Stricter rules for RTD stations will give police and security guards broader power to kick people out of the publicly owned buildings in the name of safety if a vote by transit officials holds up.
On Tuesday night, the RTD Board of Directors operations committee approved system-wide changes to its code of conduct that governs the public’s movements — a document that private security guards and RTD police officers enforce.
Because every RTD board member sits on the committee, its proposals are expected to pass during a regular board meeting, which would codify them, later this month.
Under the new guidelines, authorities could make anyone leave RTD property if they believe the person is not traveling. Members of the public can currently be on RTD property for two hours without using transit.
“RTD may, in its sole discretion, regulate the movement of individuals to enable the provision of transit services,” the proposed changes state. Soon, RTD property will “be used only for travel-related purposes.”
The new rules would also give RTD more discretion to determine whether someone sleeping in public interferes with the agency’s transit functions or “the comfort” of its patrons.
Directors Bob Broom, Vince Buzek, Peggy Catlin, Shelley Cook, Lynn Guissinger, Judy Lubow, Angie Rivera-Malpiede, Doug Tisdale, Jeff Walker, Troy Whitmore and Kate Williams voted for the changes. Directors Claudia Folska, Shontel Lewis, Natalie Menten and Ken Mihalik voted against them.
RTD’s head of safety, police chief and general manager are also eyeing major restrictions for who can be at Denver Union Station’s bus terminal — and when they can be there. They presented their proposal, which the board will likely vote on later this year, on Tuesday night.
The group proposed that the underground concourse close at midnight and reopen at 4:30 a.m., even though RTD offers bus service in that window. The terminal currently closes at 1:45 a.m. and reopens at 3 in the morning. Mike Meader, RTD’s chief safety officer, said “accommodations” will be made for riders whose buses leave during the proposed new times.
The proposal would require anyone inside the bus terminal to have a valid ticket. Customers might get just 10 minutes to wait for a bus, documents show. RTD would also designate “free speech” zones where the public can do things like collect signatures for petitions.
Changes to Union Station’s bus terminal will have to go before the board twice more for a vote before being approved.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not driving either set of changes. Instead, supporters cited safety and smoother operations. But some board members raised concerns over individual rights and discrimination against people experiencing homelessness.
Paul Ballard, RTD’s interim general manager and CEO, told the board at Tuesday’s meeting that many people in the terminal “are not our passengers, they just choose to come on our property for whatever reason and we have to try to deal with them.” He recalled anecdotal stories of spitting and punching incidents in which RTD employees were victims.
Meader, RTD’s chief safety officer, said some of those people are “aggressive” and that the new rules are necessary because they use RTD’s property for “jamborees.”
More than 180 calls to transit police came from the bus terminal in January, resulting in 21 arrests, according to RTD documents. There were 20 “use of force” incidents carried out by security officers in that period.
“I would just be more comfortable with this if there was some specificity in this because the ambiguity makes me really nervous,” said Lewis, referring to the order that gives security officers the discretion to boot people from RTD property. “And it makes me quite nervous for my constituents as well, particularly folks who have historically been over-policed. And I think this leaves way too much room for that to happen.”
Folska, Menten and Mihalik joined Lewis in voting against the code of conduct for fear of overreach. After trying to narrow the authority of security officers with an amendment Tuesday, Menten said she’d sue the transit agency if the rules passed without changes.
“I will look forward to being a plaintiff to sue RTD for First Amendment violations. And I do not joke,” she said. “We are completely ignoring the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
Some directors who voted for the new code of conduct understood the civil rights concerns but were not ultimately swayed by them.
“Facilities can only be used for travel-related purposes — that’s, to me, a pretty extreme thing to say,” Lubow said. She called parts of the new code of conduct “overreach” but ultimately voted for it.
Board Chair Rivera-Malpiede said she understood her colleague’s concerns. But safety was her priority.
“Being in the bus barn on a Sunday afternoon with my three-year-old granddaughter and having someone acting out to the point where I had to shield Savannah because I was afraid she was going to get hit by this person, I understand the needs for … wanting to get on our services without fear of something that could happen to you or someone that you love.”
Meader acknowledged that people with health issues related to substance abuse who use the stations can make people feel uncomfortable. He said that people experiencing homelessness sleep at the bus terminal and that stricter rules would make sleeping harder. He’s enlisted the help of advocates like the Harm Reduction Action Center, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Denver Rescue Mission to help connect people who may be affected by the changes with services.
Add this debate to the larger one about who Denver’s publicly owned spaces are for.
RTD, an agency funded with tax dollars and run by elected officials, owns Union Station but sold the public’s rights to it years ago in a lease. Private companies run the show and earlier this year banned people who didn’t buy stuff from sitting in the station’s lobby, which is marketed as “Denver’s living room.”
The agency had been banning people without fares from stations for eight years citing a state statute that was repealed in 2012.