What’s going on with this crazy drug dog story in a Colorado low-income housing complex?

A controversy is swirling around the Longmont Housing Authority— and investigations have launched— after tenants complained K9s were accompanying management on random apartment searches

What’s going on with this crazy drug dog story in a Colorado low-income housing complex?

“I’ll go ahead and write this, because it apparently needs to be written: Low-income people have the same rights as everyone else. Low-income people are not the equivalent of tackling dummies, or lab rats or volunteers on some police training course. You can’t use poor people to train your police dogs.”

So wrote The Washington Post’s criminal justice columnist Randy Balko last week. He was talking about a local low-income housing authority in Longmont, Colorado.

The blunt remarks came after news first broke at ABC Denver7 on June 5 that a resident in low-income housing in Longmont was worried police might violate the constitutional rights of her neighbors after she saw a letter from the Longmont Housing Authority stating police would accompany housing management on searches of homes.

“Please note that we will occasionally have K-9 units with LPD accompany us for purposes of training and compliance,” the letter read in part.

Longmont police told the TV station they were doing it simply for “training” and would not let a K9 sniff around for drugs in a residence without the renter’s permission. But a resident told Denver7 reporter Jason Gruenauer, “Nowhere in this letter does it say we have the right to refuse that,” and “The whole process just seems just a little shady to me.”

The housing authority letter said residences in a 70-unit complex called The Suites would be chosen at random.

Then the story caught fire

Since the news broke June 5 on Channel 7, other local media produced their own reporting. The next day, KUSA 9News in Denver, the city’s NBC affiliate, aired a much-publicized nightly news broadcast saying the Longmont Housing Authority was “using the homes of low-income residents to train police drug dogs.” There were no warrants, said anchor Kyle Clark, “but simply a notice that the landlord was coming, and a police officer and drug dog would be there, too.”

The Washington Post picked up on the 9News report. 9News has been consistently producing broadcasts about the matter for the past week, leaving the mayor, who defended his police department to The Colorado Independent as the “best in the world,” feeling besieged as the city conducts an investigation into what actually happened and why.   

“If a mistake was made I think the intentions were very, very honorable and, you know, we’re not a bunch of jack-booted thugs that are busting down doors the way they [the media] try and paint us,” he told The Independent.

Would these kinds of searches be legal?

Police need permission to search your dwelling or they need a warrant under the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that bars unlawful searches and seizures.

Here’s the text of one letter to a resident dated April 24, which doesn’t mention the search is voluntary:

This is a notice to visit your unit on May 10th between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. It is helpful if you are present so we can visit with you personally, but it is not mandatory. Please note that we occasionally have K-9 units with LPD accompany us for purposes of training and compliance. Apartments will be chosen at random. If you see the K-9, please don’t engage the dog, and please keep your dog on leash well away from the officer. Please kennel or remove all dogs from the unit, if possible. Otherwise, residents are responsible for being present during inspection and keeping their dogs leashed and restrained. Thank you for your cooperation.

Longmont police say they did not intend to harm anyone.

“We only agreed under the idea that we would not violate, nor would they violate, anybody’s Constitutional rights,” Longmont Public Safety Chief Mike Butler told 9News. “We made it quite clear that we needed permission to go in.” The chief also said the police were never really there to bust anybody, just to scope out the place and make sure it was “safe.”

Longmont’s deputy chief, Jeff Satur, told the local newspaper, The Longmont Times-Call, that K9 officers involved in searches last month at The Suites said they did not go into any apartments without permission.

But that’s at odds with what one resident of The Suites says.

From the 9News show “Next”:

Tamika McClure told Next that she was in bed when her apartment was chosen last month.

“We have inspections to see if our place is clean. I opened the door and I saw two cops and a K-9,” said McClure. “I refused to let the cops in, but one of the owners said I had to. I had to step outside, while they were searching with the K-9.” She said her complex manager told her that police were allowed in without a search warrant, but were not allowed to open any drawers to search. She said the dog “picked up on something” in two drawers in her bedroom. “I had to open them so the manager could look in our stuff and make sure there were no illegal drugs,” said McClure. “(Management) couldn’t touch our stuff, they just looked in the drawer.” She said she doesn’t have any drugs, not even marijuana, and that nothing was found.

Butler cancelled future searches after the media attention.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, told the Times-Call terms of the lease allow for monthly inspections and for maintenance, but he indicated he believes the local housing authority and police might have been teaming up to intimidate poor people.

“What’s concerning is that housing authority management and the police forced a tenant to allow a warrantless search and invaded her privacy,” he told the Times-Call. “It’s something that they never even would have tried to do to someone who wasn’t living in subsidized housing. People in subsidized housing do not give up their constitutional rights.”

How does the Longmont Housing Authority defend all this?

Initially an LHA official used a classic if-you-don’t-have-anything-to-hide-then-don’t-worry defense.

“If there is concern, it kind of sparks some curiosity for me,” said Krystal Winship Erazo, director of operations of the Housing Authority, in an interview with 9News. “You know, what are they concerned about if (the officers’) only job is to ensure there aren’t drugs in the unit?”

Erazo apparently stopped taking the calls from 9News— and she didn’t return a voice message for this story— but she earlier said there were “rumors” and concerns about “drug activity,” so the housing authority decided to partner with the local police— “to invite the canines over on their training day.” And that helps residents feel “secure,” she said, adding, “We’re holding residents accountable, it’s an opportunity for the dogs to train.”

How is the city responding to it?

On June 7, the City of Longmont put out a news release with a defensive posture.  

“It was incorrectly reported that the police were conducting illegal searches,” the statement read. “The source of this misinformation can be traced back to a letter that the Longmont Housing Authority sent to residents stating, ‘Please note that we will occasionally have K-9 units with LPD accompany us for purposes of training and compliance.’”

Police department leadership learned about the letter from tenants on the afternoon of June 6, the city release stated, and since the letter didn’t convey the police department’s commitment constitutional rights, the police decided to quit doing the searches.

“There was never any intent or violation of constitutional rights,” the release reads. “The police department has not arrested anyone or confiscated anyone’s property and has not conducted any searches without the consent of the individual, as related to this issue.”

The city also put out another statement, which read:

Longmont City Council is deeply concerned about the allegations of wrongdoing at the Suites. We are committed to investigating the issue to get to the truth. While we await the findings of the investigation, we want to express our support to Longmont Public Safety staff for the difficult work they do to keep our community safe. We pledge to protect the civil rights of all our citizens.

Members of the Longmont City Council called for an investigation into what happened and they have asked the Weld County sheriff’s office to help. A separate agency inside the local public safety department is handling it. And the city council also voted unanimously, minus an absent member, on a motion saying they wouldn’t hold any meetings behind closed doors about this situation at The Suites.

The city is involved in electing and approving some of the housing authority’s board members, but it is an organization separate from the city, Longmont Mayor Dennis Coombs told The Colorado Independent.  

What else is the mayor saying?

Longmont’s mayor, Dennis Coombs, feels the situation has been blown out of proportion. He also told The Independent he takes issue with the coverage from 9News anchor Clark, especially when he tweeted this:

Coombs said he sent that e-mail to a constituent on June 7, before he had complete information, and followed up with an apology once he realized he might have been mistaken. (In its online story, 9News reported as much.) Clark has said the city has not pointed to any inaccuracies in the station’s reporting, and he says the the city knew the station had a copy of the mayor’s email denying the searches happened. “The city only provided a copy of his correction and apology after we mentioned his false denial,” Clark says.

Asked if he believes police violated the constitutional rights of his constituents, Coombs says he doesn’t know. He hopes an independent investigation will find the answer to that question.

“If mistakes were made, the best thing to do is be transparent and open and say, ‘Hey, we blew it,'” he told The Independent. He added that some residents actually wanted police assistance with their drug problems under a program called The Angel Initiative. That city program states police seek to help those with addictions “rather than arrest our way out of the problem.”

The city has also pushed back on social media.

A local lawmaker is taking action

Democratic Rep. Jonathan Singer, who is a renter in Longmont, said on Facebook that he sent a letter to the board chair of the Longmont Housing Authority.

“I hope that we can get clear answers of who knew what and when. What transpired, and how we can hold our government accountable,” he said in his post. “Government doesn’t get it right every time. But that’s when we work to make it right.”

In his letter he seeks to find out who signed off or knew about the program and whether anyone raised concerns about it. He also asked for any police reports that might have been written up as part of the searches.

On Tuesday, Singer told The Independent the constituent reaction to what’s happening in his community has been mixed. Some are impressed with the public safety chief’s personal responsiveness to their concerns and how the City Council has shown interest in getting to the bottom of it. Others have expressed heartburn over the housing authority’s actions.

“I’m very shocked to keep hearing that it sounds like there’s more to the story,” Singer says. “I’m really happy that the media is taking a keen interest in this.”

Asked if he thinks the constitutional rights of any of his constituents were violated he says he doesn’t yet know.

“I think that’s hopefully what this investigation is going to [find out],” he says.

The news broke last Monday. A week later what’s the latest?

This week 9News received 265 pages of documents after filing an open records request, and the station released a handful of emails from the Longmont Housing Authority and city officials. Some of them showed housing authority board members discussing how the story was playing in local media, and strategizing about whether they might have a meeting behind closed doors to evade media attention.

“Think we ought to run this by our attorney. If we give notices for a special meeting you can bet that Kyle Clark will be there. May need to look into protocol for executive session with our attorney so we can assess outside of the limelight,” one board member wrote in reference to the news anchor.

Also on Monday, the Longmont Housing Authority launched its own investigation into the matter, led by the agency’s attorney David Herrera who plans to cooperate with the city’s probe.

“City officials said that would not be an in-house investigation,” reported The Longmont Times-Call, adding the city manager is “contacting agencies outside of Boulder County to request assistance in the investigation.”

Local media attention has continued to focus on the matter with 9News anchor Clark devoting much coverage and opinion on his nightly newscast “Next,” and on social media.

 

Anything else of note in those e-mails?

One email could be a clue as to what might have sparked the idea of police and K9s accompanying housing authority management on searches.

“In an email on April 12, Krystal Winship Erazo, the operations director of the Longmont Housing Authority, wrote to a Longmont police officer, “Do you still have any interest in having your K9 come by the coSuites? It’s working well at Briarwood. We’d love to have you,” 9News reported.

Briarwood is a housing complex where offenders on probation live. “There the police have a right to go in,” Longmont Mayor Coombs tells The Independent. “It’s part of their probation, they agreed to it as far as I understand it … that’s a totally different thing.”

Other e-mails show housing officials talking about concern among some tenants about their constitutional rights.

From 9News:

In an email on June 5, before a tenant reached out to 9NEWS about the search notice she received, [housing manager Alma] Collins wrote an email which said in part, “he (and other tenants as well) have expressed displeasure about the K-9’s. He insists that it is a violation of his rights/the constitution (sic) and that K-9s will not enter his unit without a warrant. Same from some other tenants as well. I have tried to explain that as part of the lease, we are authorized to enter units for purposes of inspection and emergencies. I don’t know enough about the law around warrants/K-9s/searches, etc. to explain any more. (sic)”

But later, in another e-mail, housing director Erazo wrote, “The K9’s and officers would not be able to enter on their own without resident consent,” to which manager Collins replied, “I was not aware that residents had to give consent for K-9s. That’s good info to pass on, and will probably help reduce [sic] upset about it.”

The ACLU is on the case

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, which is dedicated to “fulfilling the promise of equal justice under the law for all Coloradans,” is looking into what happened in Longmont.

The group’s spokesman, John Krieger, released this statement to The Independent when asked if the ACLU is tracking the issue: “I can confirm that the ACLU of Colorado is conducting an investigation into Longmont’s warrantless search program and seeking records pursuant to that investigation, which is ongoing.”

How do I know my own rights as a renter in Colorado?

Leslie Ebert, an attorney for Colorado Legal Services who represents tenants in public housing, says the rights of renters differ depending on the kind of housing they have. In other words, if you’re living in an apartment owned by a rental company or a private landlord, your rights are likely different than if you live in housing subsidized by the government.

In private housing in Colorado there is no law that says when a landlord can enter your apartment, Ebert says. Typically, your lease controls access issues, he says. If you don’t have a lease, a court could interpret whether a landlord’s actions were reasonable.

Public housing entities are able to draft their own leases, Ebert adds, but they have to comply with certain requirements outlined in government regulations.   

So, what should any renter in Colorado know if they want to know what rights they do and don’t have in public or private rental housing? Look at your lease, Ebert says, especially in regard to who is allowed to cross your threshold. But, you should know, he says there are occasionally provisions found in leases that are trumped by state or federal law.

An example: A lease could say an apartment manager wants to allow a cop into your place to sniff around and look for drugs. But that would be trumped by the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Says Ebert: “I don’t think a landlord can waive the tenant’s rights to an unlawful search and seizure.”

 

Photo by Dave Dugdale for Creative Commons on Flickr.

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyHutchins and email him at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.

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