Neighborhood Botch

Denver police officer Tyrone Campbell is a familiar face in north Denver's Cole neighborhood. He's one of the few Denver cops who carries a personal pager for calls from residents and has a souped-up, bass-thumping CD player wired into his cruiser.

As he makes his rounds through the neighborhood, kids on bikes wave to him and shop owners chat with him about food and travel. And the many in Cole who congregate in front of known drug houses regard him with a wary respect.

Campbell's a black officer, which is to say he feels that he's in a no-win situation. Black kids often respond to him and sometimes expect he'll cut them a break. Hispanics, who make up the majority of Cole residents, would rather deal with the Hispanic cops on the beat.

Campbell's upbeat, though; he says life in Cole is getting better. Crime is down overall, he insists, though the statistics don't back him up on that point. Crack and heroin are still a major problem. Many drug houses remain; while he shows them to a reporter, suspicious forms peer back at him from behind the curtains.

The cop's salary is paid for by the federally funded Weed and Seed program, which was designed to root out crime with "community based" policing, the kind of hands-on contact Campbell practices. Funding runs out in 1997; Campbell doesn't know where he'll be then, or whether the city will even continue community policing, although officials say they're committed to it. He's also not sure what these changes could mean for Cole, some of whose residents have struggled through the years to keep the place from becoming a total slum.

At 38th and Humboldt, on what Campbell calls a low-key day, the squad car ducks into an alley lined with crooked fences. Campbell stops and gets out, slipping into a backyard that stands between a white one-story house and detached garage. Two men in their late thirties are loitering around the garage. Both look not-quite-there, and one has scabs up and down his arm, a sure sign of heroin abuse.

Inside the dim garage are a sofa, a bed, some chairs and everything one needs to get lit: propane burners, spoons, hydrogen peroxide, needles, baking soda, Bunsen burners, Brillo-pad filters and a crack pipe decorated with a carefully airbrushed skull. Campbell smashes the crack pipe with his foot.

As Campbell grills the two men, another officer, Fred Ybarra, arrives, and the suspects calmly try to talk themselves out of trouble. Campbell knocks on the back door of the house; he's looking for a known drug dealer who lives there with his mother. The dealer's not home, but his wheelchair-bound mom is. Campbell asks her if she knows the two men who are trespassing in her yard. There seems to be recognition in her eyes, but she shakes her head no.

One of the loiterers is handcuffed for trespassing, but the woman doesn't want to file a complaint, so he's released with a stern warning not to come back. The other man, it turns out, is wanted on a drug charge in Adams County, and he's taken back to the District 2 police station on Colorado Boulevard and put in a holding cell. Campbell fills out his paperwork, but he knows what will likely happen next: A police van will take the suspect to headquarters. If he doesn't post bond there, Adams County officers will pick him up and give him a court date, which he'll ignore. And he'll be right back in the neighborhood.

And one smashed crack pipe won't shut down the dealer's garage. "The cops raided the place last summer," one neighbor says, and the dealer was hauled away. "That same evening they brought him back, and he's been there ever since."

Which seems symptomatic of Cole: Everyone knows what the problems are, but solutions that are more than temporary are tough to come by.

One of Denver's poorest neighborhoods, Cole is also one of the city's most frequently used social laboratories, where experimental programs to help the disenfranchised are dreamed up and highly publicized, and new ways of spending--and misspending--federal, state and city money are conducted by government officials and a few neighborhood residents alike.

More than $6 million has been pumped into Cole since the late Eighties; a good portion has passed through the hands of a nonprofit organization called the Cole Coalition. The coalition was created as an umbrella organization to unite people and nonprofit groups concerned about the neighborhood's future. But the coalition today bears little resemblance to that vision, having taken some severe political blows--and Cole is still one of Denver's grimmest neighborhoods.

Cole is home to just over 4,000 people, more than a third of whom live below the poverty line, according to the 1990 federal census. Lacking the notoriety of nearby Five Points, Cole simply is, an often invisible place where a small but not insubstantial piece of Denver's working-class and ethnic history has played out, where the city's railyards once set up shop and where ethnic groups of practically every color have staked out constantly shifting pieces of turf for most of the century.

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T.R. Witcher