Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 (Updated Tuesday, Oct. 5)
As tents proliferated in Boulder’s parks and public spaces, residents reacted to the trash, drug use, and the uncomfortable sight of American inequality laid bare by pressing for government action: a flurry of investment in shelter and services or else a crackdown on so-called urban camping—in some places, both at once.
The rising homelessness crisis has captured attention in the Front Range and beyond like never before. In Boulder, the seemingly unshrinkable population of people living unsheltered led to the formation of a new political bloc, including two groups endorsing candidates for city council in this fall’s election.
Safer Boulder appeared mid-pandemic with a popular petition asking for the prompt removal of unhoused individuals and an increase in police patrols. More than 9,000 people have signed to date.
To supporters, Safer Boulder was a voice of the silent majority, residents who felt the degradation of their city was being ignored by those in power.
In their opponents’ view, the members of Safer Boulder were bigoted and largely privileged homeowners who do not care what happens to unhoused people—so long as they go away.
To the public, though, Safer Boulder has remained largely unknown, a shadowy group associated with one petition and a singular goal: Get unhoused people off city land.
Last fall, communications between a dozen members of Safer Boulder were published by a group that infiltrated Safer Boulder’s Slack using a fake identity to express sympathy with Safer Boulder’s aims. Slack is a centralized online workspace that allows individuals to post direct and group messages.
Though a portion of the leaked documents have been in wide circulation and the subject of a conversation among the city’s political class, Boulder Weekly and Boulder Beat are reporting on the leaks in their entirety for the first time. What they reveal are Safer Boulder’s broader ambitions and efforts that predate the widely circulated petition. Members have secured spots on sanctioned city groups, been invited to speak on panels, and founded new political organizations.
A prominent Safer Boulder member, Steve Rosenblum, is running for city council this year, and earned the endorsement of a half-dozen current and former elected officials and a key political group that has been a dominant force in Boulder for more than 40 years.
Safer Boulder members exposed in the leaks insist the Slack workspace was not for political organizing, but rather a way for like-minded community members to gather and discuss their concerns. They view the chats as private communications of ordinary citizens and report being harassed, threatened and intimidated by fellow Boulderites for things they wrote.
Every member of Safer Boulder named on the Safer Leaks site was emailed for comment at email addresses included in a leaked directory. Additional messages were sent to 11 members who posted in the group’s Slack.
Five people identified in the leaked documents as Safer Boulder members active in the Slack confirmed that they wrote messages attributed to them; two others have neither confirmed nor disputed their authenticity. One has denied involvement and disputed the leaks as “fraudulent.” The identities of Safer Boulder members named in this story were verified using multiple, independent sources. Individuals who have not been confirmed as authors of posts are referred to by the names associated with active Slack accounts in the Safer Boulder workspace.
Most individuals who were named publicly as members of Safer Boulder did not participate in the Slack chats. Four such persons who replied to requests for comment said they were unaware of its existence but confirmed they had signed on to an email list, Facebook, or Nextdoor group because they have similar concerns about encampments.
What Safer Boulder members share—even with those with whom they vehemently disagree—is a realization that the current system serving unhoused individuals is not adequate to prevent people from living on the streets. Beyond the hateful rhetoric, deep resentment, and rejection of evidence-based practices are citizens weary of continued homelessness, hardened by a city celebrating success while hundreds remain on the streets.
Wrote one user: “My compassion has suffered a slow and painful death these past few years.”
Safer Boulder first emerged as the backers of a Change.org petition seeking to address rising crime “drug use . . . and environmental damage in our public places.” Not much was known about the group behind the petition: No organizers were listed for the petition, and Safer’s official website does not name leaders or provide contact information. It has not registered as an official committee with the city; any individual and group can endorse candidates for city council, but groups that solicit contributions and spend money on behalf of a candidate or issue during election season must register with the city and disclose certain information such as organizing officers, donors, spending, etc.
But leaked documents show they were known to those in power. Members had been meeting with elected officials since 2019, when they evaluated city council candidates for sympathy to their cause. Among their assessments:
- Rachel Friend “is a great listener . . . However, she seems to be in line with the addition of a lot of services.”
- Junie Joseph would be “difficult to work with on these issues.”
- Bob Yates “comes across as reasonable” but is a “100% politician . . . I would always double guess whatever he says.”
- Mark Wallach is “completely on board with us . . . The only candidate that straight out said crime is a problem, the transient population is a problem, and the needle program is a problem . . . But he is also realistic and pointed out that some solutions have been deemed unconstitutional.”
- Adam Swetlik had “a unique perspective” from his work as a bouncer downtown who worked with police often, but also initially supported decriminalizing homelessness. “It will be on us to convince him of what he should do,” members wrote. “He suggests if we want to help him help us, ‘the squeaky wheel gets the oil.’”
Two council members and two candidates confirmed these meetings.
As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened economic conditions and temporarily lessened enforcement of the camping ban, homelessness took center stage in city council discussions, bringing more attention to the issue.
Safer Boulder sought allies in business owners and the public at large. Throughout 2020, members distributed flyers throughout the downtown area, directing people to the petition, paid for 500 postcards to do the same and delivered binders of information and photos to council members’ homes. They also continued to meet with elected officials, including regular communication with Yates, who won re-election in 2019 with a record number of votes.
Council members frequently meet with residents and various interest groups; Yates is particularly responsive and accessible to the larger community. Yet Safer Boulder seemed to be given deferential treatment, nabbing a slide to themselves in an official presentation to city council during a July 2020 update on homelessness. The group’s requests were presented alongside recommendations from the city’s own housing and human rights groups.
Elevation of political groups to official presentations, while not entirely unprecedented, is rare enough that it drew questions from council and the community.
“Why did we give Safer Boulder their own slide that was equivalent to [board] recommendations?” Councilmember Friend asked. “And especially since there were other community groups writing in. I was sort of confused to see that slide.”
“That was a request by one of the council members to put that up there,” responded Housing and Human Services Director Kurt Firnhaber. “We had different requests by different council members.”
Safer Boulder’s website encourages residents to run for boards and commissions or city council. Planning Board member Jorge Boone was included in a leaked email directory and list of active Slack users. He did not post in any of the leaked messages, but other members claimed him as one of their own.
Boone said his interest in the board was not influenced by Safer Boulder. In response to emailed questions, Boone wrote that his sympathies align with the aims stated in the public petition—“the rise of crime in the city and in particular the extreme level of meth and heroin addiction in our city and in our public space”—but his involvement was limited to signing up for an email list.
“I was not involved (or frankly even aware) of any of the Slack message board,” he wrote.
While Safer Boulder’s leadership worked at weaving themselves into city politics, the group also ingratiated itself with the Boulder Police Department. Multiple food deliveries were made to police headquarters, funded by members of the group. (The quantity and total cost are unknown.)
Members obsessively documented crime—the topic had its own dedicated channel on the Slack—listening to the police scanner and pulling arrest records. They were critical of police reform and those who endorse it, questioning the idea that racial bias exists in local policing and extolling the virtues of broken windows policing, a theory that intervening in lesser crimes (such as vandalism) reduces serious crime. The strategy has been criticized as disproportionately harmful to people of color.
Brooke Harrison, identified in the leaks as an active Safer Boulder member, also sits on the police chief’s Community Dialogue and Engagement panel. Harrison’s name was included in the list of member email addresses, and an account with the same name posted frequently in Slack, updating the group about the panel’s meetings.
“[Boulder Police Chief] Maris [Herold] would like community support as she moves forward with her plan to rigidly adhere to a protocol to remove camps,” Harrison wrote on Friday, August 7, referencing the previous day’s meeting of the panel. “The biggest hurdle to enforcement in BPD’s and the group’s opinion is City Council. They need to be very clear in their support of BPD’s action and in their support of the camping ban. The residents of Boulder need to overcome the very vocal minority.”
On July 5, 2020, Harrison wrote “BPD has asked we oppose Bill 217,” referring to police reform legislation brought forward in the Colorado Senate that, among other things, made it easier to sue individual officers in civil court. (Senate Bill 217 was signed into law last summer).
Harrison did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Other members claimed to meet with Herold informally, reporting back that “Herold is ‘on board’ and strategizing” and that the chief confirmed the group’s suspicion that unhoused persons living in encampments “are criminals, mainly from out of town not the economically unfortunate, otherwise law abiding resident.”
Through a department spokesperson, Chief Herold said she “doesn’t recall that she made any of the [above] statements verbatim, but she was opposed to SB 217 as it was written and worked with legislators, community members, victim advocacy groups and prosecutors to get amendments included in it.”
The community panel is informed about “current laws” and other items of interest to policing and community safety “that will impact them or things that are not helpful,” Herold said. But members were not directed to take any particular position, she said in a brief interview.
“What they do with it is what they do with it.”
In the brief interview, Herold was unfamiliar with the group Safer Boulder, asking, “Who is Safer Boulder?” and showing no sign of recognition or awareness after an explanation. She also did not disclose or reference communications or meetings she had with Safer Boulder and its members.
Following publication of the article, Herold — again through a spokesperson — said she was aware of Safer Boulder, citing unspecified “confusion” for the conflict.
The first glimpse at who was behind Safer Boulder came in fall 2020. Screenshots of a private Slack group were posted on a website, Safer Leaks, and shared locally around various social media platforms. More than 40 alleged members were named, including a dozen who appeared to routinely post to Safer Boulder’s Slack workspace.
Safer Leaks focused on the harshest aspects of the chats, from gleeful recognition of the vulnerability of unhoused persons to calls for and celebrations of harm. Active participants in the group’s Slack were called out on individual pages, with selective screenshots highlighting the worst of their posts.
Craig Brooks joked that perhaps unsheltered people would be eaten by bears or mountain lions; suggested that Safer Boulder “raid” encampments at night, and expressed a desire for camps to be cleared with fire hoses.
“Not like they can call the police for help,” Brooks wrote. “They are pretty vulnerable if you think about it.”
Through an attorney, Brooks responded that he was not part of the group’s political organizing efforts and that his involvement with Safer Boulder was “only as an online chat participant.”
“He has no connections to city council members, elected officials, big wigs in the police department, he’s had no part in drafting their policy proposals,” said Dan Ernst, counsel for Brooks. “Whereas they actually are an organized group who meet and who are running a candidate [for city council] he’s not part of that. He’s not part of their election campaign. He hasn’t even been involved in conversing with these people for over a year.
“His participation was intended to be private communication and venting among confidantes—the type of thing that you would do in a living room or cafe, when those were available. They weren’t during the COVID. This was just, you know, his place to vent.”
Brooks contributed pictures of unhoused individuals—which he called “photos . . . of human trash”—to a Slack channel titled Photos. Images from this channel were compiled and distributed to city council members, according to leaked Slack messages and elected officials.
The Safer Leaks website allows anyone to download every purportedly leaked screenshot and document, more than 1,000 in all. Every item in that archive was reviewed for this article.
What the leaks reveal about the group is in sharp contrast to its public image. On Safer Boulder’s website, Brooke Harrison wrote that “Safer Boulder’s concern is not only for housed residents and visitors, but for the unhoused, who are disproportionately victimized.”
In the Slack conversations, Safer Boulder members reject many evidence-backed interventions. Members expressed deep skepticism of and/or opposition to a housing-first approach to homelessness, in which housing is used to stabilize individuals before attempting to tackle their other needs such as mental illness, addiction, physical health concerns or job training. Boulder County and other communities use Housing First as part of a continuum of services; the practice is supported by data and experts as more effective than treatment-first approaches in reversing long-term homelessness.
This rejection of housing-first principles appears to stem from a deep resentment of anyone getting help for free—particularly a population they view as “entitled criminals” and “methheads,” according to leaked documents.
As Todd Root wrote, “free housing is an insult to non-criminals trying to get by.”
There is an accepted need within Safer Boulder for better drug addiction and mental health treatment. Many members want treatment and/or employment mandated to receive housing, in direct contradiction of housing first principles.
The roots of addiction are oft-discussed in the Slack chats, with no consensus and little compassion, seen more as a personal failing than a medical condition or result of trauma. Recovering addicts are revered; those still in the grips of addiction are reviled, mocked and feared. Photos of individuals in various states of consciousness or crisis were met with jokes or disgust, as were images of encampments.
Leslie Chandler, who posted some of the photos, wrote in response to emailed questions that those pictures “and comments I made were displaying my frustration around the situation in our town where clearly mentally ill and/or substance addicted individuals aren’t receiving the services they need . . . and are rather wandering the streets. This is not good for them or our community.
“My comments were on a private Slack channel used for candid comments around the very frustrating topic of crime and safety issues facing Boulder. It is almost impossible to speak openly about this topic without being labeled negatively. My comments were taken out of context and given a narrative that is not accurate.”
Many members are incredulous of residents who advocate for more services or protections for the unhoused. They are categorized as disingenuous hypocrites or idiotic, virtue-signalling “do-gooding moron(s)” who want the unhoused to remain homeless. Protestors of encampment removals are “ignoramuses who attempt to gin up hate and aggression.”
Even the nonprofit agencies providing services are accused of profiting off homelessness. TGTHR, a nonprofit assisting unhoused youths who have aged out of the foster system, is lambasted frequently, referred to as “Aggression Homes” and “Detention Homes” (TGTHR was formerly known as Attention Homes) and its clients as drug users and “young up-and-coming criminals.”
“Sometimes I think the ‘10-year plan to end homelessness’ was actually a ‘10-year plan to establish homeless services as a profitable industry with as little accountability as possible,’” wrote Todd Root. “Taking care of the homeless is big business here in Boulder.”
Root did not respond to emailed requests for comment for this story.
Safe Access For Everyone (SAFE), a local group of activists/advocates for unhoused residents which has come under fire for its own methods and messaging, is a favorite target in the posts, ridiculed for handing out tents and survival gear and criticizing police action against unhoused people.
This user responded to an emailed request for comment with a cease-and-desist notice and threat of legal action.
“I am not a member of Safer Boulder,” she wrote. “The statements you falsely attribute to me, as claimed by an anonymous, unnamed source, are libelous and ridiculous.”
The request for comment was sent to an email address associated with a Slack account under the name Jillian Lloyd that posted to the Slack numerous times. The email address includes the full first and last name Jillian Lloyd.
There was acknowledgement in the documents that some unhoused individuals are victims of bad circumstances or economic conditions, but such admissions were few and far between. There was no explicit discussion in leaked materials of how broad enforcement actions impact these “harmless homeless” versus individuals Safer Boulder members viewed as more deserving of police action and jail time.
“They too suffer when the worst among them are not filtered out,” Root wrote. “(Really they suffer the most.)”
“We could support them better if the bad actors were handled differently,” the Lloyd account responded.
Safer Leaks did not garner too much attention outside of political insiders. The leaks did not receive media coverage at the time, and even those few who were paying attention soon moved on.
Then, in July, Steve Rosenblum announced his candidacy for city council, picking Safer Boulder chair Shari Roth as his campaign manager. Campaign finance records show that Roth and 11 other people named as members in the leaks donated to Rosenblum’s campaign; many also contributed financially to other candidates backed by the same groups that are supporting Rosenblum.
Rosenblum’s candidacy was soon endorsed by elected officials Wallach and Yates; a half-dozen former city council members lent their names as well, as did former Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett. Rosenblum also scored a coveted endorsement from PLAN-Boulder, a longtime presence in Boulder politics that has backed the majority of council members for several decades, as well as many members of boards, commissions and citizen working groups.
Forward Boulder, a newly formed political group, also endorsed Rosenblum. Rosenblum donated to Forward’s unofficial candidate committee, according to campaign finance records, as did eight other Safer Boulder members named in the leaks.
Like Safer Boulder, Forward’s website does not name its leaders or organizers. Official city filings show that one of Forward’s founding officers is Greg Ekrem, who was on a leaked list of Safer Boulder Slack members. An email with his name was also included on a member directory. He did not contribute to any of the leaked posts.
In response to emailed questions, an unnamed representative of Forward Boulder wrote that Ekrem’s involvement in Safer Boulder was limited to “joining a Google list.”
Boulder Progressives, a political organization that is backing a group of candidates opposed to Rosenblum and the other Forward-endorsed candidates, sent an email to followers highlighting the Safer Leaks website, and dedicated a page on its own website to Rosenblum’s leaked Slack posts. Rosenblum, through his attorney Garnett, is suing Boulder Progressives, its leadership, and two other politically active individuals for amplifying the Safer Leaks blog; the leaker is also named in the suit, as John Doe.
Rosenblum and Roth were more measured than other members on the Safer Boulder Slack. Their contributions to the Slack chat mainly consisted of support for police, criticisms of homeless services and affordable housing, and general discussions of encampments, policies and politics.
At times, Rosenblum pushed back on some of the more disturbing rhetoric. He once warned a member against painting “with too broad a brush.” But most of his remonstrations appeared aimed at public perception of the language itself, rather than the ideology behind it.
“Please be forceful but careful with your rhetoric,” he wrote after a Safer Boulder affiliate posted to Facebook comparing unhoused people to an infestation of rats. “The aim is persuasion. With respect, I would recommend avoiding loaded terms like ‘infestation’ when referring to homeless camps.”
In response to questions, Rosenblum said, “I didn’t view it as my role to constantly police people’s language, even though I attempted to. I wanted to use my time more productively.”
Roth responded, “Safer Boulder is a grassroots community group created by residents and business owners from all walks of life who are concerned about public safety in our town. Like all community groups, we reach out to city council members, the police chief, city staff and other decision-makers to educate, express concerns, and suggest approaches that might help reduce crime in Boulder.
“Safer Boulder is a loosely organized group of like-minded people on Next Door . . . This Slack group was a seemingly private social communication platform, not a place to set group agendas or policy . . . Safer Boulder has never been formally organized or had leadership structure . . . We are private citizens that have the accorded protections . . . Individual Slack posts do NOT reflect collective group opinions, values or ideology.
“Intimidation of groups like ours, through manipulating private communications, innuendo and doxxing is an effort to shut down public discussion of key issues.”
Safer Boulder members were aware that their ideas may not be well received outside the confines of their Slack. They were keen to keep their identities a secret; desires to submit op-eds to the Daily Camera were quelled by others pointing out that names were required.
Members may well have remained anonymous were it not for the leaks.
A person who belongs to a cohort claiming responsibility for the leaks agreed to speak for this story on condition of anonymity. They are sympathetic to the plight of unhoused individuals and have previous experience infiltrating and exposing neo-Nazis and white supremacists, they said.
Using a fake identity and AI-generated profile picture, the leakers were invited to join the Safer Boulder Slack after expressing support for the group’s aims and volunteering to help.
“The contributors to the Slack channel were not vetted,” Rosenblum wrote in an emailed response to questions. “All were welcome.” Harrison, in a September 13 post on Safer Boulder’s website, wrote, “Almost anyone who expressed interest in the organization was admitted.”
“When we decided to infiltrate,” the leakers said, “it was just to see what was going on behind the scenes. Once we saw, we decided to let the community know and other activists and unhoused folks know what their real motivations are and how they actually relate to unhoused folks.”
There was a private channel within the Slack workspace the leakers were not able to access, but they began taking screenshots of everything else that was available, they said, eventually securing hundreds of images. They lost access to the Slack workspace after the Safer Leaks website was published on October 6, 2020.
An archive of the leaks was also forced to switch servers, leakers said, after being suspended for violations of the terms of service “such as abuse of rights of others; sharing and/or importing illegal data; or system abuse,” the notification read.
There were missteps by the leakers. One individual was wrongly identified (that person declined to comment for this story) and Rosenblum was incorrectly linked to a Reddit account whose real author seemed to share many traits with Rosenblum that led leakers to believe it was him. The Reddit author and Rosenblum are both from Brooklyn, made references to real estate investing, shared similar views on unhoused residents and admiration for broken windows policing, and participated in many of the same leisure and recreation activities, the leakers said.
This information was removed from the Safer Leaks website after probing from a reporter. A deeper look at the Reddit account revealed that its author moved to Boulder many years ago; Rosenblum is a relatively recent transplant.
“I have a lot of guilt about that,” they said. “It’s really important to be accurate.”
The leakers stand by their actions. Private information such as email addresses and phone numbers was not posted in the curated Safer Leaks. (That information is contained in the archive of the full leaks, linked on the website.) Posting of private information on social media—often known as doxxing—occurred independently of the Safer Leaks effort.
The Safer Leaks website “was inspired by” sites that exposed leaked communications of far-right and white supremacist groups, with individual pages for alleged members that connect them to businesses they own or their places of employment. Most of Safer Boulder’s members were readily identifiable, having used their full first and last names in the Slack channel. Some shared personal details that made verification easy for the leakers; voter records and LinkedIns were used for confirmation.
Leaking the communications was essential, they asserted, to show that the public presentation of Safer Boulder was not representative of their true beliefs about unhoused individuals—attitudes they view as dangerous.
“A big part of fascism, classically, is fantasizing about a mythologized past in which your community was great and blaming that fall from grace on degenerates,” they said. “I’m not saying they are fascists, but I see similar rhetoric.”
Nor do they believe Safer Boulder members are the only ones who hold such views.
“Their agenda has pretty much been enacted in the city council. They were talking about how the police should be able to take a tent whenever they see it. Now they can. I think largely, they’ve been quite successful because the sort of powers-that-be align with their interests.”
Safer Boulder members believe they have tapped into a vein that runs beyond the halls of power. To some degree, they are right: City council was inundated with emails and calls to remove encampments (though the scope and source of such reports remains unknown).
Businesses also rallied against the rising crime they (rightly or wrongly) attributed to homelessness, testifying before state lawmakers against legislation that would have put fewer people behind bars for non-violent offenses. An alliance of business owners and police made Boulder the epicenter of a fight over jail reform, but they were joined by voices from around the state.
And Safer Boulder is far from alone in its calls for more criminalization of homelessness (though they dispute that characterization). According to the Slack discussion, members compared notes and gleaned information from similar groups in Austin and Seattle, where rising homelessness has also inspired backlash.
“These people talk about giving a voice to the voiceless—Hell, that’s what WE do,” the Lloyd account wrote.
It’s unclear if the majority of Boulder supports such policies. Extensive polling has not been done. There is but one survey to point to, commissioned by a former city councilwoman earlier this year. It found that more respondents (56%) strongly or somewhat supported allowing camps to remain than those who (35%) strongly or somewhat wanted camps to be removed.
Cary Paul, who did not participate in the Slack, wrote in response to emailed questions, “My intention is to try to let the city leaders know that there are folks who are not bleeding heart liberals for the homeless, and we live here and are not interested in attracting the homeless but rather interested in having good quality of life for those of us that invest in living here.”
Frustration with persistent homelessness is understandable, said Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy with the National Alliance to End Homelessness. It is a solvable problem that is being allowed to continue through inadequate or inefficient investment of resources, or barriers to access.
However, “that’s a reason to be frustrated with the community leaders,” he said, “not homeless people.”
The proof of whether or not a given system is working is not in the amount of money spent, Berg said, but in the results. Are people using the services that are available? Are there fewer people living unhoused and unsheltered? Are they accessing housing more quickly? Are they staying housed?
“What we know about what works to get people off the streets and into housing has been used and made to work in enough different communities that we can say pretty confidently what’s needed,” Berg said. “Arresting people is not what’s needed. That doesn’t work anywhere.”
Boulder issues tickets for violations of the camping and tent bans. Unpaid tickets are considered a failure to appear, or FTA. After three FTAs, a warrant for arrest is issued.
Using the cops and courts to address homelessness “has the opposite effect,” Berg said. “It makes cooperation less likely. You’re not going to deter people.”
“The idea that the homeless people are going to go away . . . They can’t just choose not to be homeless.”
Author’s note: This article has been updated with further comment from Chief Herold.
— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle
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