Police reorg ends homeless camp cleanups
City, county policies unchanged by transient shooting incident on Westside
Despite a shooting involving reportedly drunken transients along Fountain Creek behind the Sonic Drive-In July 19, law enforcement authorities have no plans to
expand efforts to clean up homeless camps in that area or any part of Colorado Springs.
Actually, the opposite is true. Colorado Springs Police, which for the past 10 years has coordinated monthly cleanups with Keep Colorado Springs Beautiful (KCSB), has reassigned the team of officers who used to perform that service.
Other than a sweep planned next week, organized at the request this week of KCSB executive director Deborah Cunningham, no such effort has occurred in the Gold Hill Division (which includes the Westside) since April and none is scheduled in the future - although Cunningham said she will appeal to the Gold Hill division commander that they be continued.
The officers were reassigned under a staff reorganization by new Police Chief Richard Meyers that seeks to put more patrol officers on the streets. As of Aug. 12, the change eliminates the teams they worked with - called neighborhood policing units - in the city's four different divisions, along with the neighborhood resource officers that in the past have also served as contacts to local residents.
“They (the number of homeless camps) will increase, there's no question about that,” said Sgt. Ron Sheppard, who formerly headed up Gold Hill's neighborhood policing unit. “Even when we were doing sweeps, the same camps would build up again. It'll get overrun if they're left for long periods of time.”
The shooting reportedly occurred at about 1:45 p.m. July 19, while an unknown number of diners at the Sonic - roughly 100 feet away - were eating lunch. The Sonic, 3401 W. Colorado Ave., is part of a row of businesses and residences in that area that face onto the avenue and have rear areas that go down nearly to the creek.
According to the Sheriff's Office report, the victim, Shannon Black, 39, was shot twice in his upper left thigh and was treated for the wounds at a local hospital.“The shots reportedly emanated from the wooded area behind the Sonic,” the report reads. “A makeshift camp was found at that location. While checking the camp area, officers located an extremely intoxicated woman, who advised she heard gunshots while she slept. She also advised she saw the victim and a male identified only as 'Adam' in the camp before she passed out from drinking.”
Authorities were still looking for “Adam” this week. In a follow-up Sheriff's Office press release, he is described as in his 30's, with medium build, a beard and dirty blond to reddish-colored hair.
“The victim identified a photo of 'Adam' as 'the man who shot me,' ” the release continues. “The subject is said to frequent West Colorado Avenue, is a transient, and always wears his ball cap on backwards. He should be considered armed and dangerous.”
Asked about the issue, County Commissioner Sallie Clark, also a Westside businesswoman, described it as “a huge concern for me. I think we need to take a more proactive approach in terms of law enforcement and keeping the area cleaned up.”
Two years ago, she had supported an effort (which failed for lack of manpower) by the Guardian Angels to establish a presence on the Westside as a non-violent deterrent to crime. The main transient problems then were panhandling from shoppers and stealing from stores. However, she noted, “A shooting is not like shoplifting a couple of pieces of candy. When firearms are being discharged, you don't know where that bullet's going to go.”
The county does not have a cleanup program of its own, according to Sheriff's Office spokesperson Clif Northam. “We frankly have not had many incidents involving transients,” he said. “If we begin to see more problems pop up, then we'll certainly address those and look a litle more closely at mitigation efforts,” he said.
Fountain Creek through the Westside was described by Sheppard as one of the major - though not the worst - places for homeless camps in the Gold Hill Division. “The majority of the big camps are along Monument Valley Trail,” he said, noting that the reason is the “short distance to the soup kitchen” (at the Marion House just east of the Bijou bridge).
Before the monthly sweeps ended in April, KCSB's Cunningham said the area where the shooting occurred had been “immaculate.” A Westside Pioneer walk- through there this week revealed beer bottles, other trash, clothes strewn about, a cooking ring and an arrangement of sticks that could have been used as rudimentary shelter or a place to hang things. Otherwise, the site could have been called beautiful, with the creek flowing placidly past a gently sloping stream bank and tall, shady trees.
Footprints and tire tracks suggested the existence of other locations along Fountain Creek, and indeed, downstream a ways, by Camp Creek's large culvert into Fountain Creek (the only other place the Pioneer looked this week) were found a cooking ring, other old clothes and trash.
The way the sweeps worked, officers from the neighborhood policing unit would check out homeless camp locations and let their denizens know they had to move on. A day or so later, police would come back with up to 20 volunteers from KCSB, who would dispose of any camp items that still remained.
The debris they'd find was often quite unhealthy. Although Northam said that “most of the time transients are out of sight, out of the way and not causing problems for us,” Cunningham believes otherwise. “It's a huge environmental problem,” particularly to the creeks they commonly live beside, she said. “It compromises the water because everything goes into the creek. We find feces, urine, needles, and drugs… If I hear of a child playing in the creek, I quickly educate the parents about it. What the transients do degrades the quality of life.”
She has little sympathy for such people, though she notes that some have obvious mental problems. “It's important to make the point that they're outside by choice, not by chance,” she said, elaborating that numerous help opportunities exist for those who decide not to live that way.
She has nothing but praise for the police she's worked with. “They handle the situations amazingly well,” she said. In her appeal to the Gold Hill Divsion, she plans to ask not only that the sweeps continue, but that the same officers be assigned to them as in the past. “I feel it's a very necessary program to continue,” she said. “Those officers know what's going on. There's no dilly-dallying and they're very effective.”
As for her volunteers, who are often kids working off community service time, the experience can be uplifting. They get to work side by side with police, and sometimes gain enthusiasm at learning that many transients are fathers running away from child support obligations, Cunningham recounted.
Other transient types tend to be alcoholics or fugitives from the law, she said.
When camps get busted, the “residents” don't always go quietly. “Transients are squatters,” Cunningham said. “They feel the place is theirs. There's a lot of confrontation there.”
“There've been some that were violent,” Sheppard said, “in the downtown area normally. But they're usually asleep when we come. Some are aggressive and some are mouthy, but they don't try to fight us.”
Most of the transients are males. Cunningham estimated about 10 percent are female.
The overall numbers are not as high as might be expected. At a given time, there's usually no more than 50 transients around town, she said. What might make the number seem higher is that some of them have several camps. For instance, there's one woman who has five sites. Cunningham recalled her leaving notes on top of her stuff, asking that KCSB leave them alone when they come through. “But we take the stuff anyway,” Cunningham said.
Part of the solution, Clark believes, can come from a joint government effort. But she doesn't think government should bear all the responsibility For example, the property on which the Sonic sits goes all the way back to the creek. “Businesses need to take some action,” she said.
Note: A spokesperson for the West Colorado Avenue Sonic franchise could not be reached in time for this article.
Westside Pioneer article