Activist claims police use smoking ban to harass homeless

The video starts with a barefoot man talking to a uniformed police officer.

The man turns away, the officer reaches for his hand. He jerks away from the officer’s grasp.

“He’s trying to harass me!” he yells to anyone who can hear.

He keeps backing away from the officer with his hands open and raised at his sides. Suddenly, the officer moves in, grabs him by the shoulder and throws him to the ground. The man yells expletives as another officer helps restrain him. A tense, violent struggle ensues, with the officers telling the man to “stop resisting” while kneeing him in the ribs.

Later on in the video — which can be viewed below, NSFW language- the young woman filming the encounter explains to another officer responding to the scene, “[T]his man was not smoking, and he was kicked by your partners for no reason, so I’m very offended.”

The episode was apparently set off because the apparently homeless man — who has not been identified — violated a no-smoking ordinance in a Boulder city park, one of several areas that the Boulder City Council has expanded no-smoking restrictions.

This incident is one of many that has come to concern a local homeless-rights activist, Darren O’Connor, who says that the expansion of Boulder’s municipal smoking ordinance is directed toward areas where the homeless and transient sleep or congregate, while ignoring similar offenses committed by wealthier Boulderites.  Law enforcement officials, including Officer Ryan Lord and Boulder Police Spokesperson Laurie Ogden, reject any accusation of targeting.

O’Connor brought the video to the Boulder City Council’s attention during a council meeting on Sept. 15. O’Connor, an electrical engineer who works at CU Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, is a 21-year Boulder resident who has become an advocate for the unhoused — which is how he prefers to the term “homeless” — through volunteer work with organizations such as Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow and Boulder Rights Watch.

(*He explains that ‘unhoused’ is the term preferred by people living on the street. “Homeless doesn’t cover it, because they have places that feel like home that are outside, they make a home where they are.”)

Darren O'Connor at one of the areas being targeted by the City Manager for smoking ordinance enforcement.

Darren O’Connor at one of the areas being targeted by the City Manager for smoking ordinance enforcement.  Photo Credit: Deepan Dutta/Under The Flatirons

O’Connor came across the video when a friend shared it on Facebook and afterward started doing his own investigation into the smoking ban. He said what he found deeply troubled him. From Boulder County Jail records, it appeared that almost every person charged with a smoking ordinance violation was unhoused.

Under The Flatirons’ own review of records between Sept. 16 and 22, 2015, revealed that eight of nine individuals charged with a smoking violation (or failing to appear for a smoking violation summons) are listed as “homeless” or “transient.”

O’Connor said he believes the city manager expanded the smoking ordinance specifically to areas where the unhoused congregate or sleep to appease local businesses who see the unhoused as a nuisance. On Sept. 4, he  observed an interaction between police and an unhoused man at one of these targeted areas — the park space located behind the Boulder Public Library near Arapahoe and Broadway.

O’Connor said that the man was holding an unlit cigarette when he was approached by Boulder Police Officer Ryan Lord. He filmed the interaction and afterward interviewed Lord on camera – video below.

Lord said there was a “reasonable suspicion” of a violation based on the smell and sight of smoke. He also said the area is one of several designated as a “problem” by the city manager.

“We come down here because the city manager asked us, because the people in [adjoining buildings] have asked us, because the public citizens have complained and asked us.”

After O’Connor pointed out jail records that show almost every person detained with a smoking charge were homeless or transient, Lord said they were probably there on a warrant, as “smoking in of itself is not a jailable offense.”  Jail records indicate that in at least several cases, a smoking violation resulted in sentences of 1 to 6 days.

Lord denied any double standard for affluent citizens smoking on Pearl Street, saying that officers regularly contact smokers on Pearl and issue a warning if it is a first offense.

O’Connor says subsequent to the interview, he went to Pearl Street over several days to test Lord’s assertion, and observed many individuals smoking openly without being approached by police – photos are included in a video he personally produced, below. “When… you see every person [in jail records] who has a ticket for smoking is homeless, and I can go take pictures of five people [smoking] in a couple of hours on Pearl Street, we know that some people are being ignored and some people are being focused on.”

Contacted by phone on Tuesday, Boulder Police Spokesperson Laurie Ogden was asked whether the unhoused were being targeted for the smoking ordinance, and whether the city council or city manager are pressuring the department to enforce it. Ogden responded that the unhoused are not being targeted and that the smoking ordinance is being enforced “no more than any other law.”

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One response to “Activist claims police use smoking ban to harass homeless

  1. This isn’t the first law police have used to harass the homeless population in Boulder. Going way back they would use the no animals on Pearl St to do the same, routinely ignoring wealthier people walking their dogs while ticketing any person that looked like they could be homeless.

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