RTD closes bathrooms, Denver PD steps up presence as agencies grapple with Union Station safety

The Regional Transportation District has shut down the public restrooms in the Union Station bus terminal at least through the end of the year, and the agency is looking into cordoning off a piece of the terminal so it is accessible only to people who have paid fares, officials say.

Meanwhile, Denver police have made “numerous arrests” around the station last week, according to Chief Paul Pazen, as officials work to clamp down on an escalation in drug activity and other unwanted behavior at the city’s troubled central transit hub.

RTD general manager and CEO Debra Johnson updated the agency’s board on efforts to address public safety at Union Station during a meeting on Dec. 7.

The bathrooms in the station’s underground bus terminal were shut on Dec. 3 after testing found trace amounts of the fentanyl on surfaces, Johnson said. While the levels of the narcotic were not dangerous, the agency is using the temporary shutdown to make repairs and install permanent doors on the restrooms.

“The public restrooms will remain closed through the end of the year until such time the doors can be installed and protocols and procedures can be put in place such as a permanent restroom attendant in the form of a security guard,” Johnson told the board last week.

RTD officials are also exploring adding infrastructure in the terminal to create a separate area accessible only to customers who have paid fares. It’s a process that includes looking into “innovative funding sources,” Johnson said. Infrastructure could mean turnstiles or gates, according to RTD spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas.

In an interview with the Denver Post earlier this month, Johnson said the COVID-19 pandemic and issues that have spun off from it have turned Union Station into a place where people with “non destinations” gather, leading paying customers to feel unwelcome and unsafe.

Changes to the terminal space are moving forward as the Denver Police Department steps up its enforcement efforts around the station campus.

Johnson announced at the end of November that RTD was bringing in teams of Transportation Security Agency agents and members of the volunteer Guardian Angels to boost the number of eyes watching for illegal activity around the station even if neither group has the power to enforce local laws.

Mayor Michael Hancock vowed city officials would “redouble our efforts to ensure (Union Station) is clean and safe for all …” in a statement on Dec. 3. That same day, Johnson met with DPD’s Pazen to discuss how the police department could help RTD’s transit police and contract security officers.

DPD officers have since made multiple arrests around the Union Station campus, Pazen said last week, including for drug charges and outstanding warrants. He declined to discuss how many officers were assigned to the area but said the department has also directed a social worker and its substance use navigation team members to spend time there.

“We have committed significant resources to address these issues including narcotics enforcement,” Pazen said. “We’re committed to working with our RTD partners to get these issues addressed appropriately and we will stay engaged until these issues have been mitigated.”

The department’s interactive crime map shows that between Dec. 3 and Wednesday, Dec. 8, 36 crime reports were filed for locations around the Union Station campus. Of those, 15 were drug and alcohol-related offenses. A report does not necessarily mean an arrest was made, DPD spokesman Doug Schepman said in an email.

The restroom shutdown could have consequences for unhoused people, said Cathy Alderman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Without available public facilities in the area, people experiencing homelessness may have to go to the bathroom in alleys and other outdoor areas, something that opens them up to criminal penalties that perpetuate challenges in finding work and getting into stable housing.

“I understand why they may need to do it for a period of time but I hope this isn’t a long-term closure,” Alderman said. “It’s a public space and we should be respectful of that.”

Alderman worries that people assume all the public safety issues at Union Station can be attributed to unhoused people when “there is a lot of criminal activity and drug use that comes from housed individuals that come from elsewhere.”

DPD has seen problems with rampant public drug activity, aggressive behavior and other safety concerns crop up in other neighborhoods around Denver in recent years, Pazen said, mentioning Curtis Park, Capitol Hill, Golden Triangle and the 16th Street Mall.

Until there are “additional consequences, accountability and support for individuals engaging in these types of behavior, these enforcement efforts are likely to push this into a different neighborhood,” Pazen said.

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