Today marks the announced effective date of Denver's new urban camping ban, an ordinance that makes it illegal to camp on public or private property without permission. After months of debate, followed by a two-week implementation period, both Occupy Denver and the homeless community prepared for its first day in action. They're still waiting. "We are not enforcing the ordinance right now," says Denver Police Department spokesman John White.
So far, the spokesman has not heard of any official warnings being given, and any verbal ones are considered routine as the department approaches enforcement. "We got our word from (Denver Police Chief Robert) White that we are not to enforce it yet," says the detective. Although the ban went into effect at midnight, he did not outline a specific date for enforcement to begin. Instead, the department is exercising a grace period while officers and residents learn more about the ban.
Over the past two weeks, officers have been trained in the ban's enforcement protocol, which requires both a verbal and written citation in addition to several layers of assessment before any action takes place. Officers also visited several area homeless shelters to discuss the ban's implications and protocol with providers before it goes into effect, Detective White says.
The department has repeatedly promised "passive" enforcement of the ban, with arrests and citations planned only as a "last resort" if violators refuse to comply or accept city services. If arrested, violators face a maximum punishment of a $999 fine and up to one year in jail, but police officers say they would rather place people in shelters than in prison. "From a law enforcement perspective, the absolute, unequivocally last thing we want to do as a police department is arrest someone for a camping violation," DPD Chief Robert White said earlier in the debate.
In anticipation of the ban's enforcement, the number of people camped out at Occupy Denver's current home in Lincoln Park slimmed down noticeably last night. Roughly twelve people slept on the surrounding sidewalk overnight, and none faced warnings from law enforcement, occupier Nicole Sisneros says. "Everyone got really worried, but (police) didn't even come over to warn us," she says. "A lot of people got scared and left, but I slept on the sidewalk all night."
Click through for additional photos and information. In the surrounding blocks, however, a handful of homeless individuals reported verbal warnings from law enforcement. And as protesters woke up this morning, state troopers told them to step out of their sleeping bags and pack up. "Just behind Civic Center, three people got verbal warnings and had to remove all of their stuff immediately," says David Barney, who moved out of Lincoln Park for the night to avoid police contact. "The police used the words 'official warning.'"
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While enforcement is delayed across the city, Occupy Denver's general assemblies will continue to convene inside the park on a regular basis. The group is still discussing sustainable alternatives to a physical occupation, and it will support those who continue to occupy overnight at Lincoln Park.
"The fact that we've been able to maintain a physical occupation this long is kind of unprecedented," occupier Antony Hebblethwaite says. "But there are two layers: There are people who are occupying and people who are homeless. There are some people who have expressed an interest in staying overnight, and there are others who plan to move on and try other methods. They have to make their own decisions on what they need to do for themselves."
At least one occupier plans to stay in the park until he is removed by police officers. "I don't care if they arrest me on the sidewalk," says Tommy, who asked that his last name be withheld. "At least I won't be homeless anymore."
More from our Follow That Story archive: "Urban camping ban: Denver Police outline enforcement protocol."