Denver police on why officers took homeless people’s blankets: They “were violating the law and needed to move”

Police officers talk to Terese Howard as they give her warnings to vacate. Protesters who have set up camp in front of the City and County Building to denounce Denver's urban camping ban are removed by police. Nov. 29, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)camping ban; right to rest; homeless sweeps; city and county building; police; protest; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
Police officers talk to Terese Howard as they give her warnings to vacate. Protestors who have set up camp in front of the City and County Building to denounce Denver's urban camping ban are removed by police. Nov. 29, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) homeless sweeps; city and county building; police; protest; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;
Police officers talk to Terese Howard as they give her warnings to vacate. Protestors who have set up camp in front of the City and County Building to denounce Denver’s urban camping ban are removed by police. Nov. 29, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Denver Police Department is responding to widespread anger over video that showed officers confiscating blankets from several people on a cold night.

The controversy started on Nov. 28 with a protest outside of the City and County Building, where several people — some or all of them homeless — had set up camp for the night. Camping on public property is generally illegal in Denver. The protest was against the city’s practice of moving people — or sweeping them — from various sidewalks and other places.

Police officers then and now said they were taking the blankets as evidence of violation of the camping ban. (See the video here.)

On Dec. 10, about two weeks afterward, Mayor Michael Hancock announced that he had ordered a temporary end to any confiscations of survival gear and to stop enforcing the camping ban through the end of winter.

(Correction: I earlier said the video’s spread “prompted” Hancock to act. I don’t have any reporting to show that the video’s popularity was actually the reason, so I shouldn’t have made that claim.)

Jenna Espinoza, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, says that Hancock decided to forbid further confiscations because the weather was getting colder, not because of the video’s spread.

“Following the protest outside of the City and County Building, temperatures dipped below freezing and in effort to not put people in further danger, we adjusted enforcement to no longer confiscate belongings as evidence. We never intended to take the belongings that people need to keep warm,” she wrote in an email.

“It wasn’t the spread of any video that we made this call. It was because of the change in temperature and the moral obligation that we have as a city to try and protect our residents.”

Last night, the police issued their longest statement yet on the matter.

“The Denver Police Department appreciates the community’s concern regarding the video of officers removing blankets from people camping out in front of the Denver City and County Building …,” it reads.

The statement says the city’s goal is to get people living on the streets into “services and shelter, of which there is an adequate amount.” It notes that most contact between officers and homeless people is about providing assistance, “not taking blankets and personal items.” (However, items often are confiscated during the sweeps.)

The police statement blames the “situation in the video” on the fact that “individuals chose to illegally camp” outside the building “as a means of protest after being cited for unauthorized camping at a separate location.” The statement says that “several warnings” were issued and that officers offered assistance over about four hours. The individuals “were advised that they were violating the law and needed to move.”

The statement does not explain why the blankets had to be physically confiscated as evidence or why the police couldn’t document the offense some other way. The statement notes that the department has contacted more than 4,700 people “related to unauthorized camping” this year and has issued citations to nine.

Andrew Kenney

Author: Andrew Kenney

Andrew Kenney writes about public spaces, Denver phenomena and whatever else. He previously worked for six years as a reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. His most prized possession is his collection of bizarre voicemail. Leave him one at 303-502-2803, or email akenney@denverite.com.