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SALT LAKE CITY — Hours after a man was found dead inside a tent at Pioneer Park, Salt Lake 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 protest group to start packing immediately and to be out of the park by sunset Saturday. 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 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.
Someone lost their life and as a police chief and as a city, we cannot tolerate that because we have other options.
–Chief Chris Burbank, SLCPD
"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."
Occupiers past problems with police
Since the Occupy Salt Lake 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 Mayor supports Burbank's decision
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.”
Reaction from occupiers mostly negative
Reaction among people camped at the park to Friday's announcement was mixed, but mostly negative.
Protesters released an official statement Friday night, saying the city's decision to shut the camp down will result in even more homeless deaths.
"Let's be clear: we have been providing food, shelter, and health care services. To react by shutting this down will lead to more people dying alone, cold, hungry and without shelter," it read. "Occupy SLC is putting a spotlight on untreated mental health issues, substance abuse, homelessness, and poverty in our community."
Occupy protester Seth Walker said it would be "extremely naive" to think homelessness and people freezing to death would stop just because they aren't allowed to camp in Pioneer Park any more. He noted that if not for the Occupy movement, the death of a homeless person in the park from a drug overdose would never have received as much attention as it has.
"This movement is not going to stop," he said. "I won't stop."
When asked whether he was prepared to be arrested Saturday, Walker only replied, "No comment."
Activist Jesse Fruhwirth said he felt as though the city and police were using Occupy Salt Lake City as a "scapegoat" for the death and to justify ousting the protesters.
We are all here exercising our constitutional right of assembly. We're not hurting anyone. It's a peaceful protest. (The victim) died of his own stupidity." -Simon Dillion, protester
"It's incredibly unfortunate," he said.
Simon Dillion, from Connecticut, said the campers would like to get together Friday night and figure out what their next move will be. When asked whether he was prepared to be arrested, he said he didn't know.
"We are all here exercising our constitutional right of assembly," he said. "We're not hurting anyone. It's a peaceful protest. (The victim) died of his own stupidity."
Some of the homeless people who have been sleeping near the Occupy group say they don't get any help at the homeless shelter and are often refused. Some members said they've gotten more help from the Occupy group than city officials.
However, homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson said the only people who are refused at the shelter are those who insist on drinking or doing drugs or who cause a disruption inside the shelter.
Burbank said last year, the numbers at Salt Lake's homeless shelter were so low that the overflow shelter was never opened. He believes Salt Lake City has enough resources to help all the Occupy protesters and the homeless who want it.