Denver may resurrect its policy of banning suspected drug users from parks

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

Denver Parks and Recreation is no longer banning suspected drugs users from its parks. However, the city will consider bringing back the practice in the months ahead.

Last summer, parks director Happy Haynes announced that she was authorizing police officers to suspend people from using the parks for 90 days.

The temporary policy expired as expected on Feb. 26, six months after it was created. Parks had all along described the policy as a “pilot.”

Haynes, the parks director, is interested now to bring the policy back permanently, according to parks spokeswoman Cyndi Karvaski.

“We are moving forward with it, but there’s quite a few things that have to take place,” she said. There is no final decision yet, and parks will convene a “stakeholder process to begin discussions on a permanent rule.”

The new proposal may be more broadly focused, potentially encouraging enforcement beyond just the central parks, according to Karvaski. (To be clear, the old policy could be enforced at any park and on the greenways too.)

Haynes wants to convene “a very vast variety of individuals,” Karvaski said, including homeless advocacy groups. That group could come together later this month. It’s unclear whether or not that will require the approval of the Denver City Council – it could go either way, depending on how significantly any proposal would change existing ordinance.

The backstory:

The bans policy encountered significant criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and a local judge, who said the policy was “unconstitutional” as she dismissed the city’s attempt to enforce the suspension of a young man. (However, that ruling didn’t bar the city from using the bans.)

The objections to the policy included the fact that no trial or hearing was necessary before someone was expelled — just an officer’s word that they were using drugs. Even if the person successfully appealed their ban, they could ultimately be barred from a public space for days or weeks before that happened. As the judge pointed out, that might separate a homeless person from their community.

It’s been five months since police actually suspended anyone from a park. Karvaski suggested earlier that this may have been because the bans accomplished their mission. Most of the bans went to alleged marijuana users at Commons Park, though suspected crack users and heroin users also were temporarily expelled from parks, as was a man who was found with needles but not drugs.