Denver’s violent growing pains Part I
By now Denverites are well aware of the increased violence on downtown streets. It was first publicized as a party problem after 2 a.m. when the bars in Lower Downtown closed and partiers flooded the neighborhood. More recently, confrontations on the 16th Street Mall and drug use along the Cherry Creek Bike Path have increased, brought to us on the five o’clock news, taped by passers-by witnessing the accounts firsthand. Over the next two weeks, La Voz Colorado will feature a perspective of the issues along the 16th Street Mall and the Cherry Creek Bike Path.
16th Street Mall History
During the 1980’s there was literally one restaurant open at 9 p.m. during the week along the 16th Street Mall. In those days one could rent out the entire Union Station which was deserted except for the occasional passenger train or the ski train to Winter Park. High school kids jumped the fence at the old May D&F building (now the Sheraton Hotel) to play broom ball on the ice rink. Punk bands held pop-up concerts in deserted buildings in lower downtown. There wasn’t much violence along the mall when it was founded in 1982, but neither were there many people downtown.
Fast forward to November 2015 when the Downtown Denver Partnership announced that nearly 75,000 people made downtown Denver their home. According to their report, in the five years between 2010 and 2015, downtown residency grew 15 percent. Add to that numerous bars and restaurants along the 16th Street Mall, in the Golden Triangle neighborhood south of Colfax and the revitalization of Lower Downtown and Denver’s city center looks like a mature US city. Accompanying all the positive development downtown has been a marked increase in violent crime on the 16th Street Mall, the city’s number one tourist attraction.
Downtown resident, Mary Karst, expected some of the grit of an urban environment when she moved in to the Spire, but visits to the block-away 16th Street Mall have become tense. “Last time I was there, I felt awful for the police. They were there, but these wanderers/homeless by choice people were almost taunting them. They clearly knew the boundaries not to cross but did everything but cross that line. The police were very professional but it was obvious they couldn’t do more.” Karst and fellow Spire residents are meeting this week with City officials to pursue solutions.
Last summer, Mayor Hancock urged patience when California tourists were beaten on the mall by a group of youth. In the last few months, mall violence included an April stabbing, a June stabbing, an attack with a PVC pipe in June, and an August fight leaving one man unconscious - with most of the violence caught on camera and posted online. This year, the City has launched a plan to combat the violence. Mayor Michael Hancock announced the effort in a press release saying, “The 16th Street Mall is an iconic and important part of our city, used and enjoyed by tens of thousands of people every day. We will not tolerate the illegal activities that have recently taken place there. This plan will better coordinate City and private-sector resources to make downtown a safer place for everyone.”
Arrests Down from 2015
According to Denver Police Department statistics, the five neighborhoods with the highest crime rates for 2015 are all downtown. The Central Business District, which includes the 16th Street Mall, has the highest crime rate with 280 offenses per square mile. Civic Center has the next highest crime rate with 197 offenses reported.
Earlier this month, La Voz Colorado’s television partner, Denver’s 7 KMGH reported that crime is actually down according to the Denver Police Department. Last July there were 134 arrests compared to 109 this year; a 20% decrease attributed to increased patrols. In an interview with Denver’s 7, 6th District Police Commander, Ronald Saunier stated, “I think the increased presence has moved some of the problem off from the Mall or prevented the actual crimes that are there.”
At a cost of $650,000, Denver Police reports that their foot patrols along the mall will triple in size. In partnership with Denver Police, the Downtown Denver Partnership reports that they are hiring a private security firm at an annual price tag of $1million to supplement the increased police presence.
Besides arrests, in the last few years, police have begun to use ‘area restrictions’ to remove accused perpetrators of crime from certain areas of the city. The 16th Street ban is three blocks wide and encompasses the entire length of the mall. Public officials admit that the ban from the mall does not eradicate crime but more likely moves the issues to another part of the city.
Chris Conner is the Program Administrator for Denver’s Road Home, the Denver agency responsible for mitigating issues around the homeless population. As someone who has worked as a homeless teen outreach worker for Urban Peak and who wrote his master’s thesis on heroin use and homelessness, Conner is one of the region’s most knowledgeable sources on the causes of homelessness and their effect on society. Through a series of meetings he helped organize, Conner has been trying to ensure that the blame for an increase in violence along the 16th Street Mall is not solely attributed to Denver’s homeless population. The group agreed that stories about positive contributions by homeless, like witnessing and reporting crime on the mall, have not been effectively broadcast.
According to Conner, “There are multiple issues that go into the increase in violence downtown. For one, it is a more crowded space and has become a gathering place for all kinds of people passing through, or new to town. Populations traveling in and out of Denver may not be beholden to the spirit of Denver, causing problems for people. In many ways, travelers are jamming it up for the rest of us.”
Conner adds that while the homeless may be an easy target for blame, they are often victimized, “It is important to say that problems of violence and crime are affecting homeless along the mall. They are more often victims of crime rather than perpetrators. Ironically, despite serious issues, homeless perceive the mall as one of the safer places downtown.”
Mayor Hancock agrees, in the press conference on mall safety, he said, “I know people will try to twist who and what we are talking about here today. We are not talking about Denver’s homeless.”