On May 17, a skinny fifty-year-old black man showed up at the Denver Police Department’s District 5 headquarters in Montbello to report an assault that had taken place nearly a month earlier. Officer Theresa Bergstrom was on hand to take down the man’s account, and it was quite a tale: He claimed that multiple private security guards had beaten him up inside a bathroom at Union Station nearly a month earlier, during the early hours of April 20.
Given how much time had passed since the alleged incident, Bergstrom had a few questions. If the man’s story of a beating by private security guards was true, why hadn’t he called 911 at the time of the assault, or at least reported it earlier?
“I was in the hospital for a week, and it’s only been three weeks,” the man responded.
He declined to answer any other questions, instead pulling out a written statement and explaining that he had suffered a brain injury during the assault and didn’t want to deviate from the writing he’d prepared. The beating was severe enough that two days later, a friend took him to UCHealth, where he stayed for five days.
Despite police skepticism, DPD detectives Gary Stabb and Kimberley Hanson were assigned to look into the man’s story. There was an easy way to verify if much of what the man had reported was true: security footage from Union Station. And once the detectives saw that footage, they realized that something serious had occurred. Based on the footage, the victim’s statement and other interviews, Stabb and Hanson wrote three arrest-warrant affidavits naming private security guards hired by the Regional Transportation District to work at Union Station. Here’s what happened, according to those DPD affidavits:
Around 2:30 a.m. on April 20, the victim was heading home to Montbello from an art-gallery party in lower downtown. He took a seat on one of the benches behind Union Station as he waited for the A Line train. But soon after he sat down, at least one private security guard with Allied Universal Security Services, the multinational company that RTD has hired to provide guards for the multimodal transportation facility, approached the man and told him that he needed to leave the Union Station premises.
Although he didn’t see a reason to obey this request, the man wanted to avoid further harassment and decided to relocate to the nearby underground bus terminal and wait there until a train arrived. But at 2:41 a.m., four Allied Universal security guards surrounded the victim in the terminal, in a scene captured by security cameras. They argued with the man about whether he could be there, and one security guard asked him if he considered himself a “tough guy.” James Hunter, a 34-year-old white security guard with a goatee, suggested they go settle the argument in a bathroom where, he noted, “there are no cameras.”
At 2:47 a.m., security footage showed the victim getting up and walking toward the men’s bathroom near the escalators heading up to Chestnut Place. He was followed by Hunter and another guard, 28-year-old Victor Diaz.
Once inside the bathroom, the man told police, Hunter and Diaz checked the stalls to make sure they were empty. Then Hunter put on a pair of black gloves with silver dots on the knuckles and took a swing, the man said, his fist colliding with the left side of his face. The man said he didn’t remember anything else that happened before he awoke in his home two days later, unsure of how he even got there.
According to the DPD’s affidavits, a third security guard, Sergeant James Taggert, had been keeping watch outside of the bathroom, and a fourth guard, unnamed in the affidavits, was in the vicinity as well. When security cameras caught Hunter and Diaz exiting the bathroom, they emerged without the victim. One guard reportedly said, “Someone should probably call EMS for a guy who fell in stall #3 and hit his head pretty bad.”
Then three of the Allied Universal security guards — Hunter, Diaz and Taggert — were caught by security footage going in and out of the bathroom several times before 3:30 a.m., when Taggert finally emerged with the man, now with a bandage over one eye.
During the next 24 hours, according to the DPD, the guards coordinated their stories to cover up what had happened.
Even so, there was enough evidence to produce indictments. In early June, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann charged Hunter, Diaz and Taggert with felonies — including assault charges and intimidating a witness or victim. After the charges were reported, both RTD and Allied Universal issued statements. “The conduct alleged in this particular case is completely reprehensible and in no way reflective of our company culture, core values or high standards we set for our valued security professionals,” Allied Universal said.
The company motto of Allied Universal is “There for you.” But as Detective Hanson notes in one of the arrest-warrant affidavits, “At no point during the contact with [the victim] was an ambulance or any type of medical attention requested.” And several guards were involved not just in the alleged assault, but in the subsequent coverup, as well.
“RTD is extremely concerned about the alleged actions by Allied Universal [employees],” RTD said. “RTD has fully cooperated with police in their investigation.”
But will that investigation, which is still ongoing, go far enough? While Allied Universal and RTD are treating the alleged assault as an isolated incident, in recent weeks other people have come forward with stories of being harassed, intimidated or profiled by private security guards in and around Union Station. Their accounts raise a number of concerns about the private security company supplying armed guards who act in a law enforcement role at a public space.
They also raise concerns about the space itself.
A transportation hub, historic building and centerpiece of downtown activity, Union Station has been heralded as Denver’s “Living Room.” But is that living room welcoming to all?
On July 2, the man who says he was beaten in the bathroom is back at Union Station for the first time since April 20. About a dozen people are here to support him; the man had been avoiding the place for months because he says it triggers secondary trauma. Among the supporters is the victim’s attorney, Qusair Mohamedbhai, a well-known civil-rights litigator in Denver. Mohamedbhai hopes that his client will be able to walk him through what had happened that morning as he revisits the station and the underground bus terminal.
(Mohamedbhai has requested that his client’s name be withheld, explaining that “a culture of brutality appears to be deeply permeated within Allied. My client is extremely concerned about retribution by other Allied guards and management. He also still uses public transportation and wishes not to be identified for his own safety.”)
There’s an activism component to this meetup as well. A couple of candidates for local political offices, faith leaders and homeless-rights advocates stage photos on Wynkoop Street, holding signs reading “Whose Union Station?,” “Stop racism at Union Station” and “I was beaten at Union Station.” Four nearby security guards glance over; a few bemused pedestrians walk past the demonstration. After about twenty minutes, the demonstrators head into the Terminal Bar with the victim. The irony of patronizing a business in the place they were just protesting is not lost on anyone, but as one of the man’s friends notes, it’s important not to run away or give in to fear.
Pastor Terrence Hughes, president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, has been helping the victim since the bathroom assault story was first publicized in late May. “You have to look at the historical context,” he says, explaining that the incident did not occur in a vacuum. In fact, as the $500 million renovation of Union Station got under way almost a decade ago, Hughes says he began noticing efforts to exclude non-whites in the revitalization project.
“Even in the redevelopment of Union Station, they were woefully lacking in African-American contractors and laborers,” Hughes notes. “So we had protests going on then to bring awareness of what was going on in this area. This area has always belonged to the community — or it’s supposed to. That’s why it’s Union Station. Union means to bring together.”
Union Station opened in 1881, after Denver boosters fought to bring a railroad spur to the young city. The iconic center of the landmark, the Great Hall terminal building, was constructed in 1914 and has served as a train hub ever since. For more than a century, the railroads ran the facility; in 2001, RTD purchased Union Station and its surrounding rail yards from the Denver Union Terminal Railway Corporation, partnering with the City of Denver and the Colorado Department of Transportation to redevelop it as a multimodal transportation hub.
Ultimately, the Union Station Alliance, a consortium of private developers, was chosen to redevelop the terminal building into a complex of shops, restaurants, a spacious public lobby, and the luxury, 112-room Crawford Hotel, named after partner Dana Crawford, who’d saved Larimer Square five decades earlier.
Denver voters approved bond money to help foot the bill for the project, and the ensuing construction spanned from 2010 to 2014. When the renovated station opened on July 12, 2014, visitors were wowed by the resurrected space, which won a slew of awards, everything from an honor by the Urban Land Institute to a Best of Denver award for Best Reuse of a Historic Building. In February 2017, Mayor Michael Hancock called Union Station “one of our city’s great success stories,” touting the 100,000 people who pass through the facility each day.
But almost immediately after the reopening, some Denverites say, they got the feeling that the space wasn’t really open to everyone.
Ray Lyall is one of them. During the July 2 meeting, he describes to Pastor Hughes and others how, as a person who’s experienced homelessness, he’s been profiled by private security guards. It started the first week that Union Station reopened, he says, when he walked to a back corner of the Great Hall looking to buy bus tickets.
Lyall didn’t know that during the remodel, the ticket booth for bus services had been relocated to the underground bus terminal behind Union Station. As he was trying to figure things out, a guard observed Lyall, with his leathery skin and bushy beard, and told him that he wasn’t allowed in the building.
“Why am I not allowed to be here?” Lyall says he spat back.
The guard did not back down, and Lyall started to fear for his safety. “Any guard comes at me with a gun and handcuffs, I’m getting the hell away from them,” he says. “That seems logical.”
Why did he think the guard was giving him a hard time? “It was definitely because I looked homeless,” Lyall replies.
Since that incident four years ago, Lyall says, he knows of five others who have been harassed by security guards at Union Station. “I tried to get them to come today, but they’re homeless,” he says. “They’re either hard to track down or they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.”
Another woman, who identifies herself only as Carmen, is not as hesitant. She filmed a video in which she describes a 2016 incident when she was sitting on a bench waiting for a light-rail train and was harassed by guards and told to leave Union Station. “Two uniformed officers — I believe they were private security for the station — came up to me and told me I was not allowed to be there, that I was loitering,” Carmen claims. “And they said I was camping because I had a backpack on me. I was quite confused about why they approached me and why there was even a reason to do that. I left in tears, concerned about my safety.”
Carmen relocated to the 16th Street Mall after being kicked out of Union Station, but since late 2016, that pedestrian area has also been patrolled by Allied Universal guards, under a contract with the Downtown Denver Partnership.
Cathy Alderman of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless says that her organization has heard numerous complaints about the homeless being harassed by private security on the 16th Street Mall. “And the biggest issue is that these security officers are not trained to connect people with services, which means that people aren’t getting help to address their homelessness,” she points out. “It’s our experience that nobody wants to ‘see’ homelessness — we certainly don’t. But rather than putting more money into enforcement, we should be investing in services and housing, and that includes private businesses that are thriving because of Denver’s strong economic growth.”
While most stories of harassment by security guards come from people of color or those experiencing homelessness, that’s not always the case. PJ D’Amico, who is white, says he was threatened by a combination of security guards and DPD officers the day that the A Line opened.
On April 22, 2016, D’Amico, who’s long been involved with homeless and criminal justice issues in Denver, says he was walking along Wynkoop Street in front of Union Station with his two daughters — both six years old at the time — when he ran into a fellow activist protesting transportation-equity issues in conjunction with the A Line opening. After he shook the other man’s hand, D’Amico says, they were swarmed by two Allied Universal guards, three DPD officers and two off-duty officers or security guards — D’Amico isn’t sure which — in plainclothes.
According to D’Amico, the men first addressed his activist friend, telling him, “You’re trespassing.” Then they looked at D’Amico and added, “You’re trespassing, too.”
D’Amico started arguing, he says, and then a DPD officer told him, “We know who you are.” That’s when D’Amico grabbed his children’s hands and walked away from Union Station. After two blocks, he remembers, “My daughter brought it to my attention that the two off-duty officers — whether they were DPD or Allied — were following us.”
The incident shook him so much that he decided to move out of the city.
“We’re in a building masked as public transit and as being accessible,” he says at the July 2 meeting, “but this is actually a border line between the classes of Denver.”
One type of border line at the Union Station complex is that of jurisdictional authority; the property is a confusing patchwork of rules and responsibility. The train and bus terminal behind the Great Hall is overseen by RTD, with input from Amtrak, which has two passenger trains a day that stop at the station. The front plaza area is supervised by the Downtown Denver Partnership. And the Great Hall is run by the private consortium that oversaw the renovation, the Union Station Alliance.
There’s a list of 27 rules that anyone entering the building tacitly agrees to; copies are placed around the Great Hall. For starters, no one is allowed to stay in the Great Hall for more than two hours without supporting a business or buying an Amtrak ticket. You also can be asked to leave the Great Hall for having disruptive body odor or putting your feet up on furniture.
Who enforces these rules? According to RTD, some of the Allied Universal security guards at Union Station are hired by Sage Hospitality Group, a partner in the Union Station Alliance, and are supposed to work only within the building; others are hired by RTD to patrol outside the station and in the bus terminal. But Westword observed individual guards going inside the Great Hall, outside the building, and all around the Union Station property.
This makes it difficult to determine what entity a guard is working for at a specific time. Denver Police Department officers also make appearances when summoned. According to the Department of Public Safety, DPD conducted 91 arrests at Union Station in 2017 and 68 in 2016. Reasons for those arrests ranged from assaults to drug possession, but a sizable number were attributed to trespassing (35 in 2016 and 39 in 2017).
When it comes to private security guard behavior, a couple of court cases provide guidance.
In February 1995, federal judge Constance Baker Motley ordered Amtrak to stop allowing police officers to target homeless people and arbitrarily kick them off the premises at New York’s Penn Station. Motley had reviewed evidence of Amtrak officers profiling blacks, in some cases roughing them up, and agreed with the plaintiffs suing Amtrak that, because Penn Station provided almost unlimited public access, officers could not ask someone to leave the area just because they weren’t buying anything, weren’t using public transportation or had been there for hours on end.
Union Station’s rules haven’t been challenged in court, but the charges against the Allied Universal guards involved in the April 20 Union Station incident are not the only legal actions implicating the security company.
On December 22, 2016, footage at a Boston transit station captured an Allied Universal guard, who was contracted by the nearby TD Garden Arena, beating up a homeless man named Michael Hathaway. The guard used Hathaway’s cane, turning half of the homeless man’s face into a bloody pulp. After Boston police arrested the guard for assault, other Allied workers told the Boston Globe about a work culture that encouraged systemically harassing and assaulting homeless individuals at Boston’s North Station.
After the Globe published a story with the allegations, TD Garden severed its contract with Allied Universal, which has over 150,000 employees across North America and annual revenues of over $4 billion.
RTD contracts between 250 and 300 full-time security guards through Allied Universal every year, at a cost of $13 to $14 million annually. Allied guards also work for the Denver Performing Arts Complex, the Downtown Denver Partnership and the Denver Department of Public Works, according to Brian Kitts of Denver Arts + Venues.
Since the April 20 incident, RTD has made no moves to end its contract with Allied Universal.
“Besides issuing a press release, RTD has not done anything that would make the public believe that the government is actually offended by what we’ve seen with this coordinated, incredibly violent assault on my client,” Mohamedbhai says. “The community should be outraged and asking questions as to what RTD is going to do to ensure that the public is safe from here on out.”
Mohamedbhai calls Allied Universal a “paramilitary” organization, noting that some guards use military titles such as “sergeant” and carry loaded guns and handcuffs, but do not undergo the same extensive training programs that actual police officers must complete under Colorado law.
Mohamedbhai says he’ll use his client’s case to raise questions about how citizens can lodge complaints against Allied security guards, how those complaints are tracked, and whether there is any transparency in the process.
Allied Universal declined to answer specific questions from Westword. The company did say it would soon require “refresher training” for guards in Denver that “will cover customer service, cultural sensitivity and awareness, management of aggressive behavior and de-escalation techniques.”
RTD is more forthcoming. “RTD Customer Care (telephone information center) manages any complaints that come in through the information center,” explains spokesman Scott Reed in an email. “Our Civil Rights and Risk Management divisions manage complaints or claims that come to them. Allied Universal has an Internal Affairs Officer that documents complaints as well. Allied Universal does provide us with an annual report that includes complaints. [But] the report itself does not identify officers by name. The number of Allied Universal guards on the RTD account is small enough that the Allied Universal officers are well known by RTD’s field supervision teams, and complaints are very rare. To our knowledge, RTD has never had a situation like the alleged April 20 incident occur before.”
Although Allied Universal doesn’t supply the names of guards involved in complaints, RTD can ask for specific guards to be removed from the job, Reed notes. Hunter, Diaz and Taggert, the three guards indicted in the April 20 incident, have been removed from RTD’s account.
The city does play a role in how Allied Universal operates within Denver. Ashley Kilroy, director of the Department of Excise and Licenses, says that Denver has some of the strictest rules in the state when it comes to licensing security companies. For an entity like Allied Universal, both the company and its individual guards must apply for operating licenses from the department. For guards, this involves passing a background check.
“Denver is only one of three cities in Colorado that even requires a security license,” Kilroy notes. (The other two are Colorado Springs and Glendale.) And when it comes to private guards carrying guns, Kilroy says that each guard has to apply for a firearms permit through Denver’s Department of Public Safety, which reviews and approves those applications.
Security guards, armed or not, do take risks in their line of business. Two Allied Universal guards have been killed in Denver during the past couple of years: One guard working for RTD was shot near Union Station in early 2017, and another Allied guard working for the Denver Performing Arts Complex was fatally stabbed in a parking garage in May 2018.
Still, the conduct of guards themselves is now coming under the scrutiny of the city. Kilroy says that the April 20 incident at Union Station is being reviewed by the Denver City Attorney’s Office, which may issue its own complaint against the individual Allied Universal guards involved, or even the entire company.
Mohamedbhai’s concerns extend beyond the individual guards who he says hurt his client. “We can only, at this point, speculate as to motives [in the April 20 assault], but generally in my experience suing law enforcement, when police or security guards engage in violence or brutality, it has to do with power and control,” he notes.
“There could also be lack of training, and lack of understanding about their responsibility to the community. I imagine as we learn more and peel this onion back, we will probably see poorly trained Allied security guards and folks that have issues with their own fragile egos — that they went into this profession not for community safety’s sake, but for more nefarious reasons, like they get off on hurting folks who can’t protect themselves.”
The lawyer suggests that the guards’ attempts to cover up and coordinate their stories regarding the April 20 incident point to a problem with Allied Universal’s corporate culture. In Hunter’s arrest-warrant affidavit, DPD detectives note that a fourth guard who was present but not indicted said that he was pressured to submit a false account of the bathroom assault: “Sgt. Taggert and James Hunter, the security guard who assaulted the victim, stood over the guard as he wrote his statement and provided him with other written statements previously completed by other involved security guards, as a guide for his statement. Guard stated that he felt ‘intimidated’ and that he was not able to be truthful in his written statement.”
Because her office is preparing its litigation strategy, DA McCann won’t comment on the upcoming cases.
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Supporters of the victim in the April 20 incident, who continues to struggle in his recovery, are not as reticent.
Because of his head injury, the man sometimes has problems completing sentences or thoughts, and he’s lost weight. He doesn’t have a car, and continues to use public transportation — in many cases staffed with Allied Universal security guards. But his supporters’ biggest concern is that Allied Universal security guards have gone rogue at Union Station, discouraging some members of the public from using the facility.
“In principle, this should be Denver’s Living Room,” D’Amico says. “It should be the cosmopolitan space where we converge. Given the circumstances we’re dealing with, we know it’s the furthest thing from that.”
He finishes the last sip of his beer, looks at the victim and makes a promise: “Come hell or high water, we will take Union Station back as a public space.”