Residents criticize diversion center, council praises female officers

David Heitz
Margaret Chavez, a pioneer for Denver police women, accepts a proclamation from the city.City and County of Denver/Denver 8

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Several residents criticized a planned diversion center for people experiencing homelessness during public comment Monday at Denver City Council.

According to Public Safety Executive Director Armando Saldate, the diversion center serves as an alternative to jail. Police will take people experiencing homelessness with non-violent or misdemeanor drug offenses to the center at Elati and 14th Street, across from the jail. The center serves as a booking site.

But instead of being thrown into a jail cell, the diversion center will help connect people experiencing homelessness with services including mental health care, housing, food stamps, and more. Most will be assigned case managers.

Those who criticized the diversion center Monday said it criminalizes homelessness. They pleaded with the city to use the STAR program instead to handle low-level offenses.

The STAR program allows dispatchers to send a paramedic and a mental health professional instead of police on non-violent calls. City officials called the program a success and expanded it last month.

A shift toward integrated policing?

A criminal justice policy professional, Megan Ives, told the council she believes Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen and Saldate shifted from an alternative response to an integrated one. In other words, there will be consequences when people experiencing homelessness break the law.

Ives said STAR is "meant to address safety and substance abuse away from the trauma that incarceration causes." She said the court system harms individuals' progress toward stability.

Ives said the diversion center demonstrates a "lack of understanding of the relationship Denver Police Department has with the homeless community."

Police chief’s son speaks out

Eliot Lapinski, who teaches in Denver and is the son of a former police, said booking homeless people at a diversion center is akin to criminalizing homelessness. He does not understand why the city would use that approach when it has the STAR program.

Lapinski said police took him to an emergency room in 2009. He waited in the exam room for an hour, but a doctor never saw him.

"The ER never gave me services; they said nobody is here to help you, and discharged me," Lapinski said.

Other people have described similar situations during public comment sessions at previous council meetings.

"Expand alternative police response in situations that warrant it," Lapinski pleaded with the council.

Female officers honored

The city also honored female police officers Monday. Councilmember Debbie Ortega read a proclamation honoring Margaret Chavez, who joined the Denver Police Department in 1985. She married a fellow police officer, Kenny Chavez.

Chavez joined the police force when few women considered it. In the early days, she said some men did not want her on patrol with them.

Being a police officer taught her to "always be fair, keep an open mind, be mentally tough, but keep a kind heart."

Chavez said police officers must treat the most vulnerable populations with dignity. "Courage is the spirit to face adversity without fear."

Council President Stacie Gilmore told Chavez she motivated the city to set an important goal. By 2030, police department staffing will be at least 30 women, Gilmore said.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO

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