Last year, Denver City Council approved a first-of-its-kind civilian Street Enforcement Team (SET) with an explicit goal: remove police from enforcing the city’s controversial camping ban (and other small municipal violations) and free up officers to work on more serious crimes. SET—for which the city has budgeted nearly $1 million this year—has already reported roughly 2,300 interactions with unhoused citizens in homeless encampments.

Critics of the program, including advocacy groups and those experiencing homelessness, have said the street team is nothing more than an arm of traditional law enforcement, advertised under the guise of civilian outreach. “SET is just another tool for the city to sweep its most vulnerable people from block to block,” Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca has said. Advocates for the unhoused say the encampment sweeps add trauma and distress to an already volatile situation.

Armando Saldate. Courtesy of Denver Department of Public Safety

Armando Saldate, the executive director of Denver’s Department of Public Safety, helped organize and implement SET before assuming his new role early this year. (He had been deputy director.) The former Phoenix cop says the team—which has six members—has been unfairly maligned. “I get that people don’t like law enforcement,” says Saldate, who oversees police, sheriff, and fire departments in Denver. “In the end, tell that to the 80 percent of voters who voted to keep the camping ordinance in the city. Just because people are loud and they say things at council meetings doesn’t negate the hundreds of calls we get daily, weekly who say, ‘I am fed up with this encampment.’ ”

In a conversation with 5280, Saldate discussed homelessness in the city and what he hopes SET will accomplish. Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

On 311

In March 2020, we were getting calls about homeless encampments to 911, nonemergency police calls, calls to me, direct calls to the mayor’s office, direct calls to our parks department, direct calls to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment. We thought, “Let’s wrangle them and direct them all to 311.” It was under 50 calls a day at that time. Our call volume then went to hundreds of calls a day. It just skyrocketed. The unintended consequence is people assumed they could call 311 and an encampment would be gone, that there’s an immediate response.

Typically, when people call 311 about potholes or about a light that’s out in their neighborhood, it gets fixed. That led to the expectation that there was going to be an immediate response [to encampments]. I deal with people like that every single day. Their frustration is through the roof. It’s, “Do your damn job, or we will.”

On Policing And Homelessness

Homelessness is not an issue where you can police your way out of it. We don’t have the luxury to police our way out of it. What we know is that almost every city is experiencing a rise in violent crime and property crime and increased calls for service. We’re dealing with that, and we’re also still dealing with COVID-19. We’ve also had resource challenges.

I think we’ve learned we don’t need [police] to be going out to everything. It’s about sending the right response. We don’t need to send a cop with a gun to everything. Sometimes their presence can escalate things. We want cops to be there for the armed robbery or the burglar in the house. That’s what we need them for, as opposed to dealing with an encampment that’s going to take hours.

On Changing Civic Views On Homelessness

In November 2020, I could talk to someone who lives in Capitol Hill, and I would have heard: “There’s this encampment, and I really feel bad about it. It’s cold. Can you get this person some services?” I could talk to that same person in March 2021, and the tone would have been: “Get that camp that hell out of here, arrest them, throw away their stuff. I’m sick of them.” In the summer of 2021, it changed to: “If you don’t do anything about this encampment, I will.” That’s when we worry about vigilantism. The tenor of the calls went toward conflict.

On How SET Is Different From The Police

We emulated this SET program after park rangers—civilian enforcement of our parks. If you see a park ranger, it is clear who they are. If you have an open container or if you’re in violation of a curfew, the ranger has the authority to write a ticket.

I don’t want [street enforcement] to use the same shirts that Denver Police use, because I don’t want to get them mixed up for who they are. They need to be clearly identifiable with different colors. They need to have our logo and their name. If you have a less-than-desirable outcome, I need something that can identify my people.

We will get the team fitted for body-worn cameras. We have nothing to hide. I know people will disparage us and say we harass. But none of that happens. I want to use body cameras because I want to have people see what we encounter.

On SET’s Challenges And Where It’s Been Deployed

SET is out there every day. Can we get early intervention out to get someone onto a housing list? Can we get them linked into the system? SET arrives when outreach fails, or when folks are resistant. What I mean by resistant is when they tell you to ‘fuck off.’ Then it’s, ‘I get it; I get you don’t want to move. I get that you don’t think you have to move, but I’m telling you you’re in violation of the urban camping ordinance, or you’re in violation of trespassing, or you’re a right-of-way encumbrance. You cannot continue to stay here.’

Most interactions with SET are in the downtown core. But it’s extending. We see more now in the industrial district—the Kalamath–Santa Fe area. There’s been more in the upper downtown area. It used to be Lower Downtown. Cap Hill obviously has some. Even in Park Hill we’ve had some.

Now we’re seeing an RV encampment issue. I thought the tent encampment issue was hard, but this is exacerbated when you put someone in an RV. It creates a whole other set of problems for us. A lot of these RVs are not in good working order. They’re not even drivable. There are so many more hazards. We had an explosion in one. They have bathrooms, and typically you get those dumped at the RV station; we’re seeing people dump these on the street.

There’s this misconception that people [experiencing homelessness] set up in a camp and they have no other alternative, no other choice. Then the cops come and tell that person they’ve got to move in seven days, and the person is stuck without anywhere to go. That’s never the timeline. There are so many encampments out there that, by the time we get out there, they’ve been out there for weeks or months. When we get out there, I guarantee you the city has reached out to that encampment on many occasions. The reason we’re there is not because [encampment residents] weren’t bothering anybody, or they were peaceful in their tent. There had been real hazards—not only public safety hazards, but public health hazards.

On Homeless Advocacy Groups, Criticism, And Expanding SET

I listen to [advocacy groups who criticize], and I talk to them. Am I ever going to change their minds on our approach to homelessness? No. Are they going to change my mind? No. I understand the critical nature of the role we play. These encampments are unsafe, regardless of what [advocates] say. There are very real hazards out there, and we need to be out there doing this work. Every day our folks are out there helping.

I would love to expand SET. One thing we’ve talked about is scooter enforcement. I hope the street enforcement team will have the capacity not only to deal with homeless encampments—which we have to do out of necessity—but I would also hope to get to a day where we can devote them to other things. We would have scooter enforcement and we’d have parking enforcement around special events. Graffiti enforcement. I would love to be able to do that, but we can’t focus on that right now. I just hope that the Street Enforcement Team continues to be a critical cog in the wheel of how we are responding.