The battle for Denver’s Union Station: Co-response teams mix compassion and policing

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DENVER • Mental health clinician Lara Cladny stands in the bus terminal below Union Station, trying to reason with a disheveled, barefoot woman. It is midday in early August. The middle-aged woman yells at Cladny to get out of her face.

Several RTD officers now flank Cladny, as the encounter escalates. But she calmly persists in her efforts to find out if she can connect the woman to the services she needs. The woman yells at the mental health worker to shut up.

Cladny steps back. “Absolutely, I can do it,” she said.

Eventually, she gets the woman’s daughter’s name and phone number, asking if the woman would like Cladny to contact her.

“Tell him you’re harassing me,” the woman spits.

“OK. We’re just trying to help you out,” Cladny says.

She quickly cuts off the interaction, realizing that her best intentions have only made the woman’s anger worse.

“We’re dealing with people who are sort of holes to us,” Cladny says, before reconsidering. The people she sees in crisis are not inherently mean; it’s just that she tends to see them instead. the lowest.

“I kind of surprised myself, (saying) that they’re assholes. I realize, no, it’s just that we happen to see them like this all the time. feel like you can’t do this job unless you have empathy.

In recent times, Cladny’s work and that of others in social services, behavioral health outreach and law enforcement at Denver’s iconic train station have come to the fore as they face homelessness, drug use and crime.

When Union Station reopened in 2014, it was hailed as a crown jewel of downtown Denver’s redevelopment, with the famous “Travel by Train” postcard sign once again beckoning. It is the hub of a public transit system that spans 40 cities, eight counties, and 2,500 square miles.

The building’s grand lobby has become something of a civic lounge, with armchairs and rows of long benches, surrounded by high-end businesses including restaurants, bars, a Tattered Cover bookstore outpost and the Crawford , a boutique hotel that overlooks from the second level. Essentially, it has become a destination for visitation – not just a transit hub – including by families to see the annual Christmas tree.

It is the tension between the city’s vision of what the facility has been redesigned, its success and its position at the center of socio-economic struggles that have only intensified during the pandemic that have led to the battle over the future of the historic monument.

In particular, the bus station downstairs has turned Union Station into a flashpoint of debate about crime, safety, homelessness, and drug use in the city. Late last year, the station removed benches from the bus concourse and closed its restrooms due to concerns about drug use.

Numerous drug-related arrests

Denver police made 1,186 arrests at Union Station from January through July this year, according to data recently presented to the city council’s safety committee. More than 800 arrests have been made in the first three months of 2022, including 230 in March. In April, the number fell to 114.

RTD police officers can write tickets, but they cannot make arrests, so if a situation escalates, they call in local law enforcement. About 35% of arrests this year were drug-related.

But it’s outreach workers like Cladny and the RTD officers she works with who bridge the gap between social services and the police.

She works for WellPower, formerly the Denver Mental Health Center, and she is one of four to partner with RTD police officers for outreach work. Police have partnered with WellPower for their co-responsor program since at least 2020, but the program was expanded to four clinicians early last year.

Cladny came to WellPower in March. She relocated from Durango, where she also did mobile crisis work.

RTD Deputy Chief of Police Steve Martingano told The Denver Gazette in an earlier interview that he saw the need for the program when he realized that many of those suspended from using the transit – which can occur for habitual violations of RTD policy or if a person commits a crime on transit property – has displayed disruptive behavior related to mental illness.

He said he would hear from organizations such as WellPower and homeless outreach coordinators about their clients who had been suspended from RTDs but relied on public transportation to get to treatment or work.

WellPower can connect people with case managers, who can connect them with types of services not only for mental health treatment and family services, but also for housing, Medicaid, food stamps and employment services.

Cladny’s encounter was at least the second time RTD teams had seen the woman without shoes that day. Earlier, officers and mental health clinician Leanne Figueroa approached her for a wellness check when Figueroa spotted the woman lying on the train platform near the tram tracks leading to the airport. The woman said she had shingles, accepted a paramedic check-up and continued on her way, refusing any crisis service.

Hours later, after her encounter with Cladny, officers made the choice to evict her from the bus terminal as she became increasingly erratic and disruptive. They followed her into the lobby to make sure she left the property.

“I can help”

Clinicians can’t do much. They practice careful perseverance and connect with people when they can, but they understand that receiving help is ultimately a person’s choice.

“She just wanted a punching bag,” Cladny said, decompressing from the incident.

Cpl. Conrad Vanegas, an RTD officer with the Police Force Mental Health Team, made his rounds that morning primarily with clinicians and other officers from the RTD Mental Health Team, one of four members of the Transit Agency Police Force. A rail team, a bus team and a community team make up the other three. All teams spend time around Union Station when needed, and mental health team officers spend their time looking for people in crisis.

Many RTD officers who work on the mental health team are new to the agency. A 25-year veteran of law enforcement, Vanegas joined the Adams County Sheriff’s Office two years ago. Chance Fitzgerald came from the Aurora Police Department last spring, a few months after Enrique Nino, another former Aurora officer arrived in January.

Vanegas joined RTD because he was drawn to Denver’s diversity. Originally from Lima, Peru, his Spanish is very practical. Once it allowed him to communicate with an elderly man with dementia who spoke no English and had taken a bus to Denver for work, but could not remember how to get home. Vanegas got in touch with the man’s concerned family, who came to pick him up.

“It’s one of the things that makes me happy, that I can help people like that.”

When the RTD Transit Police first trained their impact teams, Sgt. Jessica Chaine, who leads the mental health team, insisted the officers bid to be part of it. Working with people in crisis takes patience and resilience, and it needs agents who are willing to do it.

“And I think the drive to improve in the mental health area,” Chaine said, of the kind of personality it takes. “There are so many different mental health conditions that if you can identify what they struggle with and how best to help them, I think that’s important.”

Awareness and enforcement

Co-responder teams have a different role than community-response programs — like Denver’s Support Team-Assisted Response — which don’t involve police at all. Clinicians paired with RTD officers who spoke with The Denver Gazette generally had a different view of the role they thought police should play.

While proponents of community intervention programs aim to reduce reliance on the police by removing them completely from low-level situations, a few of the WellPower clinicians who work with RTD said they appreciate the feeling of security that the presence of the officers gave them.

“We want to be the faces people see for these situations that don’t necessarily go well with a police response,” Figueroa said. “But… it’s uncomfortable to think of responding to something without law enforcement.”

Climbing the escalator to the Chestnut Pavilion, one of the entrances to the bus terminal, Vanegas reports a burning smell that fills the air.

“It’s fentanyl,” he said. “Maybe six months ago we felt that every day.”

RTD officers carry Narcan, a drug to reverse opioid overdoses.

Advocates for harm reduction argue that drug use in public spaces like Union Station is a result of the lack of designated sites, where people can use under the supervision of trained medical personnel, who s ensures people have clean supplies and can intervene if someone overdoses. .

The legislature has so far kept supervised use sites out of Colorado, reflecting national debate over the idea of ​​sanctioning sites designed for drug use.

“A lot of people we talk to have serious addiction issues, and most housing requires you to be sober (or) get a job, and I think that’s the biggest challenge,” Cladny said. .

She wonders what might happen if Denver tried the Housing First experiment that Houston has been testing for the past decade: moving thousands of homeless people directly into apartments and houses — not shelters — without force them to get sober or get a job.

“A lot of people end up staying on the streets, because it’s a lot to ask of someone to deal with their addiction.”

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