Just after 9 a.m. Thursday, RTD transit police Sgt. Andrew Cross got a call on his radio. There were reports of a man outside the Union Station bus terminal threatening to kill people.
“This is a daily occurrence,” Cross said as he and RTD officer Stephen Johnson made their way toward the western end of the Union Station campus, “usually many, many times a day.”
The officers caught up to the man near 17th Street and Chestnut Place. RTD has on-staff mental health clinicians but the man wasn’t interested in speaking with one of them, Cross said. The officers followed him until he headed south in the direction of the 16th Street Mall, off the station grounds.
“It’s not a crime to have a mental health problem,” Cross said. “This is kind of what we end up doing. We kind of play ping pong with them to get them off the property.”
RTD officials, neighborhood residents and area business owners are in agreement: Union Station is in crisis. Open drug use, drug sales and threatening behavior are commonplace and making Denver’s main transit hub — a campus that underwent a more than $450 million upgrade less than a decade ago — unsafe for people who pass through it and work there.
“I have experienced this first-hand,” RTD CEO and General Manager Debra Johnson told The Denver Post. “There’s is just blatant illegal activity and unwelcome activities from underserved individuals.”
Efforts are ramping up to try to stem the tide.
Under Johnson’s guidance, the agency has partnered with Transportation Security Administration to bring in special teams of air marshals to patrol the property. The armed Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response, or VIPR, teams don’t have authority to enforce local laws but are intended to provide extra eyes and support backing up RTD’s own officers, contracted security guards and off-duty Denver police officers working second jobs.
The teams will be deployed around the station at least through the end of the year, Johnson said. RTD and TSA officials declined to say how many of the agents are committed to the effort but a memo sent out by Johnson in November said the teams will consist of three to seven members paired with an RTD officer. The teams are federally funded, officials said, a plus for the cash-strapped transit agency.
RTD is also looking to boost the security presence around the station by bringing in the Guardian Angels, the red-clad volunteer group dedicated to providing extra eyes for public safety. The group was set to start patrolling Union Station and RTD’s free MallRide shuttle last week, Johnson said Wednesday.
“RTD wants to ensure that our customers, the general public and our employees can enjoy clean and safe environments,” Johnson said.
The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, which represents about 2,300 RTD drivers, light rail operators, mechanics and other employees, issued a bulletin last week highlighting members’ rights to refuse unsafe work.
Angie Rivera-Malpiede, RTD’s board chair and the elected director for the district that includes Union Station, said curtailing the public drug use and other safety concerns on the campus is an urgent problem. It doesn’t just impact her district, but RTD’s entire network and the metro area at large.
“This is a great opportunity for the community to come together to address some real issues to support our most vulnerable population and, at the same time, provide safety and security at the hub of our community,” she said.
Shortly after interacting with the man reported for making threats near the light rail platform Thursday morning, Sgt. Cross and officer Johnson headed downstairs into the Union Station’s underground bus terminal.
They approached two men sitting on the floor, one appearing to be asleep. Between the two sat a burnt piece of foil and a lighter, evidence of recent drug use.
“You’re sitting there using narcotics,” Cross said as the two men rose to their feet and gathered their things to leave. “You can’t do that inside.”
Down the hall, in the public restroom, Johnson caught three men in one stall trying to smoke an unknown substance off of a piece of foil. Johnson has been part of the RTD police for a few years, but he said things have never been this bad at Union Station. He’s preparing for a long winter.
“Cold weather will drive people down into the bus terminal and things will get worse,” he said.
Outside the restroom, Robert Lamer, of Kearney, Neb., shook his head. The 37-year-old was stopping over in Denver before boarding a bus to visit relatives in Kansas, he said. Just after his arrival, he was approached by men who offered to sell him drugs.
“It’s like a zoo, honestly. It seems like they do anything they want,” Lamer said. “It honestly doesn’t look like it would be a bad little bus station if it weren’t for all that.”
Calls for emergency services in the underground bus terminal rose more than 96% in October over September, according to Bob Grado, chief of the RTD transit police. There were 971 incidents in October, up from 495 the month prior. There were 872 calls for service in the bus concourse in September and October 2020 combined, according to Grado. Drug activity was far and away the leading reason for emergency calls this fall.
The chief doesn’t think it’s a coincidence Union Station has seen an increased presence of people experiencing homeless and more public drug use since the city of Denver shut down Civic Center park in September. While his focus is on RTD property, he knows it’s bigger than just Union Station.
“The downtown area is a gathering place for folks with addiction and unhoused people with mental illness, sometimes exacerbated by drugs and intoxication,” Grado said. “But what we’re experiencing right now, I’ve never seen anything like it. RTD is a victim just like the businesses downtown and the people who live there.”
“They need more resources”
Bringing in TSA teams is a step in the right direction because the RTD police force is small, only about 20 officers when excluding secondary employment officers from Denver and Aurora, Grado said. The department is working to grow its ranks but recruitment in Colorado is tough.
Compounding challenges for RTD officers, Grado said, is that the state legislature downgraded possession of small amounts of drugs from felonies to misdemeanors and the Denver Department of Public Safety has not granted the department authority to issue tickets for drug-related offenses.
The depth of the problem has the chief thinking of other possible solutions. He noted that New York City has just opened supervised injection sites in Manhattan.
“Some people are using us for safe injection sites because we’re there to rescue them,” in the event of an overdose, Grado said.
The city’s safety department is discussing options around what can be done to support RTD police and allow them to safely respond to calls, spokeswoman Kelly Jacobs said in an email Friday.
Jacobs’ email arrived shortly after Mayor Michael Hancock put out a statement on social media announcing he had sent his chief of staff and public safety director Murphy Robinson to meet with RTD and union officials about the conditions at the station. Denver police will be taking a more active role there, according to the mayor.
“To commence immediately, Police Chief (Paul) Pazen will increase police presence around Union Station to augment RTD in its effort to address illegal and unsafe behaviors within the terminal,” Hancock said in the statement.
Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, whose district includes Union Station, said she was in the area on Thanksgiving passing out meals to homeless people. People were hard to find on the station campus that day, CdeBaca said, but she did see the trailer that RTD police are using a mobile command center parked outside. The trailer is another visible tool the department hopes will deter drug use and other activity there.
CdeBaca said that she hadn’t heard anything about RTD’s plans to bring in TSA teams and the Guardian Angels until a Denver Post reporter contacted her.
“I don’t currently know how to feel about it,” CdeBaca said. “I’m frustrated that we weren’t contacted. I am unclear on what these entities are going to be able to do and how they are going engage with neighbors.”
One group of neighbors is already expressing optimism about RTD efforts to step up visible enforcement.
The Lower Downtown Neighborhood Association’s Safe, Clean and Compassionate committee formed as an outgrowth of the concerns of people living in the Coloradan condos and other buildings around Union Station, founding member Billy Kurz said.
The group’s aim is to work with RTD, the Downtown Denver Partnership, business owners and other groups to put pressure on elected officials to do more about problems around the station. According to a Change.org petition launched by Kurz, that includes providing more resources for those who are homeless, empowering police to “enforce the law” and “(reinstating) pre-pandemic policies and procedures at the Denver jail regarding inmate retention.”
The goal, Kurz said, is to restore Union Station to the gleaming public gathering place it was when it was first reopened in 2014.
“A perfect storm has taken place to make it not a clean and safe place right now,” Kurz said. “We want to do something about it and we believe we can.”
The Union Station campus is more than a transit hub. The historic station building is also home to retailers, restaurants and the Crawford Hotel. The great hall space is privately leased and operated, utilizing its own security. When contacted about the issues on the campus, Sage Hospitality Group, the company that operates the hotel, wrote in an emailed statement, “We support the ongoing efforts of the Denver Police Department and RTD who manage the security of the public transit areas and outdoor plazas.”
Other business owners have been more pointed in the criticism of the state of the area.
Fast-casual Asian food chain Teriyaki Madness shut down its location across from the station in June. CEO Michael Haith later told BusinessDen, “The homeless issue down in that area was unsafe. We had a terrible time operating the restaurant, and we didn’t see any end in sight. I will not mince words.”
Eva Doyle walked her dog, Gus, along Wewatta Street on Thursday morning, something she does four times a day. The 28-year-old lives in the apartment building atop the Whole Foods Market store there.
“It’s just tough. I feel torn. There is such a huge problem with people experiencing homelessness. They need more resources,” Doyle said of the conditions in her neighborhood. “But I’m a young woman who goes out at night with a dog so it is a little bit alarming.”
She pointed to the fencing surrounding the garden area in the middle of the block, something put in place by the Central Platte Valley Metropolitan District in part to deter drug use, officials say.
“It’s just a bummer if you’re just trying to enjoy the area,” Doyle said. She plans to move out of the neighborhood when her lease is up.
After Cross and Johnson cleared the bathroom in the bus terminal Thursday morning, they went up a stairwell and out onto the Chestnut Street side of the property, sending a group of men gathered there scattering.
“Hey, I told them to pick up their garbage,” River Walker, 20, said to the officers, stooping over to pick some up himself.
Walker said he used to be homeless and a drug user but has since found a job at a fast-food restaurant and place to live in east Denver. He visits Union Station regularly to check in with friends still trapped in the “hellhole of this lifestyle” and provide food and hygiene products when he can. On Thursday, he was handing out ice cream bars.
“I may only be getting paid minimum wage but I’m saving a lot of money not spending it on drugs,” he said.
Walker lost his father to a heroin overdose. He hopes people are compassionate when they see others living on the streets struggling with addiction.
“We’re all just people,” Walker said. “They’re not hurting anybody but themselves, you know?”