Occupy SLC protesters ordered out of park following death

Published: Friday, Nov. 11 2011 12:00 p.m. MST

Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank and Pamela Atkinson confer in Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on November 11, 2011. Chief Burbank announced Friday he could no longer allow camping in the park or anywhere in the city.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News\r\n

SALT LAKE CITY — Hours after a man was found dead inside a tent at Pioneer Park, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank announced Friday he could no longer allow camping in the park or anywhere in the city.

"We can no longer have individuals camping on our streets," Burbank said. "We as a city just cannot tolerate this going on."

Burbank asked members of the Occupy Salt Lake City protest group to start packing immediately and to be out of the park by sunset today. The ban on camping overnight also includes the Gallivan Center, where a group was recently moved after setting up camp near the Federal Building.

Burbank made the announcement Friday at Pioneer Park at the Occupy Salt Lake City base camp. He said the group was welcome to continue protesting during the day, but they will no longer be allowed there at night.

The decision followed the death of a man who had been sleeping at the park in a tent. Investigators believe the man died from a combination of carbon monoxide poisoning due to a space heater inside his tent and a drug overdose. The man, whose body was discovered just after 10 a.m. Friday, was not immediately identified.

"We're happy to have people utilize our parks to express themselves and to get the message out there and we will facilitate their ability to do that," Burbank said. "Someone lost their life and as a police chief and as a city, we cannot tolerate that because we have other options."

A gas burner was seen in the tent and police collected wads of Kleenex, foil and a syringe from the area.

As the weather was expected to get colder, and as problems with drugs and alcohol in the park continued, Burbank said he could no longer have people in his city risk their lives when there were services available to help them.

"We cannot allow this to take place," he said. "We cannot risk a single individual."

Since the Occupy Salt Lake City movement began Oct. 6, bike patrol officers have made 91 arrests at Pioneer Park, mainly for misdemeanor drug- and alcohol-related crimes, according to Burbank.

Four people were arrested following a fight at the park at 3:30 a.m. Thursday that involved about 30 people.

Police say many of those arrested since October are people whom they've dealt frequently with in the past, including transients prior to the protest. But since the ban on camping at the park was put on hold, many of those people have been able to do illegal activities at the park and have a tent to shield their activities.

Burbank held a moment of silence at the camp Friday for the man who died.

The police chief said he will work with the group to find alternative places to sleep. But if there are people who refuse to leave and want instead to be arrested, Burbank said he will accommodate them.

"I'm hopeful that we won't have to," he said, while adding that officers will "treat them with respect and that's all we want from them."

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker issued a statement Friday in support of the police decision. He said the death and the concerns of social service providers made a change necessary, but officials are not attempting to halt the protest.

"The decision to stop issuing camping permits is in no way a call to impede the free speech rights of the Occupy SLC group," Becker said. "The Pioneer Park protest site has become a place where some members of our homeless population have settled rather than seek available shelter and needed services. The unfortunate death that occurred Thursday night illustrates the necessity to prohibit overnight camping in the city.

"We will continue, as a city, to honor and respect the rights of all of our residents to express themselves, however, that must be accomplished without the embellishment of encampments on public property."

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