As Train To DIA Starts, Denver Mayor Hancock Celebrates But There’s Baggage Elsewhere

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Photo: Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, CPR Studios (HV)
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock at the CPR studios Thursday, April 21, 2016.

Photo: Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, CPR Studios (HV)When a rail line linking downtown Denver to Denver International Airport opens Friday, it will help Denver Mayor Michael Hancock realize a dream. He has long pictured an airport city that would spark growth and raise revenue in the region.

Hancock spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner about those matters. He also addressed some tough issues facing the city, including affordable housing, homelessness, and community-police relations.

In response to criticism from the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, who say the mayor has failed to keep the city safe, Mayor Hancock said, "We have conducted enough analysis to know that Denver needs more police officers."

"My job is not to listen to the Fraternal Order of Police. I'm not sure they really bring a lot of credibility to these issues. Their bombastic language and inability to communicate with administrations -- not just mine, but previous administrations -- I think demonstrates kind of their self-interest here that is not necessarily in the best interest of the community," Hancock said.

Read a transcript of the conversation:

Airport Transit Development, Affordability

Ryan Warner: Well it has been close to five years since you initially mentioned the idea of an "aerotropolis," this airport city. How important is the opening of the train to the plane to making that vision happen?

Michael Hancock: The train to the plane, or the University of Colorado A-Line is critical. A critical element to the vision around an aerotropolis. And of course an aerotropolis is a, really a commercial community that kind of grows up around an airport. Companies and industries that want to be around the airport because it allows them to connect more conveniently and affordably to their markets. And their markets are global. And so the goal is for us to be very intentional about our development and attraction to the area around the airport so that we can bring direct foreign investment as well as companies that want to be in our city, creating jobs and new opportunities for the people who live here within the region.

Warner: And you see the train as a key artery to that.

Hancock: Oh absolutely.

Warner: Let's look at some of the details. The train will formally be known as you say, as the University of Colorado A-Line, that's after CU paid $5 million for the naming rights. The cost to ride from one end to the other is nine bucks. The trip will take about forty minutes, six stops in between. You know, doing the math, whether the train makes sense economically, at least from downtown to the Airport, or the reverse of that, it seems to depend on how long you'll be gone. In other words how long your car will sit in a paid parking lot, whether you have to pay to get to a station, taking a taxi or a lift. I wonder, if we have you on a year from now, how will you have measured the train's success? Is it ridership? Is it traffic reduction? Is it more people flying?

Hancock: Well that's a good question. I think no one will argue that we're beginning to see congestion on the main interstate, interstates that surround the entry into the airport, I-225 and I-70. Certainly a year from now, two years from now, we'll look at how we've been able to abate some of that congestion. Two, ridership is important so we'll look and see how people are using the line to get to and from the airport, as well as the R-Line coming in out of Aurora, will be critical. And so yeah, we'll look at those things and obviously we want to encourage people to use it, for the convenience, for the affordability and for the ease in which you can get into and from the airport.

Warner: You talk about affordability. On Wednesday, the Colorado Fiscal Institute said that RTD's new fare structure -- and this is system wide, it's not specific to the A-Line -- that it's unfair because it increases fares overwhelmingly used by the poor, like local bus service, while decreasing fares primarily used by higher income riders. So routes like regional and airport service. How do you respond?

Hancock: I think that's a valid question and one in which the directors of RTD I'm sure look at that. They're a very conscientious group of individuals. And quite frankly, with regards to transit and regional transit systems and public transportation systems, this has, all over the country, this has always been an issue with regards to how do you create an equitable, not so much equal pay but equal sacrifice, to move people about the city and about the region. So I know this is top of mind for RTD and certainly one of the issues that they need to continue to address and I encourage them to do that. 

Warner: Do you think that the fare structure is equitable as it is today?

Hancock: I'm not as in tuned, or attuned with the fare structure and how they go about setting that fare structure but I do know it's top of mind because I have talked to those directors, who say we are thoughtful, or we are thinking about how we move people equitably across this city. And it's a concern from them. It's also a very costly system to operate and one they have to keep that top of mind as well.

Relations Between Denver Police And The Community

Warner: That is facing that their own expenses. So tomorrow's opening of the train seems to be the latest in a series of bright spots for Denver, coming on the heels of Virgin Airways opening service out of DIA, not long after US News and World Report has named Denver "The best place to live in the US". But not everyone is cheering your administration. You know last week an unarmed man, wanted in connection with a bank robbery was killed by a Denver police officer after officials said he made a threatening type maneuver. It was the third officer involved shooting in Denver this year.  In 2015 there was the shooting death of Jessica Hernandez; the year before that, Ryan Ronquillo. These incidents have spawned a lot of raw feelings towards law enforcement in Denver's minority community. How do you respond to those who say Denver police have been quick to pull the trigger, particularly in minority communities?

Hancock: I think it's very important that we continue to work on having thoughtful, progressive conversations in the community, all communities in the city of Denver with regards to police-race relations. Every one of these incidents are tragic. And we have to make sure that we continue to take each of them individually as we investigate them thoroughly. I think it would be important for us to continue to talk about how we're training our officers. How we respond when we have these sort of incidents with a great deal of transparency, releasing the information as soon as we can to the public so they gain an understanding in terms of the status of the investigation and where people are going. So you have to make sure that people understand that we take these seriously. And when we sense or feel that there is a pattern of concern that we ought to be on as a city, we're on it.

Warner: Are you seeing any patterns? You mentioned training for example. 

Hancock: Absolutely. 

Warner: What would be a deficit in training do you think?

Hancock: Well I mean that's really a question for Chief White. I'm not a police officer but I can tell you that one of the things that we have asked, that we have done with our police officers is make sure each of our officers are trained in critical incident techniques. How to de-escalate situations as best as we can, as they can when they come into situations. You know our officers do a very, a very difficult job every day. They never know how situations are going to turn. We've also recently had three officers who were shot in the line of duty. And so there is a heightened tension on both sides and we have to abate that through better communication and relationship building. Continue to train our officers. Continue to communicate to our officers about working to de-escalate with the skills that we have brought into the classroom for them. And I think Chief White has done a great job in really working to try to continue to create that space where officers are better equipped and better prepared to enter these situations. 

Warner: Meanwhile, the Fraternal Order of Police has given you a failing grade in the area of satisfactorily performing your fundamental duty to make the City and County of Denver safe. Among the charges leveled by the group was that you haven't increased the size of the police force to adequate levels and that "In the face of increasing crime, Mayor Hancock's lack of leadership has placed the citizens of Denver and the men and women of the police department that serves them, at risk." A fundamental question there is does Denver need more cops?

Hancock: Yes. We have conducted enough analysis to know that Denver needs more police officers. My job is not to listen to the Fraternal Order of Police. I'm not sure they really bring a lot of credibility to these issues. You know, their bombastic language and inability to communicate with administration, not just mine but previous administrations, I think demonstrate kind of their self-interest here that is not necessarily in the best interest of the community. My job is to walk the balance. We need to ask, not only do we need more police officers, how many police officers do we need? Where do we need more police officers? And how do we ramp them up in a very fiscal, operational, responsible manner.

Warner: And how soon do you think those questions could be answered?

Hancock: We're already answering them. We're already moving forward with getting more officers into training. We have expanded training classes and we're working to bring 85 new officers on this year alone, which is larger than we've ever had, quite frankly, in terms of our classes. I asked, two years ago before the Fraternal Order of Police every opened their mouths about more police officers, I asked the police chief, tell me how many police officers we need. We're not going to do this with a knee-jerk reaction. We're not going to do it because the Fraternal Order of Police wants certain staffing in terms of who's on cars and they get to work with their favorite friend on the police department. The reality, we're going to do this is in a very analytical manner, one that makes sense and one that is fiscally responsible. And is in tune with the growth and the direction of the city. And the chief came back with a number and he and I started working toward that. So we have been on this trajectory for several years now and we're moving forward with the plan now.

Black Lives Matter

Warner: You talked just a bit earlier about communication between law enforcement and the community and I want to say during January's annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Marade, there was a protest by Black Lives Matter that called you to task on a number of issues, including the police and sheriff's office and homelessness and affordable housing. 

[Recording: The Black Lives Matter family was hoping greatly to be able to address the mayor of this city, whose salary we cover. And yet as we spoke and exercised our First Amendment right to speak, black women speaking at the feet of Dr. King, our mayor turned his back and left.]

Warner: A few weeks ago that group also spoke out at a community gathering at Thomas Jefferson High School. And you have shown a willingness to meet with the people of Denver through regular community get-togethers for example. Have you approached Black Lives Matter to attempt to iron out your differences?

Hancock: Absolutely. So let me be very clear. I don't know who that was speaking, I don’t know many of their, the players there at Black Lives Matters but let me be clear, I would never and have never left the Martin Luther King Marade. I heard every word they said. I was there the entire time. I marched with the thousands of folks who were there. And I was at both locations, as we always do. Many of us were marching and fighting for the right for us to have that march way before many of the people who were speaking at that rally, who took over the stage, even started coming down to MLK. So the reality is we were there, we never left, and we heard every one of the words that they said. Secondly, we have reached out to Black Lives Matters. They've, there's not much that they say that we necessarily disagree with. The key is I come from civil rights organization groups. I've led them, I've led negotiations on behalf of this community, whether it was police, excessive force concerns, whether it was profiling on the streets. I've done all that growing up and testifying at the state capitol on many of these issues. So we don’t necessarily disagree. What we want to do is sit down and have a constructive conversation about how we can continue to address some of the issues that are top of concern for them.

Warner: And how does that happen?

Hancock: Well we invited them in and many of them, they sent back a letter with some demands saying 'We won't sit with you unless you do X, Y, and Z." Those things, we could not do and it's like we really want to have this conversation. If you want to sit down and have a constructive conversation, let's have it. The reality is the stuff they're talking about, with regards to excessive force, reforming the Sheriff's Department, reforming the police department, homelessness, housing. There isn't a city, a city in the nation who has leaned in on these issues under my administration as much as we have. And we would encourage them to take a look at some of the things we've done. Have we been perfect, no, but we have leaned in. We have not run from these issues and will continue to address them. 

Warner: Well almost a year ago the focus was indeed on the Denver Sheriff's office with promises of reform and recommendations made by you and other city officials. But a Denver Post report from earlier this month said there are still examples of excessive use of force, failure to make proper rounds at the jail. Do you have a sense of how long it will take to change the culture with the Sheriff's Department? 

Hancock: One of the most difficult things, Ryan, to do, is change a culture of a massive organization like the Sheriff's Department. But we are leaning in and we are very committed to making these transformative changes. 

Warner: Give me an example of a transformative change.

Hancock: Well I mean for example, new leadership in the department. I actually took to the people of Denver an initiative last November, or the November before last, to really allow the Sheriff Department, the Sheriff of the county, to appoint his or her cabinet. In other words, not just allow folks who have applied and have gone through a process to have property rights in those positions but to be able to bring in their own leadership and say we're going to change. We've got to be able to bring creative minded people, different skill sets, folks who not necessarily grew up in the system but folks who bring different external ideas to the table. 

Warner: And that power did not exist before?

Hancock: It did not exist before. So we created that. Secondly, every Sheriff in the system I required to go through critical incident training. Learning how to de-escalate situations as opposed to whatever the culture that was created in terms of the way they were trained to respond. So critical incident training by the end of this year, every Sheriff Deputy will be trained in those skills. And we've, not only that but we've begun to train deputies differently on how to deal with those situations inside the jail. I said this from the very beginning. This didn't happen overnight. We're talking decades of the kind of training and kind of indoctrination has occurred with the Sheriff's Department. I believe most of our Sheriff Deputies are great men and women who work very hard to do their job every day. Some have made mistakes and we shouldn't paint the entire department with this broad brush but what we should do is make sure they have the skill sets and they have the tools to do better as a group and that's what we're working to do. It's going to take time. As we pull back every layer, we're going to have to address every layer we find and every challenge to the new culture that we're bringing in. It does take time. I said it from Day One, after we learned more about what was going on. This is going to be a process. Let's be patient and let's make sure we build the best Sheriff's Department. It would be inappropriate for us to rush in and try to change what has taken decades to create because it won't work. 

Warner: So how long until the culture is what you want it to be?

Hancock: Well I think we're seeing it evolving now. I mean what is not reported in the media or videos I've received of Sheriff Deputies who are successfully talking detainees down from situations that in the past would have been escalated into something where someone could be injured. We still have unfortunate incidences but we're working hard to change it and I know the deputies are committed to doing better.

The City's Homeless Population

Warner: To the issue of homelessness and the city's recent sweeps of encampments in the ballpark neighborhood, the streets since have mostly remained clear but some might say the city has lost some of its humanity in the process. How would you respond to those who feel that way?

Hancock: You know it's interesting how you define humanity. There's some who'll say you should have let the 75 individuals who created encampments on the street to stay there in very inhumane, unsafe, unsanitary conditions. Unhealthy conditions. We had felonious activities that were taking place in those encampments. We had people who were defecating on the streets and people were sleeping out in quite frankly temperatures that were not safe for anybody to sleep out in. What we made a commitment to do and it took us five to six months quite frankly to enact the moving in and to begin to move people to safer, healthier conditions, more sanitary conditions was to make sure, one, we had safe conditions for people to move into. Secondly, that we did this with a great deal of compassion and where everyone was kept safe. The police officers, the public health people who moved in, the public works team, as well as the individuals who were in these encampments. And you know what, quite frankly, moving in made, it was done safely, it was done humanely. You cannot convince me, Ryan, anyone, to say it is more compassionate to say "Sleep on the street. Use unsanitary conditions. Be subject to unsafe, unhealthy conditions," are better than to say I need to move you indoors. For your own health. And we've got conditions, we've got opportunities for you to be safe, warm and sanitary with sanitary facilities for you. Those things to me make more sense. So if you're sitting here saying to me that others believe that was less humane? Then I guess it is based on your perspective. But I believe it is more humane. What we have seen is about a third of those folks have moved to transitional housing since we broke up those encampments. And it is more safe and it is more humane for not only the people that were in the encampment, but folks who live and work and entertain around the area. 

Warner: But we also know there are service resistant folks, that's the buzzword for those who are resistant to go into a shelter for any number of reasons. It could be PTSD, it could be again a variety of reasons. I want to talk to you a bit about Portland, Oregon. We had recently on the show that mayor's chief of staff and that city is allowing sleeping outdoors, in specific places. And part of the reason they're doing that is because camping bans have not been faring well in the courts. Are you preparing for the possibility that the bans could be struck down?

Hancock: No, we're not. We're moving forward with a more comprehensive plan. And by the way, I met with Mayor Hales and his Deputy Chief of Staff that actually runs the program. Just last week I was in Portland, Oregon, meeting with them. And every step of their plan has been met with challenges and they've met them with opportunities. What we have chosen to do is we don't believe that it's as humane, it's very humane to be out on our streets. I'm not passing judgment on the mayor of Portland, we have different climate here in Denver and we have different expectations with regards to how we treat our individuals in our street. The reality is Mayor Hales said we were absolutely out of space in which to move those individuals.

Warner: Part of it is that they lack shelter space.

Hancock: They lack shelter space.

Warner: It's a different situation in Denver?

Hancock: Absolutely. Well we have created shelter space. When we had city owned vacant buildings, we created shelter space. We created the Community Resource, the Lawrence Street Community Center, across the street where these individuals were encamped. We have moved people to recreation centers to sleep safely and more sanitary and more healthy, in healthier conditions. So we have made, we have rec centers and we have building that we have moved people to and we have created that capacity with our partners around the region. This is a city, Ryan, that I want to be very clear, that spends, will spend in 2016, $47 million on homelessness. Forty-seven million dollars with a comprehensive approach around behavior health services, medical health services, transitional housing, shelter, making sure that we're supporting our partners who are also providing shelter, meals, and clean showers for individuals. Outreach. 

Warner: Is it short-sighted though not to prepare for the eventuality or the possibility that camping bans fail in the courts as an [unclear]?

Hancock: No, I don't mean to say that we're absolutely not doing it, our law department at the City of Denver has been working on this issue ever since the enactment of the ordinance. And they've been monitoring and we've been adjusting how we handle certain situations and tweaking our policies and procedures along the way so we have stayed on it all along. 

Addressing Affordable Housing

Warner: This topic relates naturally to affordable housing. 

Hancock: Yes.

Warner: About eight months ago you spoke of raising money, perhaps as much as fifteen million a year to subsidize the building of around 6,000 affordable units. Some of that money you said could come from an increase in property taxes as well as other local and state money. Where is the city today in regards to those goals?

Hancock: We expect to deploy that fifteen million dollar effort in 2017. And basically, in 2013 when the people of Denver "de-bruced" the city, they actually allowed us to access some mills that we already had in abeyance. We only deployed half of those mills and what the plan called for was deploying one additional mill and then doing some, a partnership through, service impact fees with developers in the city of Denver. 

Warner: There's a lot of city vocabulary in what you just told us but essentially to say that the city has some money.

Hancock: Yes. 

Warner: To, spend on this.

Hancock: Yeah, we had the capacity to deploy these resources based on the votes of the people of Denver. 

Warner: So in terms of units, in terms of where you want the city to be in terms of affordable housing and where it is today?

Hancock: The reality is we are recreating affordable housing every day. The City of Denver, through our 3x5 Initiative have already created some 1,300 units and we, or 1,700 units, and we have 1,200 that are under development today. So we are ahead of the plan of creating 3000 units in five years. We've also created revolving loan fund as well as our…

Warner: Tell us what is the importance of the revolving loan fund?

Hancock: So we've been taking general fund money and setting it aside into a fund where developers can partner with us who are wanting to build affordable or make affordable housing units available. And if there is a gap in financing, we can help fill that gap in the revolving loan fund. 

Warner: To what extent are they taking advantage of that?

Hancock: Oh, they're taking advantage of it. We've been able to create over 2000 units as a result of that. So developers are coming in. They may be doing 200 units, they may say we want to do 25 or 100 of those units for affordable housing. We also have the social impact bond that we just released for 250 chronically homeless will be able to access transitional housing as a result of our efforts of creative use of this new tool that municipalities are deploying. So here's the reality. This $15 million is in addition to what we're doing already. And our goal is to try to do as much as we can, as quickly as we can, to fill the gap of affordable housing, and the need for affordable housing in Denver. The city can't do it by itself. Even with deploying $15 million, we won't be able to do this alone and we are calling on all of our stakeholders and our partners in both the public, non-profit and private, all of the sectors to be our partners. 

Warner: Finally, during your campaign for mayor in 2011, you presented yourself as a man of the people. Whether it was dealing with your family's homelessness, your brother's death from AIDS, or wanting to improve schools because of issues that your children faced. Do you consider criticism like we've been discussing here, merely something that comes with the territory of this office? Or does it hurt on some level because in many ways, as you explained to us, you have been where the public is coming from?

Hancock: Yeah, I think it's a combination of things. So first of all, I think it's the fact that I play the role of social-economic convener and leader in the sense from my role with the Urban League. And so I'm still called on often to be more of a social activist and when people comment…

Warner: Than the mayor's office can allow?

Hancock: Not that the mayor's office can allow but really the mayor has a different role in terms of the balance that the mayor has. But I think the social activism that I played in the past has helped me, I mean, I understand, what people are asking and I'm not surprised by it. But I think, here's what this is, I think it does come with the territory and I'm okay with that. I think it also comes with the fact that I'm a different type of leader. I don't run from the fire. We lean in. And these issues of affordable housing, the issues of homelessness, the issue of race-community relations with the police department, they've been around for a long time, Ryan. The issue with the Sheriff's Department happened to fall into my lap. These issues have been here and people complained about them for years. I'm the mayor who said we're going to fix it. I'm not going to leave this for the next mayor so we're leaning in and because we are leaning in, obviously we now become subject to criticism. If I turned and walked away from it, hoping it would go away, possibly they would go away but that's not who I am. 

Warner: Thanks for being with us. 

Hancock: Absolutely