When powerful people make mistakes, they tend to blame less powerful people. The Denver Police Department is powerful. Denver’s food-truck owners, not so much.
This power dynamic — not public safety — is the reason Denver’s city government recently banned food trucks from operating in Lower Downtown on weekends. It is also why the city government’s response to the resulting backlash has been a series of arbitrary half measures.
On July 17, Denver police officers shot their guns into a crowd of people in LoDo. The officers accidentally shot six innocent bystanders who were waiting in line at a nearby food truck, in addition to the person they were targeting.
Did the police take any responsibility for their actions?
No. Instead, they banned food trucks from operating in LoDo on weekends, even though it is undisputed that food trucks had nothing to do with the incident. In no way were food truck operators responsible for the fact that innocent people were caught in police crossfire.
Worse, removing food trucks will make LoDo less safe. Research suggests that food trucks reduce crime. This is because they are run by law-abiding citizens who can serve as “eyes and ears” on the street.
That’s doubly true for LoDo. Intoxicated partiers leaving LoDo’s bars would stop at food trucks, have something to eat, and sober up a bit before heading home. Removing food trucks from this equation is obviously a terrible idea.
But the increase in safety brought by food trucks is less important to Denver officials than remaining in the police department’s good graces. And the police department is not about to let their scapegoats off the hook without a fight.
Food truck owners are attractive targets for scapegoating because they are not politically powerful. They tend to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and they are often immigrants. They are humbly trying to feed their families, but they lack political connections.
Thankfully, this obvious bullying has led to public outrage. Numerous people have spoken out against the ban, many food truck operators have told the media how detrimental the ban would be to their businesses, and my law firm sent a letter to the city’s government explaining the ban’s problems and calling on city officials to fully repeal it.
Rather than apologize for their mistake and repeal the ban, the police department has taken a series of half measures designed to do nothing but find the bare minimum that will make public pressure disappear.
Before the letter, the police said they might make the ban permanent. But after, they said they would allow six food trucks to operate, although only until midnight. And when the backlash continued, the police department changed that number from six to seven food trucks and added a “restricted area” a few blocks away where more food trucks could operate until 9 p.m.
The sudden willingness to reform the ban makes it clear that none of this had anything to do with protecting public safety in the first place. To the contrary, the best thing the police could do to increase public safety would be to maximize the number of food trucks nearby when the bars close. Instead, Denver’s police are doing the opposite. This ban is simply a case of a politically powerful group using that power to scapegoat a less politically powerful group, and avoid taking accountability for their own mistakes.
Although it’s irrational to allow certain food trucks to return while not fully repealing the ban, these arbitrary changes are at least an improvement over a complete ban. But that is not nearly good enough. After all, this ban never should have existed in the first place.
The least the government could do is apologize and fully repeal the ban now. Not only would that be the right thing for food truck owners and their families, but it would also make LoDo a safer place.
Justin Pearson, of Miami, is a senior attorney at the nonprofit Institute for Justice, which has challenged food truck and street vending restrictions in cities across the nation.