Civilian enforcement team to tackle Denver’s homeless camp violations

A homeless encampment spills onto the sidewalk in downtown’s Arapahoe Square. (Eric Heinz photo)

Denver is preparing to send out a team of six civilian representatives citywide to enforce lower-level infractions, with an emphasis on patrolling unsanctioned homeless encampments.

The “Street Enforcement Team” was created after uniformed officers that make up Denver Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team found earlier this year that some people in homeless encampments were “resistant” to accepting services and continued to violate city laws. said Kelli Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety.

“They were going around to all these encampments to figure out what barriers were keeping these people from getting services, trying to help them get IDs,” Christensen said. “Given that experience, given the outcry from the community and that police don’t need to respond to every single issue in the city, that was the idea for the Street Enforcement Team.”

Street Enforcement Team members will not have the authority to make arrests. But they will be able to issue citations for offenses such as destruction of property, public defecation, damaging trees, trespassing, graffiti, littering, illegal dumping and obstructing pathways.

Team members will not be armed, but the department is working to get them body cameras, Christensen said. They will wear polo shirts with the city’s logo.

The team members were hired recently and should be deployed by the end of the month.

“We anticipate training will take two to three weeks, so the team is not active at this point,” Christensen said.

Denver already has an “Early Intervention Team” made up of civilians who respond to non-criminal calls about homeless encampments instead of police officers. But they do not issue citations.

Street Enforcement Team members will shadow the police department’s outreach team during their training and work in tandem with the Early Intervention Team. The team will be dispatched via the city’s 311 call line.

According to the Department of Public Safety, when the city’s 311 non-emergency line began taking calls related to homeless encampments in March, it received about 930 that first month. In July, the number of calls was about 3,500.

There were also 971 calls to 911 in March related to encampments from people who felt the situation constituted an emergency, according to the department. That figure dipped for a few months before peaking in August at 1,330, which was the latest month of data provided.

Scott Lawson of the city’s Department of Human Services will lead the Street Enforcement Team. He has experience working with the city’s outreach services and with “troubled youth,” according to the department.

“Much like the park rangers and (other outreach teams), we’re going to be out in the community talking with folks and engaging in conversations,” Lawson said in an informational video on the team.

Lawson said the team will let people resolve a violation when asked but Street Enforcement Team members will write citations if they don’t. When enforcing the city’s urban camping ban, he said the team will issue citations “as a last resort.”

“We want to get folks connected with the resources around town and the Denver area and try those angles first,” he said.

Citations could add up. The fine for a first offense for illegal dumping in Denver is $150 and the third and subsequent offenses are nearly $1,000.

Armando Saldante III, performance improvement manager for the public safety department, said during a Sept. 15 briefing on the Street Enforcement Team that other outreach teams have helped homeless people at encampments find housing situations, which helps police officers work on other crimes.

“Civilian enforcement models can work and they can prove successful, and then the reality is … the Denver Police Department is dealing with a rise in crime with a reduction in resources,” Saldante said.

Councilwoman Robin Kniech said during the hearing that she had concerns about civilians engaging homeless people and issuing citations because they go beyond the scope of simpler violations, such as an illegally parked car.

“These (duties) do not feel appropriate for a civilian enforcement team,” Kneich said. “It’s one thing to write a ticket for something; it’s another thing to get into a situation where you are issuing orders and expecting compliance and there’s an escalation.”

Councilwoman Jaime Torres said even arresting some homeless people will not deter them from returning to an encampment, and she said she wanted to understand how the city will enforce citations against people who likely will not be able to pay the fine.

Saldante said he has instructed a data team to track outstanding debts on citations once the program gets started, and if it shows most citations are not being paid, he said the city should “rethink” its approach to enforcing the encampments.

“For my team and how we’re going to define success is not going to be the number of tickets,” Saldante said. “It’s going to be a reduction in all those negatives that we see, a reduction in the encampments, a reduction in the calls and the complaints and the tenor of these complaints on encampments.”

The public safety department is requesting $1.4 million from next year’s budget, which is scheduled to be finalized by November, to increase the size of the team from six to 12 members.

A homeless encampment spills onto the sidewalk in downtown’s Arapahoe Square.…

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