Homeless abuse case fallout: Two more Grand Junction cops in spotlight after three were fired

Last month, we told you about claims that Grand Junction Police officers had vandalized a homeless camp -- assertions followed by the firing of three GJPD members.

But the story's not over. In recent days, another cop's resigned and a colleague's been placed on leave over allegations that homeless people's property was pepper-sprayed -- an issue that illustrates a longstanding problem, a homeless activist argues.

Grand Junction's Daily Sentinel reports that the resignation and administrative action came after an investigation prompted by statements from the three fired officers about the application of pepper spray to sleeping bags and the like, in direct contradiction of GJPD policy about the approved use of the chemical.

These allegations came as no surprise to Jacob Richards, organizer and co-founder of Housing First! No More Deaths!, as well as a contributor to The Red Pill, a GJ underground newspaper.

"We'd heard rumors about pepper-spray attacks that happened a few months ago," Richards says, "and we looked into them, but we couldn't find enough evidence about when they happened to make a formal complaint."

Even so, "we've been bringing up the point that the police here seem to harass the homeless population for the past year," he continues. "We've heard reports of the police going to parks where homeless people are hanging out and saying, 'Everybody, IDs,' and doing warrant sweeps with no probable cause beyond someone being houseless."

Indeed, Richards believes the fired officers mentioned the pepper spray to demonstrate that such actions were "standard procedure" among the police as a way of justifying the tent slashing and related behavior for which they were dismissed.

At the same time, Richards has praise for Grand Junction Chief of Police John Camper, who's been on the job in the range of a year, for taking these matters seriously.

"We're thankful they're willing to investigate these other incidents," he notes. "We believe in giving credit where credit is due, and we think the department is really trying to rein in their mavericks."

At the same time, though, Richards feels mistreatment of the homeless population in Grand Junction "is more of a systemic issue than just a few bad apples." In his opinion, that makes it even more important that Camper "takes seriously rights violations against even the least among us. Because as soon as there's one group you're legally allowed to pick on, what's to prevent the same thing from happening to the next group, or the next group, or you?"

Since the camp vandalism issue came to light, Camper's representatives have been working with Housing First! No More Deaths! to come up with what Richards calls "a restorative justice program for houseless offenders" and other ideas that deal with the cause of homelessness instead of fallout from it. But he fears that some parties in power aren't on the same page.

"The city has appointed a committee on homeless and transient populations," he allows, "and we're a little concerned that they might be trying to use more of the old criminalize-and-incarcerate techniques. So we'll be there to keep an eye on things. Because the city really has no position on homelessness whatsoever right now, and we're not going to compromise about protecting and standing up for our folks' basic rights."

With that in mind, Richards' group is planning a rally on Thursday at a low-income apartment complex at 1241 Elm Street in Grand Junction that's set to be demolished to make way for a new Mesa State College parking lot. "The tenants all have to be out on Thursday, and because affordable housing in Grand Junction is so inadequate, a bunch of them are probably going to be homeless because of this," he maintains. "And we need to bring that to light."

His timing may be right. "This is the biggest local issue," he says, "and the city council is under a lot of pressure to do something. We hope that's a good thing, not a bad thing."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts