Trading prostitutes for homeless 

Undercover cops shift focus from Nevada Avenue to downtown panhandlers and bicyclists

click to enlarge Undercover officers roust Linda Ortiz from her makeshift - tent at South Shooks Run Park last week. Ortiz was - arrested on two outstanding warrants. - MICHAEL DE YOANNA
  • Michael de Yoanna
  • Undercover officers roust Linda Ortiz from her makeshift tent at South Shooks Run Park last week. Ortiz was arrested on two outstanding warrants.

An undercover police team skilled at nabbing drug dealers and prostitutes at work has focused its attention lately on a different breed of lawbreaker: illegal skateboarders and people who let their dogs run without a leash.

The stealthy officers also are apprehending quite a few homeless people, said Colorado Springs police Detective Olav Chaney, who is part of the team.

"We're hitting the transients so hard that they're getting very frustrated," he said.

In January, the three-person Police Accountability Service Standard team, an undercover arm of the police department's vice and narcotics unit, began cracking down on bicyclists who ride on sidewalks, people who urinate in public, drunks, panhandlers and other such nuisance violators.

The effort represents the latest crackdown on people who commit minor crimes in the downtown area. As a result of complaints from the Downtown Partnership, an organization representing merchants, the team that previously patrolled vice-laden stretches of South Nevada and Platte avenues was reassigned.

The change is evident. The team made 96 prostitution arrests in those areas last year. So far this year about nine prostitutes have been busted, Chaney said.

"Downtown has its issues," he added. "They're frustrated there and they wanted the help."

The detectives declined to let their faces be photographed by the Independent, but invited a reporter to follow them as they worked last week.

The officers wore T-shirts, blue jeans and sneakers. In unmarked cars, they cruised Tejon Street and Cascade Avenue, speaking to each other on radios, looking for scofflaws.

As the morning sun rose in South Shooks Run Park, just southeast of downtown, the detectives found two homeless people living inside a battered tent covered in branches.

One of the occupants, Linda Ortiz, explained that the tent, which contained a battery-operated television, was a home and that it felt safer than a local shelter.

As the officers cited the couple for illegal camping on city property, which carries a $50 fine, they discovered that Ortiz was wanted on two outstanding warrants, one for not taking care of a prior illegal camping ticket and another for failing to attend domestic violence classes.

Ortiz told the officers she wasn't able to afford the classes. Chaney said he would have to arrest her anyway.

Ortiz told the Independent she hadn't intended to bother anyone.

"You've got to stay somewheres," she said.

Police supervisors called for the switch in emphasis around the same time a third officer was added to the team, said detective and team member Tracy Fox.

Just before this get-tough downtown effort began, police wrapped up another similar exercise. Between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve last year, the department used regular officers to conduct a massive sting around downtown's shops, targeting crimes generally associated with homelessness.

Forty-nine people were arrested, 16 of them for aggressive panhandling. That effort, dubbed "holiday detail," cost the city $31,000 in overtime pay.

-- Michael de Yoanna


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