Drug-related arrests and citations hit record lows in Denver last year, in part because of a state law passed in 2019 that downgraded most possession charges to misdemeanors. They’ve rebounded a little bit in 2021, but reports of these crimes still remain significantly lower they were in 2019 and beyond.
That is not the case at Civic Center Park.
In June, Denver Police issued more drug citations in the city’s iconic greenspace than they have since 2016, as far back Denver’s public crime data goes. The department usually logs about 10 a month, 20 at most; in June, they logged 49. The only month that comes close is April 2016, in which 44 people were charged with marijuana possession, mostly on the 20th day of that month — when “thousands gathered in Civic Center to celebrate the holiday devoted to smoking marijuana.” Last month’s charges were mostly related to paraphernalia and heroin.
We asked DPD Chief Paul Pazen what this was about. His answer: violent crime prevention.
In May, Mayor Hancock announced the city would focus on five “violent crime hotspots” that were primary drivers of a wave of assaults and murders in 2020. They include areas around (1) Alameda Avenue and Federal Boulevard’s intersection on the west side, (2) East Colfax at the city’s border with Aurora, (3) “the Holly” in Northeast Park Hill, (4) Peoria Street in Montbello and (5) from Civic Center Park up Colfax to Washington Street.
According to DPD, half of all people shot during aggravated assaults last year were in one of these areas. Also, a quarter of all assaults and murders in Denver last year took place in one of these hotspots.
Pazen said the drug busts at Civic Center came out of this analysis. While disputes and arguments were the primary causes of violence in 2020, he told us “narcotics transactions” have become reasons for assaults and murder in 2021. A DPD cruiser sat conspicuously in the center of the park on Saturday.
“Why would we be addressing drug issues in one of the hotspots and how is that connected to violent crime? It is directly connected to violent crime, based on what we are seeing with the data,” he said.
Trespassing citations were also up more than 200 percent along Colfax, between Sherman and Downing streets, from May to June.
Doug Schepman, DPD’s acting director of communications, told us crackdowns were specifically not related to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game on Tuesday at Coors Field. Tom Leiber, who runs Bourbon Grill at Colfax and Pearl Street with his wife, told us in May that his local beat cop did say officers were working to clean up the area because the game was coming to the city.
MLB announced the game would move to Denver in April. Hancock announced the new crime plan on May 24. Drug citations doubled on Colfax between April and May, but the new highs in 2021 are still far below numbers recorded in past years.
We did not see similar spikes in what might be considered preventative citations in the other four hotspots. Pazen said each area is unique and requires custom approaches to stem violence.
“Yes, we are focusing on these five hotspots, but the approach is not the exact same because each one of these hotspots has their own unique set of challenges, and we want to make sure we are working in that collaborative way with the other city agencies,” he said.
Last year, anti-violence activists in northeast Denver said shootings and arguments resulted from despair linked to isolation and lost jobs during the pandemic’s darkest days. While safety is a priority for his department, Pazen said his officers aren’t equipped to deal with underlying issues related to mental health and tough economics. He said his department is leaning on agencies like Denver Human Services and the Denver Public Library to help prevent violence in other areas. Last month, officers worked with staffers from Hancock’s office and local business owners to clean up trash in alleyways along Federal Boulevard, hoping to send a message that community leaders are keeping an eye on things.
While murders have not risen to the same heights seen this time last year, assaults have gotten close to breaking records set in 2020.