Denver police resume enforcement of the camping ban, citing violent crime and drug activity

They had eased off on enforcement because of the pandemic.
3 min. read
A police officer keeps watch during a Department of Transportation and Infrastructure cleanup of a homeless encampment near the Denver Art Museum on Aug. 17, 2020. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Denver police have resumed enforcement of the city's urban camping ban after easing off on move-along orders because of the pandemic.

"In August, DPD began enforcing the unauthorized camping ordinance due to the significant public safety issues resulting from the encampments, including violent crime and narcotics-related activity," police spokesman Doug Schepman said in an email Monday.

Schepman said the suspension of enforcement came because of advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has cautioned that breaking up encampments can increase the risk of spreading disease during the coronavirus outbreak by causing "people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers."

Denver officials have seen the number of people living on the streets increase amid the coronavirus economic slowdown. City health officials have said they must balance the need to control the coronavirus against other risks posed by encampments, including the spread of diseases such as hepatitis A.

People in neighborhoods where encampments have sprouted up or grown during the pandemic have pressed city officials about crime and other concerns associated with the encampments.

After county Judge Johnny Barajas ruled late last year that the camping ban ordinance, adopted by Denver City Council in 2012, was unconstitutional, the city briefly suspended enforcement of the law. The city's appeal of the judge's ruling is pending.

The law stipulates that police should prioritize getting people to comply simply by asking, and trying to get help for those who need it. While it is rare for a written warning to be issued, let alone for an officer to issue a ticket or make an arrest, people who have experienced homelessness testified before Barajas that being asked to move along is a constant and debilitating source of stress on top of the trauma of being unhoused.

In an update Tuesday, police spokesman Schepman said no citations for unauthorized camping had been issued since enforcement resumed this month.

Denver officials say the ban does not criminalize homelessness as some critics contend, but instead gives police an opportunity to offer services to people living on the streets.

Marisa Westbrook, a researcher at the University of Colorado Denver, worked with the advocacy group Denver Homeless Out Loud to survey nearly 500 people experiencing homelessness in 2018 and 2019. She said the results, which Westbrook and a colleague published this year in the Journal of Social Distress and Homelessness, showed a link between poor mental health and frequent contact with police, even when the contacts did not lead to a ticket. Respondents also spoke of such health issues as sleep being interrupted by officers asking them to move along and of seeking out places to stay where they would not be seen by police, which left some vulnerable to crime.

"Our research really shows that there are these really negative health and safety impacts," Westbrook said in an interview, adding her study could inform a larger conversation about what roles now undertaken by police officers might be better handled by mental health providers and others.

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