Increased police presence and nearly 1,500 arrests have reduced open drug use and loitering at Denver’s Union Station, but city leaders on Wednesday acknowledged the change may not be permanent and said the intense effort at the transit hub has pushed problems elsewhere.
“When we concentrate on one problem area, it can grow in another area,” Armando Saldate, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety, told the City Council’s Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee.
The city has seen this before, Saldate said. When Denver leaders closed Civic Center Park in September, people who hung out there moved to the 16th Street Mall, he said. Increased enforcement along the mall moved people to Union Station. Now, other areas — like Broadway and Colfax Avenue — need increased attention.
“We’re not finished (at Union Station), we’re not going to stop and we recognize that there are problems in other parts of downtown as well,” said Evan Dreyer, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff.
Since the fall, city and Regional Transportation District leaders have focused on the Union Station bus concourse and surrounding areas following an outcry by transit workers and residents about public drug use and homelessness in the area. Police upped their presence in the area and conducted targeted operations, resulting in hundreds of arrests.
Denver police made 1,186 arrests and citations at Union Station between January and July — a 192% increase from the number of arrests made in that same time period in 2021, according to Denver police data presented by Saldate. That’s in addition to 284 arrests made in November and December.
Denver police data requested Wednesday by The Denver Post showed that more than half of the 2022 arrests and citations were for outstanding warrants (393) and possession of drug paraphernalia (279). The other most common violations included possession of less than 4 grams of a controlled substance (77), trespassing (65), shoplifting (43) and assault (26).
Along with increased arrests by police, RTD leaders made a series of changes to the station, such as installing televisions that show security footage and improving lighting. The transit agency also plans to convert stairs to the underground bus terminal into emergency exits and install gates at entrances that will only let people who have paid fares enter.
Transportation officials in December closed the bathrooms in the bus terminal after finding trace amounts of the drug fentanyl, though the amount was too little to be dangerous. RTD general manager and CEO Debra Johnson said Wednesday the restrooms, with upgrades, are scheduled to reopen by the end of the month.
The city and RTD also are working to expand RTD police officers’ enforcement capabilities at Union Station beyond issuing citations for municipal offenses. Newly hired RTD police Chief Joel Fitzgerald Sr. said he planned to increase the number of officers from the department’s current staffing level of 21.
City leaders worry that people experiencing homelessness will again use the bus station as a warm and dry place to stay as the weather turns cold.
“We will see increased activity and increased crowding in the terminal,” Saldate said.
Councilmembers Jaime Torres and Paul Kashmann questioned city leaders about whether substance use and mental health treatment are available to the people contacted by police at Union Station.
Kashmann said for two years he has been trying to get a comprehensive list of mental health and addiction treatment beds available in the metro area, but has never been successful.
“How in the name of God do we address our greatest crises as a community when we don’t know where these are?” he said.
None of the city officials in the audience offered Kashmann further information about the number of addiction and mental health treatment beds available.
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