Crime at Union Station: Have 1,200 arrests and citations changed anything?

Police officers from the Regional Transportation District walked slowly through Union Station’s underground bus terminal at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, rousing people from sleep. The air smelled of weed and chemicals. The fluorescent lights cast a blue hue on the people inside.

The officers gently shook people sleeping slumped on benches or on the floor, one man with a red lighter in his hand. Another man slept sitting upright on a bench designed to deter sleeping, a square of foil in his hand. An officer woke up a man curled in a bike trailer, only his shoes poking out from under the blankets.

“Hello?” Officer Stephen Johnson said. “Are you OK?”

Eventually, the men stood up, gathered their things and walked away.

It’s a scene that plays out daily in Denver’s largest transit hub, where police have made more than 1,200 arrests and citations in the past six months in a concerted effort to curb drug use and stop people without housing from using the public space as a shelter.

The arrests followed demands late last year by transportation workers — who called Union Station a “lawless hellhole” — and people who lived near the transit hub that city leaders do something. Those in power listened. The mayor ordered Denver police to step up patrols. RTD leaders crafted new ways to restrict non-passengers from the area.

Police, city leaders and people who live in the area say they know they can’t arrest their way out of unmet housing, substance-use treatment and mental health needs. Nonetheless, Denver police made 828 arrests and issued 390 tickets in the vicinity of Union Station in the six-month period between Nov. 1 and April 30.

Despite stated goals of focusing on violent crimes and drug dealing, Denver police arrest data shows that the majority of arrests were for other crimes: outstanding warrants, possession of drug paraphernalia, drug possession and trespassing. The data also shows that many people are being arrested and ticketed multiple times at Union Station — a quarter of the 798 individual adults who were arrested or ticketed were taken into custody or received a citation at least twice.

The focused enforcement has improved the situation, police and residents said. Drug use and calls for police services at Union Station have decreased, from a high of 2,669 calls in December to 1,634 in April, RTD data shows. Some of the people who use Union Station as a shelter and gathering space have left the immediate vicinity.

“It’s a lot better,” said Jerry Orten, president of the Lower Downtown Neighborhood Association. “There are still issues in Union Station and in Lower Downtown, but they are not anything like they were in the prior year and, particularly, last fall.”

But defense attorneys, advocates for people experiencing homelessness and even some police question the long-term effectiveness of the arrests, which are pushing people away from Union Station and into other areas.

The arrests at Union Station disproportionately targeted Denver’s poorest and most vulnerable, said Tristan Gorman, policy coordinator for the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. Fining someone or sending them to jail for minor crimes does not fix the underlying problems, she said. The arrested people still come back out onto the streets eventually, this time with a longer criminal record and owing fines and fees.

“In our society, it’s very expensive to be poor,” she said. “It’s also criminalized to be unhoused, to have a substance-use disorder.”

About an hour after officers told him to leave the bus concourse, the man with the red lighter sat just outside the concourse’s entrance near Chestnut Street. Jess Odom said he’s spent many days and nights in and near Union Station since he became homeless three years ago. He said he understands why police asked him to leave, as they have done many times before.

“I really do think the community is doing the best it can,” he said. “Nobody wants to see this. But we’re here.”

Odom feels trapped. He’s not allowed to stay on the streets. He feels that he can’t stay in the shelters, many of which require some level of sobriety. But it’s nearly impossible to kick an addiction while living on the streets.

So he sticks around the Union Station area, where he feels relatively safe, even though he’s been temporarily banned from RTD property for prior arrests.

“It’s just a big game of cat-and-mouse,” he said. “We’re not allowed to be anywhere.”

Who’s being arrested? And why?

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and police Chief Paul Pazen promised “firm compassion” in enforcement efforts that would help those with substance-use disorders and mental health needs.

“Our ongoing efforts will continue to focus on violent, property and narcotics-related crimes in the area, with an emphasis on holding accountable individuals who prey upon those suffering from addiction,” Pazen said in a Feb. 24 news release about arrests at Union Station.

But Denver police data shows arrests and citations for drug distribution and violent crimes represent a small sliver of the total enforcement actions. Of 1,218 arrests and citations in the past six months, Denver police arrested 38 people on suspicion of drug distribution — about 3% of all police actions — and 60 people on allegations of violent crime, or about 5%.

When asked about the data, Denver police spokesman Doug Schepman said in a statement that the department’s focus at Union Station continues to be crime deterrence through high-visibility patrols and prompt response to crimes.

“DPD continues conducting drug distribution enforcement operations in the area, and it’s important to note that distribution cases are more challenging than possession cases,” he said.

The most common reasons for arrests and citations were active warrants (410), possession of drug paraphernalia (284), drug possession (134) and trespassing (70). Denver police data does not specify what charges are connected to the warrants. Other less-common offenses run the gamut: aiding unlawful public consumption of alcohol, possession of burglary tools, motor vehicle theft, having a vehicle without registration, shoplifting, smoking indoors.

The most common violent crimes were assault (37) and menacing (8). Police arrested a murder suspect in the area, though the homicide occurred in southwest Denver, and have recovered at least 17 guns that were possessed illegally.

Probable cause statements for some of the arrestees show they were arrested for small amounts of drugs, like single fentanyl pills, or for possessing pipes and foil, which can be used to smoke drugs.

Officers contacted one man because he had a piece of foil in his hand and detained him. When they searched him, they found pipes and a piece of foil with remnants of suspected fentanyl. Warrants also show Denver police conducted several undercover buys of meth and fentanyl, which led to the later arrests of the sellers.

Denver police Cmdr. Kimberly Bowser, whose police district includes Union Station, said she thinks the arrests — even for petty offenses — work as a deterrent. She pointed to a drop in calls for service in the area as proof. Arrests, too, have decreased.

The average number of daily arrests and citations in the Union Station area peaked in late February with arrests averaging around 15 a day. Denver police made an average of three arrests a day in the last week of April, which is similar to the average number in early November.

“We’ve been able to step back just a hair because we are seeing success,” she said.

Bowser and RTD police Interim Chief Steven Martingano also credited some of the change at Union Station to a number of factors besides arrests: increased social services outreach; the return of workers and tourists who were absent downtown earlier in the pandemic; and the seasonal shift to warmer weather, when people without homes rely less on public indoor spaces for shelter and warmth.

“Arrests are not the only answer, obviously with these really complex issues it requires a multi-pronged approach,” Bowser said. “That’s why I like talking about enforcement and outreach.”

Denver police are not tracking how many people have been referred to social services by officers, Bowser said.

“It’s a revolving door”

The targeted enforcement did not deter all people from the area even after they were arrested. Of the 798 adults arrested or ticketed in the six-month period, 215 were arrested or ticketed at least twice and 49 were arrested or ticketed at least four times.

“It’s a revolving door in the criminal legal system and this is a good example of that premise,” said Gorman, of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar.

One 24-year-old woman was arrested or cited at Union Station nine times in six months: three times for warrants and six times for drug paraphernalia. She was first arrested on Dec. 22 and she was ticketed most recently on April 27. Between 2 p.m. Jan. 11 and 7 p.m. Jan. 12, she was ticketed twice and arrested once — all for drug paraphernalia, which carries a $100 fine and no possibility of jail time.

Her arrest history is comprised solely of trespassing, minor drug charges, making a false report, and arrests for failing to appear in court for those charges, according to records maintained by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Denver police on Feb. 24 announced a “large-scale enforcement operation” that resulted in the arrest of 43 people, including eight suspected of selling drugs. As of May 4, five of those people remained in the Denver Downtown Detention Center.

The majority of the criminal cases are ongoing, though four have been sentenced. One man pleaded guilty to possession of drugs with the intent to distribute and received two years of unsupervised probation as well as credit for 61 days he already served in jail, court records show. Two men, arrested on warrants and possession of drug paraphernalia, had their cases dismissed because of cases they had pending in other jurisdictions. The fourth man received 10 days in jail for drug possession and use.

Thirteen of the 43 have been re-arrested at Union Station since Feb. 24.

RTD police officers have noticed people who used to hang out at Union Station in other locations along the light rail and bus routes they patrol. On Tuesday, RTD police and Lakewood police officers targeted the Lakewood-Wadsworth light rail platform, which has seen increased drug use and loitering in recent weeks, said Johnson, the RTD police officer.

“It’s gotten better down at Union Station but, like the homeless sweeps, it pushes people somewhere else,” Johnson said.

Police officers and RTD security aim to connect people with services and to lead with compassion, Martingano said. RTD employs four mental health clinicians and a homeless outreach coordinator who work with police to help people. But sometimes police have to resort to arrests or citations, he said.

“It’s been months and months and months of trying to direct individuals to the proper services that are provided,” Martingano said. “There comes a point where it’s like, you know what, we have to figure out what plan B is. It’s kinda like telling your kid, ‘If you don’t study, I’m going to shut the TV off.’ Then you actually have to turn off the TV and they’ll be like, ‘Whoa, OK, I’ll study.’”

Denver police will continue to monitor the Union Station area, Bowser said. If calls for service increase when the temperatures drop in the fall, officers will up enforcement again.

“That downstairs was too much”

Some of the most vocal people who have been calling for increased police activity at Union Station say the situation has improved dramatically since the fall.

Six months ago, every time Allyson Thorn visited the Whole Foods at 17th and Wewatta streets across from her building, she would see several people being kicked out or apprehended. She hasn’t seen that in at least a month, she said Wednesday.

Orten, the president of the Lower Downtown Neighborhood Association, saw open use of drugs and public masturbation. Trash piled on the streets, as did human waste and vomit. Orten and Thorn both live at the Coloradan, the ritzy 19-story condo building at Wewatta and 18th streets.

“Most of the people you walked by were relatively harmless because they were so out of it,” Orten said. Assaults happened, he said, but rarely.

Over the last six months, Orten urged the residents of Lower Downtown to report concerns to the police and to contact the mayor, the city attorney, state legislators and the governor. It worked, he said.

“We have encouraged our people to raise their voices with them,” Orten said. “And they have. I think the public and elected officials are having an awareness — not just downtown but citywide — of what citizens are asking for.”

He credited the change in the area in part to the increased law enforcement presence and arrests as well as the increased number of people out and about downtown and in Union Station.

Although there may be fewer problems than in the fall, drug use and sales continue in the area, particularly in the underground bus concourse.

Inside the bus terminal Wednesday, Deliaha Nunn, pushed her 1-year-old in a stroller and shepherded her 7-year-old daughter past a man in the middle of the concourse screaming for tissues. A few minutes later, she saw someone smoking off a piece of foil. She went upstairs to wait for her daughter’s father to arrive on a bus, to avoid the yelling and the drugs.

“I don’t want my daughter down there,” she said. “That downstairs was too much.”

Nunn has lived in Denver for 29 years and comes to Union Station frequently from her home near 27th and Williams streets. She started seeing more drug use after Greyhound moved its operations to Union Station in 2020 and after the city closed Civic Center Park in September. She believes the city is trying to improve the area but wished police were more present in the bus concourse.

“The situation would probably be better if they would do their jobs,” she said, gesturing to a group of five RTD security guards standing and talking nearby.

Josh Moore sat on the floor in the bus concourse Thursday waiting for a bus to Pueblo and watched the police ask people to leave. He said he felt safe in the concourse and sympathized with the people police were asking to move along — he used to be homeless in Denver, too.

Last year, he spent his days working day labor and his nights sleeping on the streets near East Colfax Avenue and High Street or in the bushes at the Sculpture Park, where the 50-foot white statues of dancing figures loom above Speer Boulevard.

He decided to change his life after someone stole his shoes while he slept, forcing him to walk barefoot through downtown. With help from family, he’s since found housing and stability living in Indiana. He hopes the people being kicked out can find the same.

“I hope the best for them,” he said.

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