04/18/2012 02:19 pm ET Updated Apr 18, 2012

Denver Camping Ban Faces Police Department Scrutiny, 'Passive' Enforcement Approach

A controversial proposal to "ban unauthorized camping" in the city of Denver that has drawn criticism from the ACLU of Colorado and homeless-rights advocates now faces additional scrutiny from the Denver Police Department. The measure, critics contend, will only criminalize homelessness and not address underlying issues which cause homelessness in the first place.

The ordinance, still under consideration by the Denver City Council, would make it illegal for anyone to sleep in sleeping bags, tents, or other constructed outdoor shelters anywhere where camping is unauthorized. This includes alleys, sidewalks, public city parks and outdoor malls, locations where primarily homeless individuals would sleep overnight.

If passed, Denver Police officers don't seem inclined to arrest people sleeping on the street. Though Denver Police Chief Robert White has yet to announce formal police policy relating to the ordinance, he said the department was taking a "passive" approach to the measure at a City Council meeting Tuesday, and that "the last thing officers want to do is arrest someone for being homeless."

Based on this statement, Chief White doesn't appear to have said much of anything: the fact that police don't want to arrest someone doesn't mean they won't. And for a police force frequently charged with use of excessive force, noncommittal a priori statements of pacifism should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Denver Post reports that homeless advocates, in addition to denouncing the spirit of the proposed law, argue there's no need for the ordinance especially if there's no intent to enforce it.

Denver already has anti-panhandling laws, one of which--a "sit and lie" ordinance--prohibits sitting or lying on sidewalks downtown between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. That law is rarely enforced beyond verbal and written warnings from officers.

Denver has a visible homeless population. When homeless individuals take over a public space, at best the result is an eyesore and at worst threatens public safety. A survey conducted in 2011 numbered the region's homeless at north of 11,300 people, an estimated 28 percent of whom sleep outside.

Bennie Milliner, executive director of Denver's Road Home, an advocacy group aimed at ending homelessness in Denver, fears Denver's already-stressed shelters would be unable to meet demand if the measure passes. Milliner told Westword that even if the city doubled its current shelter capacity, it would still not reach the necessary number.

In an early-April letter, Hancock elaborated on the proposed ban, noting his personal experience with the issue:

Having been homeless as a child, I will always take a thoughtful and compassionate approach to this issue. While the proposed ordinance would prohibit camping on public and private property without specific permission, I am also insisting on safeguards to protect people from unfair or unjust treatment.

Mayor Hancock faces additional blowback on the proposal from Occupy Denver, a group with many homeless members. "The lack of funding and infrastructure will lead to the criminalization of our homeless by council fiat," stated the group in an open letter to the mayor. "In a city struggling to identify and overcome police brutality, it is difficult to see how our homeless sisters and brothers will be protected from 'unjust treatment' and 'putative action.'"