Denver city leaders launch “downtown action team” to address crime, drugs, homelessness

Denver city leaders will dedicate a team of police officers, mental health specialists and security guards to address crime, homelessness and substance use downtown, city leaders announced Thursday.

The team will first focus on the area around the Colorado Convention Center but will gradually expand to all of downtown, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said at a news conference Thursday. The team will bring an increased police presence, more intense substance use and mental health outreach as well as better graffiti and trash mitigation. The response will include multiple city agencies outside of police, he said.

“We have got to arrive at a point where we recognize that some of the folks we’re dealing with are not well,” Hancock said. “Substance misuse — particularly fentanyl, opiates and methamphetamine — are distorting their judgment and their ability to make good decisions. That’s part of the challenge. But because you’re not well doesn’t mean you have a right to make an unsafe and unhealthy condition for everyone else.”

Denver police Chief Ron Thomas did not answer a question about how big the team will be and declined to say how many officers it will include. The team will include substance abuse navigators from the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, the fire department’s medical unit, and WellPower mental health clinicians.

The Downtown Denver Partnership will also improve lighting in the area as well as create temporary security operations centers to increase access to and visibility of security teams.

Downtown is rebounding after the pandemic but the targeted effort is needed to get more people “to work, play and spend their money” downtown, said Kourtny Garrett, president and CEO of the Denver Downtown Partnership.

The response is similar to the city’s focused attention on Union Station last year, Hancock said. Targeted enforcement at the transportation hub resulted in more than 1,200 arrests and citations — the majority for outstanding warrants and low-level drug crimes. City leaders have also acknowledged that the Union Station operation pushed the drug use and loitering they were trying to address to other areas downtown.

Every agency involved will be tracking data to measure the team’s success, Garrett said. But success will also be measured by the feeling on the street, she said.

“It’s an intangible,” she said. “It’s the vibrancy of the street. It’s having people back in our restaurants, it’s having our employees back, it’s getting the energy back in downtown Denver.”

Hancock gave a blunter answer about how he’s measuring success.

He’ll know the team has been successful when he no longer hears about conventions not choosing Denver because of safety concerns. Or when he no longer hears from business owners who don’t want to renew their downtown lease.

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