Dawnarie Brooks takes a moment to rest while picking up trash in Civic Center Park on April 21, 2017, the morning after the 4/20 marijuana celebration event was held in Denver. "This is where I live — I can't leave it like this," said Brooks, a homeless woman living in Denver. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Denver mayor orders inquiry into 4/20 event’s trash, security issues

City review could result in penalties for organizers, new rules on events in parks

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock on Monday ordered a city review into rampant fence-hopping, public pot-smoking and slow trash cleanup that left Civic Center in a “disrespectful state” during and after last week’s 4/20 celebration.

Delivering his most forceful critique of the annual event, Hancock said the city’s inquiry could yield penalties for organizers and affect how the event unfolds in future years.

“Our parks and public spaces are held in the public trust. … When you leave one of our parks trashed, you violate that trust,” Hancock said in the park just before noon, with several members of his administration flanking him.

Organizers responded Monday afternoon in a statement that said they believed they complied with all permit conditions. They insisted that they “returned Civic Center Park under cleaner conditions than it began,” and within the time frame given by the city.

In a separate statement, event producer Santino Walter of the private Civic Center Park Productions LLC apologized and took “complete responsibility” for trash that was strewn about the park the morning after the event. Walter attributed the garbage problems to “essentially a scheduling mistake in trash clean up” that was complicated by other factors the night of the event.

The mayor, who publicly opposed Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana in 2012, and other officials long have expressed unease about the annual gathering in which tens of thousands of people descend on Denver’s foremost public space to celebrate marijuana.

The 4/20 event has evolved over the last decade, from an informal protest of marijuana prohibition to an organized festival that exalts in its legalization. And tensions have flared at times in permit discussions, though the event has gone on in varying forms.

But Hancock, angry about the condition of the park Friday morning, staked out a tougher stance.

The mayor, the parks director, the leader of his special events office and the police chief said their concerns about Thursday’s annual daylong 4/20 event were about more than the piles of trash still left behind Friday morning – though they noted that the problem was complicated by organizers’ failure to keep up with trash removal throughout the event.

In coming weeks, city officials said, they will also examine public safety protocols and security staffing that, taken together with trash management, created more of a problem than in previous years.

Hancock said the review should provide lessons for all big events in parks, not just 4/20.

Police Chief Robert White suggested security was inadequate, given the frequency of event-goers rushing the perimeter fence late in the afternoon — as the unsanctioned 4:20 p.m. smoke-out neared — to avoid long security-screening lines at the entry points.

Denver 420 Rally security
Rachel Himes, left, gets checked by a security official at one of the entrances to Denver’s 420 rally at Civic Center Park April 20, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

Though no big incidents occurred inside the gates, White said, the lax security likely allowed in plenty of contraband. Officers cited or arrested 48 event-goers, most of them for public marijuana consumption — a common occurrence in past events.

Officials also pointed to the arrests of two people outside the event after gunfire was reported near 15th Street and Cleveland Place early Thursday evening. Nobody was injured in that incident.

In their statement, the organizers took umbrage at the shooting reference.

“The rally will not be blamed for an alleged shooting outside of and unassociated with the rally,” says the statement, drafted by attorney Robert Corry. “In fact, the rally complied with the city’s demand that it hire security crews to hand-wand all members of the public entering Civic Center Park, which caused huge lines and some frustration.”

Trash left behind draws heat

Organizers’ permit for Civic Center allowed for cleanup all day Friday, but the trash still strewn across the grounds at dawn, as office workers strolled to their jobs, drew quick public recriminations.

Miguel Lopez, the 4/20 rally’s longtime organizer, said Friday that volunteers and a hired cleanup crew weren’t allowed by police to stay in the park after midnight Thursday and had to return to finish clearing out trash in the morning.

The park was clean of trash by early afternoon.

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A video still from a camera at the Greek amphitheater at Civic Center Park shows the scene at 9 p.m. April 20, 2017 (top) and 6:41 a.m. April 21, 2017 (bottom). (Provided by Denver Police Department)

“The rally complied in advance of the city’s own deadline,” the organizers’ statement says. “The rally’s compliance with these conditions is not violated because unauthorized people trespassed in the park during the permit period and took photos of trash that was (later) cleaned up in advance of the deadline.”

City officials said 4/20 wasn’t being targeted unfairly. The core trash problem, they said, was that the organizers’ permit conditions included keeping up with garbage removal throughout the event, rather than leaving much of it for the end.

“We have other, very large events here where we have no problems — that are much larger, that have many more people, that generate far more trash, if you will,” said Allegra “Happy” Haynes, executive director of Denver Parks and Recreation. “And we’ve never experienced that issue.”

Review could affect other events

Hancock said the “deep dive” permit review could have a bearing on events beyond 4/20.

“These types of issues could arise in any event — I want to make that very clear,” he said. “But we don’t want to see them happen again.”

Still, Hancock said the event’s celebration of marijuana, where plenty of public consumption occurs whether it’s allowed or not, brings special challenges. That’s especially so with the heightened federal scrutiny of legalization under the Trump administration.

“We always want to be mindful of the city not promoting lawlessness,” Hancock said. “And when I look out that office (window) at the 4/20 event any year — and I see the plume — that bothers me.”

This story was first published on DenverPost.com