The young man tells Colorado Springs Police Officer James Allen that he’s been staying out of trouble. He smiles, his baseball cap pulled low above his eyes. He says to Allen that, if the officer tells him who the troublemakers are, he’ll be on the lookout. Allen politely declines his offer.
The young man then rides his bike ahead of the officer, heading from Antlers Park downtown toward Monument Valley Park, which is the next stop on the officer’s beat.
One of many downtown loiterers he knows by name, Allen explains he cited the man earlier in the week for smoking marijuana in public. And by the time Allen approaches Monument Valley Park from the south, the subject is heading toward Bijou Street, having already made his rounds.
“What he’s done is, he’s gone through this entire section of the park and told everybody the police are coming,” Allen said.
More calls, more crime?
It’s been the better half of a year since the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Peak Station opened at 6 N. Tejon St. According to Lt. Jeff Jensen, the department’s increased downtown presence, its shorter response times and its Downtown Area Response Team, or DART, have made a marked difference in what many considered a business district in decline.
“Historically speaking, the police department recognized that downtown had a lot of calls for service,” Jensen said. “That had been the basis for discussions that were taking place early last year.”
Crimes related to vagrancy, such as drug sales and use, were (and still are) common calls throughout any given day. At night, fights in front of bars, as well as vandalism make up the bulk of complaints.
To combat the complaints, DART officers assigned to the substation now police the downtown and West Colorado Avenue corridors from 7 a.m. through 3 a.m. Shifts vary by season and beats are inconsistent in order to keep potential perpetrators off-guard, Jensen said.
Staffing has increased and supervisory positions have been added since the station opened in December.
While numbers are not yet official for the first half of this year, Jensen said he expects calls for service to have increased above the same time last year. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I would not correlate [increased calls] to an increase in crime,” Jensen said, adding the Crime Analysis Unit is compiling the numbers. “I think [the increase is] because the officers are working more closely with the businesses. In the past, people may not have called because they didn’t think it was a good use of police resources or they felt the crime was not on a level to notify the cops.”
Jensen added that parks in and around the city’s core have also undergone significant turnarounds. Gathering places for transients and drug users, Acacia, Antlers and Monument Valley parks are all patrolled daily by DART officers and the department’s Homeless Outreach Team.
Additionally, Acacia Park has been equipped with enhanced lighting and a real-time public surveillance system. The results have been dramatic, Jensen said.
“In my opinion, in my 19 years here, it’s the cleanest I’ve seen it,” he said. “That’s not to say things don’t still occur. But our patrols, the enhanced lighting and the camera system have turned the park around from where you went to look for narcotics to a place where people can go with their families and enjoy.”
Keep it clean
Not everyone is content with the pace of improvements downtown.
L’Aura Montgomery Williams, who owns Lane Mitchell Jewelers with her husband, said they have moved 80 percent of their merchandise from their downtown location to their Manitou Springs store and are contemplating moving out of downtown entirely.
With its office and retail space located adjacent to the 7-Eleven at the corner of Pikes Peak Avenue and Tejon Street, Montgomery Williams said there’s been a noticeable decrease in drug use in the area, which is popular among vagrants and panhandlers. But the Peak Station has not resulted in a cleaner or more welcoming environment for her customers.
“Personally, I don’t think the majority of those people are violent,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what my customers think. And no one seems to be addressing the issues.”
Montgomery Williams said trash accumulates near the building that houses her business and, despite police presence across the street, vagrants still congregate on that corner, litter, sit and sleep in the flower beds and relieve themselves both in front of and even inside the lobby of the building.
“Every day our customers pass cigarette butts, spilled soda, people urinating, dogs using the bathroom in the planters — nobody is cleaning it up,” she said.
Laura Thomason used to operate her business, Pikes Peak Chocolate and Ice Cream, at 125 N. Tejon Street, a block from Acacia Park. She opened the shop in February 2011 before moving it to Manitou Springs less than two years later.
“It was a combination of not having enough walking traffic along with the crime,” Thomason said, adding vagrants kept customers away during the day and she wouldn’t stay open late on weekends because of bar fights and vandalism. Thomason said she often found human waste in the alley behind her business.
Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs, said it is the Partnership’s goal to “create a great, welcoming pedestrian experience,” which means “ensuring things are clean, flowers are blooming and people are safe.”
Edmondson said the partnership plants and maintains flowerbeds, and power washes sidewalks several times a year, as the budget allows.
She added, however, that proprietors have a responsibility to maintain the areas around their businesses, and that issues at the corner of Pikes Peak Avenue and Tejon Street limit resources elsewhere.
“That’s a challenged location,” she said. “We’re there every single day. It gets more attention than any other location, but we have to maintain the entire district as well.”
The partnership contracted with Strategic Alliance Security in Colorado Springs to help patrol downtown, and Edmondson said anecdotal evidence from businesses indicates a more hospitable environment due to increased patrols.
“We’ve heard positive things about response times, the extra presence of eyes on the street and that general [police] accessibility has helped,” she said.
The city last year discussed taking bids for wrought-iron fencing on planters to deter loiterers, but according to City Parking Administrator Greg Warnke, a proposed sit/lay ordinance has replaced the need for those fences.
Aimee Cox, housing and community initiatives manager for the city, said via email, “The Mayor and City Council are exploring an ordinance that would prohibit sitting, lying, kneeling and reclining in the public right of way …” That would include loitering on any surface on any public right of way, any object on the surface of a public right of way and any “street furniture not intended for sitting.”
Cox said the ordinance would apply to specific areas of downtown and Old Colorado City and would be limited to specific hours.
Exceptions would be granted for medical emergencies and disabilities, to name a few, she said.
“Sitting would certainly be permitted on public benches and at transit stops, and sitting, lying, kneeling and reclining would still be permitted in the grassy areas of public parks,” Cox said, adding a draft of the ordinance is tentatively scheduled for presentation to City Council during its Aug. 24 work session.
“At least two public meetings will follow,” Cox said. “The soonest an ordinance would be considered for approval on first reading is Sept. 22. A second reading of the ordinance would follow.
“Disorder does not necessarily cause crime but, because it is visible — trash, people sitting in flowerbeds and sprawling out on the sidewalk — it does tend to send a message to visitors that an area is neglected or unsafe, which in turn, can curtail visitation,” she said.
“Having clean and orderly commercial districts will help to increase visitor traffic and, ultimately, help us sustain vibrant public spaces in our City’s urban core.”