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Denver’s Union Station is a hotbed for drug activity, and RTD is calling for backup

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Denver’s Union Station is a hotbed for drug activity, and RTD is calling for backup

Just after 9 a.m. Thursday, RTD transit police Sgt. Andrew Cross got a call on his radio. There were reports of a man outside the Union Station bus terminal threatening to kill people.

“This is a daily occurrence,” Cross said as he and RTD officer Stephen Johnson made their way toward the western end of the Union Station campus, “usually many, many times a day.”

The officers caught up to the man near 17th Street and Chestnut Place. RTD has on-staff mental health clinicians but the man wasn’t interested in speaking with one of them, Cross said. The officers followed him until he headed south in the direction of the 16th Street Mall, off the station grounds.

“It’s not a crime to have a mental health problem,” Cross said. “This is kind of what we end up doing. We kind of play ping pong with them to get them off the property.”

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Regional Transportation District police officer Stephen Johnson, checks on a man who was loitering outside of the Chestnut Pavilion at the RTD Union Station Transit Center on Dec. 02, 2021.

RTD officials, neighborhood residents and area business owners are in agreement: Union Station is in crisis. Open drug use, drug sales and threatening behavior are commonplace and making Denver’s main transit hub — a campus that underwent a more than $450 million upgrade less than a decade ago — unsafe for people who pass through it and work there.

“I have experienced this first-hand,” RTD CEO and General Manager Debra Johnson told The Denver Post. “There’s is just blatant illegal activity and unwelcome activities from underserved individuals.”

Efforts are ramping up to try to stem the tide.

Under Johnson’s guidance, the agency has partnered with Transportation Security Administration to bring in special teams of air marshals to patrol the property. The armed Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response, or VIPR, teams don’t have authority to enforce local laws but are intended to provide extra eyes and support backing up RTD’s own officers, contracted security guards and off-duty Denver police officers working second jobs.

The teams will be deployed around the station at least through the end of the year, Johnson said. RTD and TSA officials declined to say how many of the agents are committed to the effort but a memo sent out by Johnson in November said the teams will consist of three to seven members paired with an RTD officer. The teams are federally funded, officials said, a plus for the cash-strapped transit agency.

RTD is also looking to boost the security presence around the station by bringing in the Guardian Angels, the red-clad volunteer group dedicated to providing extra eyes for public safety. The group was set to start patrolling Union Station and RTD’s free MallRide shuttle last week, Johnson said Wednesday.

“RTD wants to ensure that our customers, the general public and our employees can enjoy clean and safe environments,” Johnson said.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, which represents about 2,300 RTD drivers, light rail operators, mechanics and other employees, issued a bulletin last week highlighting members’ rights to refuse unsafe work.

Angie Rivera-Malpiede, RTD’s board chair and the elected director for the district that includes Union Station, said curtailing the public drug use and other safety concerns on the campus is an urgent problem. It doesn’t just impact her district, but RTD’s entire network and the metro area at large.

“This is a great opportunity for the community to come together to address some real issues to support our most vulnerable population and, at the same time, provide safety and security at the hub of our community,” she said.

Shortly after interacting with the man reported for making threats near the light rail platform Thursday morning, Sgt. Cross and officer Johnson headed downstairs into the Union Station’s underground bus terminal.

They approached two men sitting on the floor, one appearing to be asleep. Between the two sat a burnt piece of foil and a lighter, evidence of recent drug use.

“You’re sitting there using narcotics,” Cross said as the two men rose to their feet and gathered their things to leave. “You can’t do that inside.”

Regional Transportation District police officers, Sgt. ...

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Regional Transportation District police officers, Sgt. Andy Cross, left, and Stephen Johnson, second from left, approach two young men, one allegedly using illegal drugs, third from left, and the other, passed out inside the RTD Union Station Bus Concourse while on their rounds Dec. 02, 2021.

Down the hall, in the public restroom, Johnson caught three men in one stall trying to smoke an unknown substance off of a piece of foil. Johnson has been part of the RTD police for a few years, but he said things have never been this bad at Union Station. He’s preparing for a long winter.

“Cold weather will drive people down into the bus terminal and things will get worse,” he said.

Outside the restroom, Robert Lamer, of Kearney, Neb., shook his head. The 37-year-old was stopping over in Denver before boarding a bus to visit relatives in Kansas, he said. Just after his arrival, he was approached by men who offered to sell him drugs.

“It’s like a zoo, honestly. It seems like they do anything they want,” Lamer said. “It honestly doesn’t look like it would be a bad little bus station if it weren’t for all that.”

Calls for emergency services in the underground bus terminal rose more than 96% in October over September, according to Bob Grado, chief of the RTD transit police. There were 971 incidents in October, up from 495 the month prior. There were 872 calls for service in the bus concourse in September and October 2020 combined, according to Grado. Drug activity was far and away the leading reason for emergency calls this fall.

The chief doesn’t think it’s a coincidence Union Station has seen an increased presence of people experiencing homeless and more public drug use since the city of Denver shut down Civic Center park in September. While his focus is on RTD property, he knows it’s bigger than just Union Station.

“The downtown area is a gathering place for folks with addiction and unhoused people with mental illness, sometimes exacerbated by drugs and intoxication,” Grado said. “But what we’re experiencing right now, I’ve never seen anything like it. RTD is a victim just like the businesses downtown and the people who live there.”

“They need more resources”

Bringing in TSA teams is a step in the right direction because the RTD police force is small, only about 20 officers when excluding secondary employment officers from Denver and Aurora, Grado said. The department is working to grow its ranks but recruitment in Colorado is tough.

Compounding challenges for RTD officers, Grado said, is that the state legislature downgraded possession of small amounts of drugs from felonies to misdemeanors and the Denver Department of Public Safety has not granted the department authority to issue tickets for drug-related offenses.

The depth of the problem has the chief thinking of other possible solutions.  He noted that New York City has just opened supervised injection sites in Manhattan.

“Some people are using us for safe injection sites because we’re there to rescue them,” in the event of an overdose, Grado said.

The city’s safety department is discussing options around what can be done to support RTD police and allow them to safely respond to calls, spokeswoman Kelly Jacobs said in an email Friday.

Jacobs’ email arrived shortly after Mayor Michael Hancock put out a statement on social media announcing he had sent his chief of staff and public safety director Murphy Robinson to meet with RTD and union officials about the conditions at the station. Denver police will be taking a more active role there, according to the mayor.

“To commence immediately, Police Chief (Paul) Pazen will increase police presence around Union Station to augment RTD in its effort to address illegal and unsafe behaviors within the terminal,” Hancock said in the statement.

1638795673 471 Denvers Union Station is a hotbed for drug activity and

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

Regional Transportation District police officers, Stephen Johnson, left, and Sgt. Andy Cross, right, look for a man who allegedly threatened others near the Chestnut Pavilon while on their rounds December 02, 2021.

Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, whose district includes Union Station, said she was in the area on Thanksgiving passing out meals to homeless people. People were hard to find on the station campus that day, CdeBaca said, but she did see the trailer that RTD police are using a mobile command center parked outside. The trailer is another visible tool the department hopes will deter drug use and other activity there.

CdeBaca said that she hadn’t heard anything about RTD’s plans to bring in TSA teams and the Guardian Angels until a Denver Post reporter contacted her.

“I don’t currently know how to feel about it,” CdeBaca said. “I’m frustrated that we weren’t contacted. I am unclear on what these entities are going to be able to do and how they are going engage with neighbors.”

One group of neighbors is already expressing optimism about RTD efforts to step up visible enforcement.

The Lower Downtown Neighborhood Association’s Safe, Clean and Compassionate committee formed as an outgrowth of the concerns of people living in the Coloradan condos and other buildings around Union Station, founding member Billy Kurz said.

The group’s aim is to work with RTD, the Downtown Denver Partnership, business owners and other groups to put pressure on elected officials to do more about problems around the station. According to a Change.org petition launched by Kurz, that includes providing more resources for those who are homeless, empowering police to “enforce the law” and “(reinstating) pre-pandemic policies and procedures at the Denver jail regarding inmate retention.”

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Daily horoscope for January 28, 2022

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Daily horoscope for January 28, 2022

Moon Alert: Avoid shopping or making important decisions after 1:45 p.m. EST today (10:45 a.m. PST). The Moon is in Sagittarius.

Happy Birthday for Friday, Jan. 28, 2022:

You are an idealist who can be a perfectionist at times. You are patient, even strategic, because you like to be in control of things around you. You have excellent instincts and intuition. Good news! This year you will receive kudos, awards, promotions and acknowledgement for your efforts. Congratulations!


The stars show the kind of day you’ll have: 5-Dynamic; 4-Positive; 3-Average; 2-So-so; 1-Difficult

ARIES

(March 21-April 19)

★★★★

Tread carefully when talking to parents, bosses or the police, because this encounter could be nasty. People are inclined to be insistent, even obsessed, with their point of view. Meanwhile, Mercury is retrograde and there is a Moon Alert after 1:45 p.m. EST today (10:45 a.m. PST). Tonight: Patience.

TAURUS

(April 20-May 20)

★★★

Avoid politics, religion and racial issues today, because you will get nowhere. You might have heated views about something, or you might encounter someone else with strong views. Nevertheless, this is not the day for this discussion. Tonight: Stay silent

GEMINI

(May 21-June 20)

★★

You might be concerned or intense about issues related to shared property, taxes, debt or insurance matters. These might be issues from the past that are unfinished. Nevertheless, it’s hard to make headway today. Postpone things for another day. Tonight: Do your homework.

CANCER

(June 21-July 22)

★★★

Be reasonable when talking to partners and close friends today, because it’s easy to go off the deep end. You might insist on something, or someone else might be just as emphatic (especially concerning ex-partners). Much of today is a Moon Alert. Do not act. Tonight: Be agreeable.

LEO

(July 23-Aug. 22)

★★★★

You have strong ideas about how to clean up things at work today. You want to get rid of what is no longer needed. (Out with the old! In with the new!) You might have similar ideas related to your health or a pet. Don’t coerce others into agreeing with you. Easy does it. Tonight: Get your facts.

VIRGO

(Aug. 23-Sept. 22)

★★★

Don’t come on too strong when dealing with your kids today, because it’s easy to do. Lighten up. Likewise, issues with old flames or current romantic partners might be too intense. This is a poor day for important discussions. It’s best to sidestep things today. Tonight: Lighten up and have fun.

LIBRA

(Sept. 23-Oct. 22)

★★★

Don’t try to get your way in family discussions today, which you’ll be tempted to do. Possibly, you will encounter a family member who is coming on like gangbusters. Either way, dial things back a bit. Take a broader view of things. Easy does it. Tonight: Tidy up at home.

SCORPIO

(Oct. 23-Nov. 21)

★★★

Today people think they know what they’re talking about, including you. And perhaps they do. However, they might not. Therefore, think twice before you try to convince someone to agree with you. Distance yourself from these issues so you have more perspective. Tonight: Listen.

SAGITTARIUS

(Nov. 22-Dec. 21)

★★★★

You might be obsessed about financial matters today. Or perhaps you are obsessed about buying something. If making important financial decisions or purchases, please avoid doing this after 1:45 p.m. EST today (10:45 a.m. PST). Be smart! Tonight: Save your money.

CAPRICORN

(Dec. 22-Jan. 19)

★★★

Today Mercury retrograde is lined up with Pluto in your sign. In addition to which, most of this day there is a Moon Alert. This means it’s a poor day to make decisions or purchases, especially about the future. Put everything on hold. Just tread water. Tonight: Be agreeable.

AQUARIUS

(Jan. 20-Feb. 18)

★★★

This is definitely a squirrely day, which is why you might feel adrift. You might have strong feelings about what you want to achieve, and yet you are blocked or detoured. Be smart and avoid shopping or important decisions after 1:45 p.m. EST today (10:45 a.m. PST). Tonight: Research.

PISCES

(Feb. 19-March 20)

★★★

Don’t try to convince a friend, especially someone younger, to agree with your ideas today, which you’ll be tempted to do. Alternatively, don’t let someone bully you into agreeing with them. Everything is vague and unsure after 1:45 p.m. EST today (10:45 a.m. PST). Sit this one out. Tonight: Listen to friends.

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Sons want to start ‘Tina’s Helping Home’ in honor of their mom who was killed in St. Paul

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Sons want to start ‘Tina’s Helping Home’ in honor of their mom who was killed in St. Paul

Tina Marie Fells-McCombs had big dreams.

Her sons saw her overcome trauma and battles through her life, and she wanted to help other Black women so they wouldn’t have to do it alone.

Tina Fells-McCombs (Courtesy of the family)

Since the 47-year-old was fatally stabbed Jan. 9 in St. Paul, the first homicide in the city this year, her sons are now taking on her cause.

They want to start Tina’s Healing Home as a place to support women who “are fighting life’s obstacles of being survivors of domestic abuse or experiencing mental health issues … or substance abuse or stability for housing,” Fells-McCombs’ son, Lewis McCaleb, said Thursday.

We saw “our mother transform her trauma into triumph … and we had these dreams, we wanted to accomplish this together,” said McCaleb, who is also known as Lewiee Blaze. “… We’re viewing this is as an opportunity to take our deep pain and turn it into power, and to immortalize her name and do something that is bigger than us.”

A 38-year-old man is charged with kicking in an apartment door and stabbing Fells-McCombs on a Sunday afternoon in the North End.  Her family is still searching for answers and “there is still no clear explanation to the cause of this tragedy,” the family wrote on a fundraising page.

Police arrested Maurice Angelo McClinton Smith soon after.  An investigator asked Smith why he was at the apartment at 180 W. Larpenteur Ave. and he said “to get some tea and crumpets,” the criminal complaint said. “… When asked why he went to see (McCombs), Smith said, ‘To kill her.’ Smith said he was a simple prophet.”

NEED FOR MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORTS

Toshira Garraway, who founded Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence and who supported McCaleb when he spoke publicly Thursday, said they’re asking that Smith be held accountable.

They’re also emphasizing “that prior to someone being murdered in our community, a Black woman being murdered in our community, that if someone is experiencing mental health symptoms and express those symptoms, that they’re given the adequate help that they need, Garraway said.

A judge has ordered Smith undergo a mental health evaluation for competency to proceed with the case. Smith’s attorney had no comment on Thursday.

Lack of true investments in communities needs to be fixed, said Rep. John Thompson, who represents St. Paul’s East Side.

Those under-investments “ultimately created the monster who showed up to his mother’s door and killed his mother,” he said as he stood by McCaleb. He and two other men who spoke Thursday said they know McCaleb’s pain because they still miss their mothers who’ve passed away.

MOTHER TO SONS AND THE COMMUNITY

Fells-McCombs was the mother of six sons, ages 3, 12, 17, 20, 24 and 28. McCaleb’s father died 11 years ago.

“I’ve seen her have to navigate these systems and navigate this community and do the best that she could to provide for” her boys, McCaleb said. He remembered her as nurturing, selfless and fearless, “a mother of the community” who never turned someone down when they needed a place to stay.

Lewis McCaleb, who is also known as Lewiee Blaze, shows a photo of his mother on his T-shirt after he spoke about her in St. Paul on Jan. 27, 2022. Tina Fells-McCombs was fatally stabbed in St. Paul on Jan. 9, 2022. (Mara H. Gottfried / Pioneer Press)
Lewis McCaleb, who is also known as Lewiee Blaze, shows a photo of his mother on his T-shirt after he spoke about her in St. Paul on Jan. 27, 2022. (Mara H. Gottfried / Pioneer Press)

Now, McCaleb said they are trying to provide financial stability for their family, including having all his brothers in one home together.

“It would also give us a chance to breathe and have the mental capacity to fulfill the vision of opening what we call the Tina’s Healing Home,” said McCaleb, 24, who is a St. Paul musical artist, entrepreneur and activist who works as a Ramsey County violence prevention coordinator.

People have been telling McCaleb it’s OK to cry and he said he has been.

“I’ve been breaking down since I got that phone call,” he said. “… Some days, I really wish I could just wake up and it was just a long … nightmare.”


HOW TO HELP

Contributions to the Tina Fells-McCombs Memorial Fund can be made at gofund.me/67adb397 or North Star Bank, 1820 N. Lexington Ave., Roseville, MN 55113.

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West Siders call for school investment after district drops Montessori program

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West Siders call for school investment after district drops Montessori program

In a virtual meeting Thursday with St. Paul Public Schools leaders, residents of the city’s West Side bemoaned last-minute changes to the district’s schools consolidation plan that figure to take scores of students out of the neighborhood’s two elementary schools.

Superintendent Joe Gothard’s “Envision SPPS” was supposed to strengthen West Side’s Cherokee Heights and Riverview schools and establish strong ties to nearby Humboldt middle and high schools.

The struggling Montessori program at Cherokee Heights would move to J.J. Hill in the Summit-University neighborhood; students in Riverview’s community program would slide over to Cherokee Heights; and Riverview’s Spanish dual-language immersion program would get an influx of students as Wellstone school closed.

But in response to an outcry from Wellstone parents, the school board last month voted to keep that school open. Students wouldn’t be moving into the West Side, after all, but the Montessori program still is moving out.

The changes, which take effect this fall, could leave the two West Side schools with fewer than 400 students — roughly one-third of their combined capacity.

“I don’t see how this is helping when it’s directly taking families away,” West Side parent Shannon Johnson said Thursday.

Community member Carlo Franco said the consolidation plan went through a “confusing process,” and the decision to take students out of the West Side came without warning.

“We need to be involved in decisions, especially when we’re talking about closing whole programs,” he said.

LIST OF DEMANDS

Franco presented a list of demands, which include investments in West Side schools, real community engagement and no program changes until there’s a long-term plan to minimize disruption.

Gothard said the administration can’t reverse the board’s vote, and the district already is planning for next year. Besides the West Side program changes, five schools across the city are closing.

But Gothard said a potential preschool expansion — funded either at the city, state or federal level — would address some of the child care barriers keeping some families from enrolling on the West Side.

Some parents said their schools need before- and after-school care run by the district, but Chief Operations Officer Jackie Turner said there hasn’t been nearly enough parent interest to cover the costs of running Discovery Club. She said it’s possible the Boys and Girls Club will start taking 4-year-olds, and she promised to work with private child care providers to find options for families.

Turner also said the district has added another preschool class at Riverview this fall to help the school grow its enrollment. She said they could do the same for Cherokee Heights if there’s enough interest.

MOVES AREN’T ‘FOR US’

One parent said she settled on the West Side in part because the Montessori method worked well for her children. She said she doesn’t understand why the program is leaving next year.

Turner said Montessori programs cost about twice as much as general education, and the program at Cherokee Heights hasn’t attracted enough students.

“With the amount of money that it takes to run a Montessori program, we cannot have an enrollment that is not sustainable,” she said.

Turner estimated that half of Cherokee Heights families want to preserve Montessori, while the rest are happy to see it go.

Franco said it’s nothing new for the district to mistreat the West Side. The community had to rally to save Humboldt High School some 50 years ago, he said, and the surprise 2012 announcement that Roosevelt would reopen as Riverview came “without community dialogue.”

He offered a slogan he said encapsulates what West Siders have been feeling since the board vote: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.”

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