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Street Enforcement Team activity raises questions about Denver’s response to homelessness

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Individuals prepare for the City of Denver to sweep their encampment.
Photo by D. Giles Clasen

DENVER — A review of the Street Enforcement Team’s (SET) daily work log raises questions about Denver’s framework for responding to homelessness. 

Denver officials have consistently described SET as an alternative response model akin to the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program, which is comprised of mental health professionals. But SET’s log shows the team is effectively shuffling people experiencing homelessness around the city instead of connecting them with additional services.

Denver VOICE reviewed data from interactions between SET and members of Denver’s unsheltered community at more than 605 locations between September 1, 2021, and February 17, 2022. In all, the team contacted people at 1,248 tents and recreational vehicles and connected 72 individuals to services during that time. The team also gave move-along orders or assisted in other enforcement operations at 417 locations, representing more than two-thirds of the total interactions. 

To Andy McNulty, a civil rights lawyer with Kilmer, Lane & Newman, who has filed several lawsuits against Denver over its treatment of people experiencing homelessness, SET’s interactions are emblematic of a deeper problem within City Hall – that homelessness is viewed as a law enforcement issue and not one about housing.

“Instead of coming from a framework of offering services to people experiencing homelessness, they’re coming from a framework where enforcing the law is on the top of their minds,” McNulty told Denver VOICE in an interview. “And that’s a big problem.”

Denver spent approximately $2.5 million to launch SET last year and allocated more than $4 million to expand the program in 2022. The team is comprised of more than a dozen individuals of varying professional backgrounds. SET receives ongoing city training from several agencies and its members are required to pass the city’s Park Ranger Academy, which teaches participants about proactive ordinance enforcement. 

City leaders have said SET is designed to respond to several issues. First, Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration made it clear that enforcing the city’s urban camping ban is a priority of theirs after they suspended it for three months during the summer of 2020.

The city is also receiving an increasing number of calls from residents about homeless encampments. Many people inside City Hall have described the tone of these calls as “angry” in recent months. 

Armando Saldate, the executive director of Denver’s Department of Public Safety, told Denver VOICE in an interview that SET is also responsible for collecting data on Denver’s encampments that will be used to inform future policies. As if the team isn’t busy enough, Saldate also said their role is becoming increasingly important as Denver’s police force struggles to hire new recruits. 

According to a survey by the Colorado Municipal League, more than 80% of large cities are struggling to hire police recruits. The biggest reasons for the struggle are recent changes to Colorado law and evolving public perceptions of law enforcement. 

“There’s an obvious need to address homeless encampments all across our city,” Saldate said. “And we are still getting hundreds of calls per day to address them.”

Saldate was instrumental in creating SET and was heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the team before he was appointed to lead the Department of Safety (DOS) at the beginning of the year. He tasked the team with building rapport with Denver’s unsheltered community and developed its human service delivery model. 

But since Saldate was nominated to the top post at DOS, oversight of SET has become an issue. Saldate said he doesn’t often review the daily work logs SET members turn in at the end of their shifts. That task falls to SET’s supervisor, Scott Lawson, and Jeff Holiday, who is on loan from the Office of Behavioral Health Strategies inside the Department of Public Health and Environment. Saldate is responsible for reviewing complaints that are logged against SET. 

Meanwhile, several entries show SET members performing work that Saldate said they are not supposed to perform. For example, one contact in November 2021 resulted in an individual being arrested for open warrants, even though the team is not supposed to share that information with the Denver Police Department (DPD). The team also assisted DPD with an urban camping ban enforcement in December 2021, even though SET is still operating in an unofficial capacity. 

“This is nothing new,” Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca told Denver VOICE in a statement about the daily work log. “The predominance of move-along orders on the daily log demonstrates that the SET is just another tool for the City to sweep its most vulnerable people from block to block.”

The way Denver launched SET also raises questions about the city’s willingness to dialogue with the community about its law enforcement programs. Groups like the Denver Task Force to Reimagine Policing have been calling on Denver to reform SET, saying that it was launched without their input and is an ineffective solution to the city’s housing problems.

When Saldate met with the Denver Task Force at the end of January, the group asked him to consider moving SET out of the DOS orbit and create an Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) to house the program. ONS programs are designed to increase community engagement in public safety debates, especially those concerning law enforcement tactics. 

At the time, Saldate said he would consider the proposal but couldn’t make any promises one way or the other, because the meeting occurred before he was confirmed. 

When asked by Denver VOICE if he supported the move now, Saldate said, it is “still too early to tell” whether such a move is warranted.

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