Denver City Council Questioning Scope of Street Enforcement Team

The Street Enforcement Team will start patrolling in October.
The Street Enforcement Team will start patrolling in October. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
click to enlarge The Street Enforcement Team will start patrolling in October. - CONOR MCCORMICK-CAVANAGH
The Street Enforcement Team will start patrolling in October.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
As the administration of Mayor Michael Hancock tries to manage growing homeless encampments across the city, Denver City Council members are questioning whether the new Street Enforcement Team's powers are appropriate.

"You described this as a very low-level enforcement team. We have some very law enforcement charges on this list," Councilwoman Robin Kniech said at a September 15 Denver City Council Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness committee meeting, referring to a list of enforceable laws shared by Armando Saldate, a senior-ranking Department of Public Safety official who led the creation of the team.

The Hancock administration's plan for the Street Enforcement Team, which staffers likened to park rangers when it was unveiled in July, is to give its members authority to enforce and issue citations for twenty laws, including ones generally associated with people experiencing homelessness, such as unauthorized camping, public urination, trespassing and obstruction of the public right-of-way. The team will also be able to issue citations for failure to obey a lawful order, providing false information and violating court orders.

"This is a job where sometimes my job and things that the Department of Public Safety has to do are not pretty, like enforcing the camping ban. That’s not pretty. However, it is a law on our books and it is necessary," Murphy Robinson, executive director of the Department of Public Safety, said at the meeting, adding that establishing the team is partially about "trying to set a tone for what we will accept and what we will not accept in our city."

But some councilmembers wonder whether it makes sense to empower a civilian team with such a broad array of enforcement powers.

"I was just really surprised to see those," Kniech said of the team's power to enforce failure to obey a lawful order, giving false information and violating court orders. "As I think about when I see those charges in the DPD realm, false information is an investigatory role. I’m an officer who's investigating a crime, someone gives me a false name. Or failure to obey a lawful order, that’s often about managing a scene. ... These do not feel appropriate for a civilian enforcement team to me. I’m just struggling with this."

Robinson's response: "Point well taken. And I think that’s something we need to review immediately."

Time is tight: The city is likely to send the Street Enforcement Team out on its first patrol around the middle of next month. The team, which is supposed to offer services first and issue citations only as a last resort, will be composed of six members and will work regular weekday business hours.

"Is six enough? No, I’d be lying to you if I said six would be enough," Saldate told the committee, adding that he'd like to get the team out on the streets as a pilot before growing the project. Prior to starting patrol, the team will receive training from various city agencies, including the Denver City Attorney's Office and the Department of Housing Stability.

Last fall, the city established the Early Intervention Team, which comprised personnel from departments ranging from Denver Human Services to the Denver Police Department; that team was charged with visiting budding encampments and offering services to individuals on the streets, in hopes of preventing the encampments from growing. While initially housed in the Department of Public Safety, the city has since removed law enforcement personnel from the EIT and moved it into the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, making it a non-enforcement entity.

This past March, the Hancock administration began routing all calls regarding homeless encampments through 311 as a way of centralizing responses, while also removing law enforcement from these types of calls when possible.

Before the switch, Saldate told the committee, the city had been receiving around thirty calls a day related to homeless encampments. Since the switch, the call volume has jumped significantly. In June alone, the city received 3,500 calls related to homelessness — thanks, in part, to a single "individual who made 500 or so calls on one encampment that he was dealing with," according to Saldate.

"Folks are fed up. This isn’t a silver bullet," Saldate said of the new team. "But it’s going to help, and it’s going to make an impact."

The key difference between the Street Enforcement Team and the Early Intervention Team is that the EIT does not have civil enforcement power. Nor will the team go to encampment sweeps.

Scott Lawson, who has been working in Denver Human Services and on the EIT, will serve as the supervisor of the Street Enforcement Team. Another city employee who has been working at Denver Human Services will be the senior member of the team, which will be garbed in light gray City of Denver polo shirts and cargo pants.

But despite the team's more casual vibe, Councilwoman Jamie Torres, like Kniech, wonders about the efficacy of adding more enforcement focusing on homelessness. Torres told the committee that she had a "clear concern around what new pipeline we’d be creating for individuals who have no way to pay, probably very little to lose in that kind of circumstance."

Saldate said that the team won't aim to hit a ticket quota or even measure ticketing to determine success. Instead, the city will look for "a reduction in the encampments, a reduction in the calls and complaints and the tenor of these complaints on encampments," he told the committee. "It’s going to be a reduction in crime around these encampments."
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.