Let's say a local business provided haven to prostitutes and gang members, or had been the site of many violent crimes. As far as longtime Colorado Springs ordinances were concerned, that wasn't the property owner's fault.
And police would respond to the same businesses for the same problems, again and again.
That was supposed to change seven years ago, when the city enacted a public-nuisance ordinance that held people responsible for persistent lawbreaking on their property. But police and the city attorney's office now complain the ordinance lacks "teeth." In other words, the nuisance ordinance works as a threat to get cooperative property owners to fall in line just don't try to bust the uncooperative ones in court.
"Some gaps have been identified," Police Chief Richard Myers told City Council on Monday.
With those gaps in mind, City Council gave police approval to meet with stakeholders such as the Apartment Owners Association and the Council of Neighborhood Organizations to discuss possible changes to improve the ordinance, which could later be approved by Council.
Specifically, police want to include illegal drug dealing and drug possession on a property as an example of a public nuisance. They want to clarify that every time a property owner allows a nuisance to occur on his or her property, it constitutes a separate offense, and that the property owner is responsible for completely abating the nuisance. And they want to give police more power to take matters into their own hands if a nuisance poses an imminent threat to public safety.
Police Cmdr. Kurt Pillard says one of the biggest problems with the current nuisance code is that every time landowners address a specific problem, they're building a defense to a nuisance charge. For instance, if police tell a motel owner to kick a drug dealer out of Room 23, and the landowner follows that order, police will have a hard time winning their nuisance case. That's true even if that same landowner is knowingly allowing another drug dealer to live in Room 26.
"What happens now is, if it's a problem landlord or owner, we notify them of the problem and they can remedy the problem, and wait for the next laundry list," Pillard says.
These difficulties have made the nuisance ordinance a tool of last resort. It has, in fact, been used just twice: once against North Academy Boulevard's now-defunct club, Party Zone, which was the site of regular gang violence, and once against South Nevada Avenue's apparently soon-to-close Cheyenne Motel, a hot spot for everything from drug deals to violent crimes.
But Pillard says even if the ordinance is streamlined, it's not likely to become a common charge. Police, he says, want to work with property owners. And most property owners want to work with police.
"There's a huge group of owners that are responsible," he says, noting the ordinance is for the rare, difficult cases.
Councilwoman Margaret Radford and Councilman Jerry Heimlicher, however, seem to feel differently. Both say they hope police will use the ordinance more if changes are made. Heimlicher has said in the past that a beefed-up nuisance ordinance would be a great tool for cleaning up or closing down other motels along South Nevada, where developers are envisioning turning rundown lodging into upper-class shopping.
Councilman Randy Purvis, meanwhile, suggests that if the ordinance has been so rarely used, it may not belong on the books at all.