Street Enforcement Team activity raises questions about Denver’s framework for addressing homelessness – The Denver VOICE
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 always described SET as an alternative response model akin to the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program, which is staffed by mental health professionals. But SET’s log shows the team is effectively moving homeless people around the city instead of connecting them to additional services.
Denver VOICE reviewed data from interactions between SET and members of Denver’s unsheltered community in more than 605 locations between September 1, 2021 and February 17, 2022. In total, the team contacted people in 1,248 tents and recreational vehicles and connected 72 people to services. during this time. The team also issued move orders or participated in other law enforcement operations at 417 locations, representing more than two-thirds of total interactions.
For Andy McNulty, a civil rights attorney at Kilmer, Lane & Newman who has filed multiple lawsuits against Denver over its treatment of homeless people, SET’s interactions are emblematic of a deeper issue within the hotel. city - that homelessness is seen as a law enforcement issue and not a housing one.
“Instead of coming from a setting of providing homeless services, they come from a setting where law enforcement is a priority for them,” McNulty told Denver VOICE in an interview. “And that’s a big deal.”
Denver spent about $2.5 million to launch SET last year and has allocated more than $4 million to expand the program in 2022. The team is made up of more than a dozen people from professional backgrounds. varied. SET receives ongoing training from the city from multiple agencies, and its members must pass the city’s Park Ranger Academy, which teaches participants proactive ordinance enforcement.
City leaders said SET is designed to address several issues. First, Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration has made it clear that enforcement of the city’s urban camping ban is a top priority after suspending it for three months in the summer of 2020.
The City is also receiving an increasing number of calls from residents about homeless encampments. Many inside City Hall have called the tone of the calls “angry” in recent months.
Armando Saldate, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Safety, told Denver VOICE in an interview that SET is also responsible for collecting data from Denver’s encampments that will be used to inform future policy. As if the team wasn’t busy enough, Saldate also said his role has become increasingly important as the Denver police force struggles to hire new recruits.
According to a survey by the Colorado Municipal League, more than 80% of major cities struggle to hire police recruits. The main reasons for the struggle are recent changes to Colorado law and changing public perceptions of law enforcement.
“There is a clear need to tackle homeless encampments across our city,” Saldate said. “And we still get hundreds of calls a day to answer them.”
Saldate was instrumental in the creation of SET and was heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the team before being appointed head of the Department of Security (DOS) earlier this year. He tasked the team with building relationships with Denver’s unprotected community and developing its human service delivery model.
But ever since Saldate was named to DOS’ top job, SET oversight has become a problem. Saldate said he doesn’t often review the daily work logs that SET members turn in at the end of their shifts. That task falls to SET supervisor Scott Lawson and Jeff Holiday, who is on loan from the Office of Behavioral Health Strategies within the Department of Public Health and the Environment. Saldate is responsible for investigating complaints registered against SET.
Meanwhile, several entries show SET members doing work that Saldate said they weren’t supposed to do. For example, a contact in November 2021 resulted in an individual being arrested on open warrants, even though the team is not supposed to share this information with the Denver Police Department (DPD). The team also helped DPD enforce the city camping ban in December 2021, although SET is still operating in an unofficial capacity.
“This is nothing new,” Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca told Denver VOICE in a statement to the Daily Labor Log. “The dominance of moving orders on the daily log demonstrates that 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 engage with the community about its law enforcement programs. Groups like the Denver Task Force to Reimagine Policing have called on Denver to reform SET, saying it was started without their input and is an ineffective solution to the city’s housing problems.
When Saldate met with the Denver task force in late January, the group asked him to consider moving SET out of DOS orbit and creating a Neighborhood Safety Office (ONS) to house the program. ONS programs are designed to increase community engagement in public safety debates, particularly those regarding law enforcement tactics.
At the time, Saldate said he would consider the proposal but could make no promises one way or the other as the meeting had taken place before it was confirmed.
When asked by Denver VOICE if he supports the move now, Saldate said it’s “still too early to say” whether such a move is warranted.