Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday unveiled a public safety program designed to move Colorado from the middle of the pack to one of the best states in the nation for public safety.
Ahead of the package’s rollout at a state capitol press conference Thursday, Polis, in an interview Wednesday, told Colorado Politics that his legislative solution is a two-year proposal, which he aims to fund with one-time federal dollars from US bailout law. He hopes that if some or all of these programs are successful, there will be interest in longer-term funding, with a five-year goal to get Colorado into the list of the 10 safest states.
“We know that evidence-based decisions on grants are very helpful in addressing public safety issues,” Polis said.
The package includes several elements already before lawmakers. These include a request by Polis to add 107 full-time employees to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation as part of its 2022-23 submission to the Joint Budget Committee, and Senate Bill 1, a measure sponsored by Senator Janet Buckner, D-Aurora and Rep. Kerry Tipper, D-Lakewood, on preventing crime through “safer streets” design changes.
Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said Wednesday that the intent was not to try to replicate mass incarceration activities. Instead, the state is “trying to get ahead with prevention and treatment, and addressing some of the social issues that drive people to get involved in justice.”
Hilkey explained that CBI conducted a nationwide survey and found Colorado had the lowest number of state investigators per capita in the country. Even with the 107 investigators proposed by Polis, Colorado’s national ranking would still be fourth from bottom.
Currently, CBI has only 45 investigators in its forensic and investigative units. CBI is an “on demand” agency, which means it receives requests for help with cases and, for now, either says no or tells the requester that assistance may be delayed. This led to a backlog.
“We want to be able to say ‘yes’ more often,” Hilkey said.
The package also includes another bill already in the works: House Bill 1003, sponsored by Representatives Lindsey Dougherty, D-Arvada and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver.
The bill establishes a $2.1 million pilot grant program for delinquency prevention and intervention with young offenders to the Criminal Justice Division of DPS.
Several other provisions of the package have not yet been introduced but are expected to arrive next week.
This includes a Buckner-backed bill called “Measures to Increase Community Safety,” which requires at least $24.5 million over two years to fund two or more grant programs within the Department of Public Safety. Grants will go to law enforcement and other local government agencies to identify high crime areas. A second section deals with manpower recruitment, retention for law enforcement, and tuition for the political academy.
“We don’t have enough police right now,” Buckner told Colorado Politics.
This grant program is primarily aimed at recruiting police officers of color, not just those who are black or Latino. Buckner explained that her Aurora-based district has a large Asian-American population and that she would like to see that community represented in the police force.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle welcomed the proposal, noting that recruitment and retention efforts have recently been a “huge challenge” both in Colorado and across the country.
“The Governor’s proposal includes grants and assistance to assist with recruiting efforts and to potentially help pay for community college police academy training for recruits who otherwise could not afford it,” said he declared. “The sheriffs and chiefs the governor has met with to develop this strategy are very supportive and appreciate this effort.”
Another bill in the package will resurrect a grant program for schools to upgrade security procedures, such as door locks and video systems, and provide training to deal with active shooter situations. Sen. Chris Kolker’s bill, D-Centennial, also requires schools to coordinate more closely with law enforcement. The grant program, which mirrors one that ended a few years ago, will be funded with $2 million in federal dollars.
The set also includes a measure that borrows from concepts of a paired co-respondent program: the Denver Support Team Assisted Response Program and the Mental Assessment Response Team Program at the Summit County system-wide, both of which handle mental health 911 calls. The STAR program sends paramedics and social workers to handle nonviolent calls to 911 instead of the police. The SMART program pairs a police officer with a mental health counselor, who jointly respond to mental health-related police calls.
District Attorney Brian Mason for the 17th Judicial District (Adams and Broomfield Counties) told Colorado Politics he is very excited about a package that represents a historic investment in crime prevention as well as keeping people to enter the criminal justice system.
“It invests in infrastructure, co-responder models, violence interruption, child trauma screening and domestic violence programs,” all of which he said will have an impact measurable impact on community safety.
Mason added that he’s most excited about a bill of the package that invests in behavioral health.
This measure takes $47.9 million in federal ARPA money and directs it to a variety of behavioral health programs. According to the measure, it would fund criminal justice early intervention programs to “prevent at-risk individuals from becoming or becoming more involved in the criminal justice system, adding extra bed capacity in Colorado. Mental Health Institute in Fort Logan, and strengthen the state’s behavioral health workforce by offsetting loans, providing scholarships, and leveraging bounty payments in underserved communities.
Mason noted that 37% of inmates in federal and state prisons, and 44% of those in prison, report some type of mental health issue.
“It’s a huge problem for us,” he said. “If we can address mental health issues before people turn to criminal activity,” it will have an impact on the criminal justice system.
Much of the package is community-based, which appeals to Servicios de la Raza’s Rudy Gonzales. He told Colorado Politics he spent 13 years trying to bring in resources to help his community. The package “allows us and others like us to determine our own destiny, by developing and implementing culturally responsible programming” that will reduce crime and contribute to economic factors.
It also appeals to law enforcement and other officials.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said in a statement that he viewed the package as “a step in the right direction.”
“Colorado has significant crime and public safety challenges, and while this legislative package does not address many of the challenges we face, it is a step in the right direction. The pendulum must swing back to a much greater focus on the safety and security of our fellow citizens,” he said.
Montrose Police Chief Blaine Hall said he supports the package and Polis’ efforts to “strengthen our peace officer recruiting, hiring, retention programs and mental health support systems.” . Hall said he also supports the additions for CBI, which he said investigates major crimes in Colorado communities with limited resources.
“The public safety bill will benefit our law enforcement officers and Colorado communities in reducing crime in the future,” Hall said.
Bishop Jerry Demmer, president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, also weighed in to support the package.
“These funds will have an impact on issues that plague communities of color,” he said. “Only a true partnership can solve the problems of violence and crime.”
The Colorado District Attorney’s Board also met with the governor on the case. Suggestions from Mesa, Weld, Boulder and Jefferson county DAs identified priority areas, most of which were included in the package, according to Dan Rubenstein of the Mesa County-based 21st Judicial District.
“All components are enhancements to our current public safety issues,” Rubenstein added.
Although many law enforcement and other government officials support the package, support is not unanimous.
The Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, the Fraternal Order of Police of Colorado and Colorado County Sheriffs sent a letter to Polis ahead of Thursday’s press conference, accusing the governor and the Democratic-controlled legislature “recent changes in legislation and policy (which) have directly contributed to rising crime rates and difficulties in recruiting and retaining officers.”
The letter says the organizations have not taken an official position on the package, citing “its failure to advance policy changes alongside ongoing budget proposals.”
Editor’s Note: This story will be updated.