For months, Denver has been engaged in a sustained crackdown on homeless encampments.
Since the sweeps began along Park Avenue West on March 8, homeless individuals have described being chased around the city by police officers, who cite Denver’s urban-camping-ban ordinance when prohibiting them from sleeping under cover anywhere in public spaces — including places like the South Platte River.
Now open-records data obtained by Westword through the Denver Police Department backs up their claims.
The numbers released by the department show that enforcement of the urban-camping ban in March and April of this year was up nearly 500 percent compared to enforcement over the previous 45 months.
In fact, the first four months of 2016 account for 28 percent of all camping-ban enforcement actions taken during the almost four years of the ordinance’s existence. From January through April, there were 1,972 documented cases of people approached by officers because they were in violation of the ordinance.
And yet the DPD’s data shows that actual arrests resulting from the ordinance remain low; despite a sharp spike in the total numbers of “contacted” individuals, there have been no arrests or citations for unauthorized camping in 2016.
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That lends credence to claims made by Jerry Burton and Ray Lyall of Denver Homeless Out Loud (“Clean Sweep,” April 7) that officers are being instructed not to make arrests for camping violations so that Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration can point to low numbers of citations when defending the camping ban. Instead, the camping ban is chiefly enforced by verbal “move on” orders given out by police officers, its critics charge.
Using the DPD data, Westword was able to determine how many verbal “move on” orders are being used to uproot homeless individuals from temporary encampments. According to Sonny Jackson, spokesman for the DPD, a line in the data table labeled “number of people contacted” shows the monthly summation of arrests, written warnings and verbal orders documented by police. “At minimum, [those in violation] are asked to move along,” Jackson explains. “First off, they’re offered services — they’re asked if we can assist or serve them in any way. And then, if they don’t want services, it goes to the next step of asking them to move along. That’s what happens a majority of the time.”
The camping ban’s protocol dictates that police officers must first offer anyone they contact for violating the ban the ability to connect with services such as shelters and medical treatment. Shelter providers say they are currently at 80 percent capacity, which means shelter beds are available for anyone who wants them. Using a shelter is still a voluntary decision, however, and homeless individuals may choose not to use a shelter for any number of reasons, including concerns about their mental or physical health, claustrophobia and safety. But a police “contact” still indicates that someone has been told that they cannot stay in their current location, regardless of whether they accept offers for services.
By subtracting the number of written warnings and arrests/citations from the “number of people contacted,” it becomes clear that “move on” orders represent the vast majority of enforcement actions regarding the camping ban; according to the DPD, there have been 6,789 cases of violators who were forced to dismantle their camps since 2012 after being told to accept services or “move on.” And that number does not include those people who were given written warnings or arrests/citations.
Judging from those figures, the scope of Denver’s camping-ban enforcement is far greater than what the city acknowledges; Denver officials say there have been only seventeen arrests made under the ordinance since 2012.
On its face, Denver’s camping ban may seem innocuous in comparison to Boulder’s, which resulted in 1,767 camping-ban citations between 2010 and 2014. But considering that Denver documented over 7,000 contacts during the four years between 2012 and 2016, Denver could very well be outpacing its northern neighbor — only using verbal orders rather than arrests and citations as its primary enforcement tool.
Since its inception, Denver’s urban-camping ban has been controversial. The ACLU of Colorado and even some members of Denver’s city council, such as Paul Lopez, say that the camping ban effectively criminalizes homelessness.
There are other concerns, too, including the cost of enforcement. When council approved the camping ban in May 2012, it struck down a proposed amendment that would have required annual financial reports. “That was supposed to provide those details to us,” says Lopez, who voted against the ban in its entirety.
A similar frustration over lack of financial transparency was voiced in a report released in February by the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. While students there provided evidence that Denver had spent millions of dollars enforcing five anti-homeless ordinances since 2010, they were not able to obtain data from the city that documented the thousands of “move on” orders that have stemmed from the camping ban. So they estimated the cost of enforcing the camping ban at just $7,623 for the fifteen citations they knew of at the time of the research. “The impact is certainly higher than that,” professor Nantiya Ruan said at a presentation on the law school’s findings.
Denver Homeless Out Loud advocates say that the DPD numbers given to Westword — especially the ramped-up enforcement statistics seen in March and April — confirm what they already know from the streets. In a collective statement, the organization says:
“We are glad to now have this data, even though it simply means we now have a record of what we have already been documenting and know from experience: the massive increase in how often the police are harassing people for being poor in public. We know that the police have been given orders not to ticket or arrest people, effectively turning the camping ban into a homeless stop-and-frisk — a legal excuse to push homeless people around and try to scare them into leaving town to be homeless elsewhere.
“Defenders of the camping ban frame the conversation as connecting homeless people to services, but the community is tired of this brutal scheme of criminalization. Up until now, the police had not exposed some of the crucial data needed to really understand the impact of the ban. With this in mind, it is even more important we respond to this by demanding together as a whole community that the Mayor end the sweeps now!”
Denver and Boulder are hardly the only cities with camping bans. According to a 2014 report released by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 34 percent of the 187 cities it surveyed — including metropolises like Dallas and Miami — have a citywide ban on camping. Increasingly, though, these bans are being challenged in court. Last August, the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in on the issue when it filed a statement of interest in a case challenging the camping ban in Boise, Idaho. The DOJ said that bans on camping are unconstitutional; depriving someone of sleep through such actions is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Even so, the Idaho case was dismissed, with U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush observing that there was “no known citation of a homeless individual under the ordinances for camping or sleeping on public property.” Like Denver, Boise enforced its camping ban without making arrests or issuing citations, and that served to protect the city in court.
The recent sweeps in Denver have focused renewed attention on this city’s ordinance, and some council members think a Denver City Council vote on the camping ban today might produce different results than the 9-4 majority that approved the controversial measure. “It’s a different council than originally voted on the urban-camping ban,” Lopez observes.
While some council members who participated in the original vote remain — including ordinance sponsor Albus Brooks — representatives Raphael Espinoza and Wayne New, both elected in 2015, say that not only would they have voted against the ban in 2012, but they would vote to repeal it now. New says his opposition to the ban stems from a belief that the city should focus on providing housing for the homeless, not waste resources on having police officers disable encampments and then shuffle uprooted individuals around the city.
Of course, if a repeal proposal got the seven-vote majority it would need, it could still be vetoed by Hancock, since Denver has a strong-mayor system of government. Only a nine-vote super-majority could overcome a veto by the mayor. So do council members believe that Hancock would honor a seven-vote repeal of the camping ban?
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“That’s a question for the Mayor’s Office,” Lopez says.
That office has not responded to Westword’s request for comment.
Below, you can read all of the camping ban enforcement data that was provided to Westword by the Denver Police Department, including breakdowns by district, ethnicity, and time of day: