What Denver Police Want You To Do When They Say to "Shelter in Place"

Twice this past weekend, the Denver Police Department issued a "shelter in place" notice to residents near addresses of wanted suspects. But that doesn't mean Denverites should expect to receive such orders on a much more frequent basis.

"It's uncommon for us to use it," says DPD division chief Ron Thomas. "I think we have a relatively safe city, and there aren't many occasions when we feel it's important to have a shelter in place order. So it's unusual to have two over the same weekend, and in such close proximity to each other."

Indeed, the 5900 block of West Hampden Avenue, where folks were told to shelter in place at 4:15 p.m. on October 20 "due to officers attempting to arrest a party suspected of Domestic Violence," according to the Department's Twitter account, and the 1400 block of Xavier Street, whose residents got an identical order at 8:26 p.m. on October 21 regarding "officers attempting to contact a party in reference to a disturbance," are only about eight miles apart.

Local use of the term "shelter in place" is fairly recent. The police department has deployed it intermittently over the past couple of years, but Thomas says that "as far as reaching out to people and letting them know to remain in their homes until a situation is resolved, it's really not a new practice."

The 1400 block of Xavier Street.
The 1400 block of Xavier Street.
Google Maps

The decision to direct residents to shelter in place "is made by the incident commander — the person in charge of the incident," Thomas explains. "It could be a barricaded party, someone who's on the run from police that we believe is hiding in the area, an active-shooter situation where we want to keep the area as clear as possible."

In such scenarios, he goes on, "the incident commander reaches out to our radio room and asks for a shelter in place notification to go out by reverse 911. We'll identify an area — say, three square blocks or one square mile — to make phone calls. And usually, in about ten minutes, we'll be able to get the population of all the phone numbers in that area, to include people on cell phones. Then automatic calls will go out, letting them know a police presence is in the area and cautioning them to remain in place."

Denver Police Department Public Information Officer John White adds that these notices are also echoed on social-media platforms such as Twitter in the hopes of capturing the attention of as many concerned parties as possible.

Generally, the order stops there. But Thomas acknowledges that there can be exceptions. "It's a case-by-case situation. But if we're talking about an active-shooter situation, we may add that they should stay away from windows or go to the basement if they have one. But these are generally situations where we believe it's safe for them to remain in their homes and there's no need for an evacuation."

The 5900 block of West Hampden Avenue.
The 5900 block of West Hampden Avenue.
Google Maps

If the scenario changes, the system allows the police to pivot, Thomas adds. "We're flexible enough to where if we initially ordered a shelter in place but we later decide that we need to evacuate, we can certainly do that."

Another call will go out "once the situation is resolved — once we've either made contact with the person we're searching for or we've determined that the suspect has escaped our perimeter," he notes. "Then we'll reach out again to all those individuals and make sure they understand that the advisement has been lifted."

The length of the notices can vary widely. The October 20 alert on West Hampden was lifted after a little more than three and a half hours as measured by the tweets in question, while the October 21 order for Xavier Street was vacated in just 27 minutes. In both cases, Thomas says, "the individuals we were looking for were located and taken into custody safely."

Although Thomas doesn't expect shelter in place orders to greatly proliferate anytime soon, he stresses that the DPD won't shy away from sending them out if they're deemed necessary. In his words, "Public safety is paramount for us, and we take these things very seriously. Supervisors who are managing these events recognize that it's a tool to help the situation be resolved safely. But having two in two days is kind of an anomaly."

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