosting a safe-use site: "As a steward of taxpayer dollars, RTD’s core mission is transit-service delivery, and the agency is not in a position to authorize the use of transit facilities for sanctioned safe-injection or drug-use sites. Signage and pre-recorded announcements at Denver Union Station state that illicit drug use is prohibited and inform customers regarding the availability of the RTD Transit Watch app. Using the app, individuals can communicate directly with RTD Transit Police dispatch, in real time, and report any narcotics activity encountered on or around RTD facilities or aboard vehicles."
On August 23, RTD named Joel Fitzgerald as its new chief of police and emergency management; his background includes service with the Philadelphia Police Department and chief of police gigs in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Fort Worth, Texas; and Waterloo, Iowa. Johnson describes Fitzgerald as a "courageous leader" who "builds coalitions...is focused on strategic planning and...has expanded community policing everywhere he has served — all elements that are important to RTD. He is committed to the betterment of the community in his approach."
That approach may not include a position on safe-use sites. "The RTD Board of Directors sets policy for the agency, and I, as the general manager and CEO, with the support and assistance of the agency’s employees, implement those policies," notes Johnson. "Hence, I am unable to speculate as to the board’s position, as that subject has not been formally discussed."
What about elements of the Union Station drug market relocating to the Colfax and Broadway area? Johnson notes that "some of the increases in reports of crime and anti-social behaviors experienced near Civic Center Station are likely attributable to the reopening of Civic Center Park, as well as the warmer summer weather, which has shifted activity toward Broadway. In the spirit of firm compassion, RTD is working with the City and County of Denver to partner in providing public health and wellness resources to the area such as the Wellness Winnie, mental health clinicians and those who work with unhoused populations in order to assist those who may need resources."
Johnson concludes: "RTD’s Transit Police Department continues to provide security and coordinate with the Denver Police Department to address anti-social behaviors and crime and to ensure a welcoming transit environment at Denver Union Station, Civic Center and in other areas of the city."