Safe Zones is not a serious solution

Vintage ink well and fountain pen on a table with old letters

The Simpsons has a long-running gag centered on pearl-clutching busybody Helen Lovejoy exclaiming “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” The “think of the children” argument has become a rhetorical cliché and pop culture meme, but like a B-movie zombie it has been resurrected during this 2023 campaign season to unironically justify a City ballot initiative. 

Proposition 302 (“Safe Zones 4 Kids”) would “prioritize removal of prohibited items, such as tents, temporary structures, or propane tanks, within five hundred feet of a school or fifty feet of any multi-use path or sidewalk.” Proponents claim they want the City to do more to protect children and regularly accuse opponents of opposing children’s safety. According to CDPHE data, the leading causes of death among Colorado children are from preventable causes like suicide, motor vehicles, maltreatment, firearms and overdoses. Violence from unhoused people is not on the list. Why oppose this measure then? 

First, Safe Zones supporters want a blank check for enforcing their nebulous priorities over all the other demands Boulder faces. According to the City’s Safe and Managed Public Spaces (SAMP) dashboards, out of 2,192 assessments and 1,376 cleanups across the city between Oct. 21, 2021 and Oct. 18, 2023, approximately 650 assessments and 475 cleanups have happened in the area around Central Park, Boulder Creek and Boulder High School. 

If approximately a third of the City’s cleanup resources are already focused on this area, what additional amount of City resources would satisfy Safe Zones supporters? Should the City de-prioritize clearing encampments with dangerous items or violent behavior in residential areas? Most Boulder residents probably will not like how Safe Zones answers these questions. 

Second, Safe Zones would triple the area that the Safe and Managed Public Spaces team and Boulder Police would be required to prioritize without a corresponding increase in budgets. Under the current City policy of 500 feet around schools and playgrounds and adjacent to streams, there are a total of 13.7 million square meters the City is committed to prioritizing. But Safe Zones would add 50 feet within any sidewalk or path, an area of 41.3 million square meters. Tripling the area without tripling the resources is just diluting enforcement by a third. 

Third, the City just experienced a natural experiment involving enhanced anti-encampment enforcement. Following an incident in which a man drove his truck through Central Park targeting people and encampments (luckily, no one was seriously injured), the City issued an emergency order and fenced the area off for two weeks to evaluate the damage. 

Astonishingly, fencing off Central Park for two weeks did not cause the people living in encampments in the area to evaporate; they were just displaced into other areas. This episode foreshadows the most likely outcome of passing Safe Zones.

Finally, Safe Zones supporters cannot even agree on the legislative intent behind their efforts. Their branding says they want to prioritize the safety of children. Other supporters want to use the initiative to remove the “bike chop shops” or “meth camps.” Still others admit that the initiative will not fix the issues but will “send a message” to City Council. Safe Zones organizers failed to include any language in the initiative about prioritizing spaces with children. They also failed to propose any changes in raising or appropriating funds to achieve their goals. 

People are right to be upset about the deteriorating health and safety conditions in our city. After the millions of dollars already appropriated to manage encampments since 2021, ask yourself two questions: First, have these problems gotten better? Second, will more of the same expensive and failed enforcement strategies make children safer? Boulder’s forward-looking voters should reject this effort and elect a new City Council to pursue evidence-based solutions.

Computational social scientist Brian C. Keegan is an assistant professor in information science at CU Boulder. His research resides at the intersection of human-computer interaction, network science and data science.

This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.