Paul Pazen

Last week, Coloradans and people across the nation celebrated National Police Week. It was an opportunity to value the sacrifice that so many women and men have made in service to their country as law enforcement professionals.

As the Public Safety Fellow with Common Sense Institute (CSI), Police Week has also been an opportunity to examine trends, research the facts, and seek solutions to the challenges plaguing our public safety system. In coming weeks, CSI will issue a report on it and detail the findings to inform state and local policymakers.

Public safety plays a unique role in the economic vitality of a community. Increases in population, attracting businesses, generating a workforce, and bolstering the ability to attract tourism are directly related to the real and perceived safety challenges in our communities.

Unfortunately, Colorado is trending in the wrong direction. For many years, Colorado ranked below the national average in violent and property crimes. Sadly, that trend has changed.

According to the data, the trend began to shift in 2014. Much of the shift in the crime rate has been attributed to the increase in the motor vehicle theft rate. It’s no secret that Colorado holds the notorious rank of No. 1 in the nation for auto theft.

In fact, the crime rate for motor vehicle thefts reached an all-time high in 2022 at 801.2 thefts per 100,000 and cost Coloradans an additional $277 million in increased motor vehicle insurance premiums according to CSI. These increased premiums negatively impacted Colorado, resulting in 1,500 fewer jobs and a reduction of $158 million in state GDP.

As chief of police for Denver, I faced the same challenges that many major cities around the country are seeing — alarming increases in violent crime, including gun violence and unabated increases in property crime. These challenges were exacerbated in Colorado, however, compared to other states.

Before my retirement from the Denver Police Department in October, I sounded the alarm when Colorado reported 364 homicides — up from 101 in 2010 — and the dramatic rise in auto thefts.

There is a clear connection between the auto thefts and violent crime, too. Our vehicles are not being stolen by kids out for a joyride. Vehicles are being stolen in furtherance of other crimes, such as shootings. The question we should ask: Do you feel safer today than you did three years ago, five years ago or 10 years ago? Data is very clear.

As a state, we cannot attribute this simply to impacts of the pandemic; Colorado stands out as an outlier, and not in a good way. According to FBI data, Colorado is one of only a few states in the country that saw the crime rate increase between 2019 and 2020. In fact, only three states had a worse outcome. This begs the question: What makes the environment for criminal activity in the state more likely than in other states?

Impact of legislation

Elected officials at all levels of government play an important role in not only legislative and policy decisions but also setting the tone for a community. Laws enacted by the Colorado Legislature have, in my opinion, contributed to the climate. The impact of specific legislation has only fueled the belief by some that there are no consequences for breaking the law in Colorado.

Consider House Bill 14-1266. This legislation started the unfortunate trend putting Colorado in the unenviable position of No. 1 on the list of auto theft crime. The bill attached the penalty for auto theft to the value of the vehicle. The bill also created threshold loss levels for a full range of penalties from a Class 2 felony down to a petty offense or a low-level misdemeanor.

The result, however, created a disproportionate impact on individuals who drive inexpensive cars. In other words, if someone steals the car of a single parent driving a 10-year-old domestic car working multiple jobs, trying to still shuttle their kids back and forth to school, and find time to make it to the grocery store, they receive a lower charge than the person who steals the expensive sports car of an individual who owns multiple expensive vehicles. Coupled with other legislative changes, we as a society are faced with an increased number of individuals who repeatedly steal cars and face no consequences.

This year, the Legislature tried to rectify the problem and passed SB 23-097. The bill raised the penalties for motor vehicle theft. Under SB 23-097, motor vehicle theft in the first degree is a Class 3 felony, motor vehicle theft in the second degree is a Class 4 felony, and motor vehicle theft in the third degree is a Class 5 felony. The bill also creates the offense “unauthorized use of a motor vehicle” and makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor, or a Class 5 felony for a second or subsequent offense.

Parole and recidivism

In the year before and the year of the pandemic, the state took action to change the process for parole. SB 19-143 and House Bill 20-1019 significantly decreased the number of parole denials and increased the number of discretionary parole releases. At the same time, the state signaled to those on parole that if they left their responsibilities of being at a halfway house, they would receive a misdemeanor charge and not the felony that previously loomed over their head should they not complete the conditions of their parole. Since 2010, the average length of stay of parole returns has declined 59%.

I highlight SB 19-143 and HB 20-1019 not to signal that I would prefer that we lock people up and throw away the key; this is counterproductive and does little to support individuals and their families. Reports indicate only three states have a worse recidivism rate than Colorado. Instead, I am asking for these measures to be evaluated.

Illegal drugs and overdoses

HB 19-1263 downgraded possession of 4 grams or less of a controlled substance listed in Schedule I or II, including fentanyl, to a Level 1 drug misdemeanor from a Level 4 drug felony. It would take a fourth or subsequent offense for possession of 4 grams or less of a Schedule I or II controlled substance or any amount of a Schedule III, IV, or V controlled substance for an individual to be charged with a Level 4 drug felony. In the subsequent years, we saw an explosion of fentanyl being seized, and deaths where fentanyl was present in the toxicology report nearly tripled.

Lastly, SB 21-271, on misdemeanor, reform decategorized and reduced sentences of misdemeanor and petty offenses. This might seem innocuous, but the lowering of the charges increased the personal recognizance bonds that were issued. Has this been effective and achieved its intended outcome? The answer is we do not know. Court data is not readily available to the public, and when I was the chief of police in Denver, the data on the court’s side of the criminal justice system did not allow for effective, efficient evaluation. Focusing on funding to modernize the court’s data systems should be a legislative priority.

Consequences for cities

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Another consequence of legislation and public perception of the state trending in the wrong direction is the change in population between the Denver metro counties and more rural counties. A report from the Economic Innovation Group found that while the city and county of Denver averaged 2.4% annual growth in population from 2011 through 2019, the city has now lost population since the start of the pandemic. And Denver is not alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Boulder, Jefferson, and Arapahoe have also decreased in population while Douglas, Weld, and Larimer have shown an increase.

Increased crime impacts taxable sales through lower levels of foot traffic from visitors as they steer clear of higher-crime areas, thus lowering retail sales at local businesses. Additionally, businesses might exit the area as they are subject to more crime and also reduced sales. As a consequence, persistent high crime eventually erodes the tax base for local government.

I am a proud, born-and-raised Denver resident who loves Denver. That is why it is so confounding to me that we do not continue to see steady growth. Certainly, the cost of living plays a role in this as does the shift to more remote and hybrid work options. So, what are we missing? The hypothesis that I have been discussing for the last couple of years is that people no longer view major cities as safe because of the shift by our politicians toward caring more about offenders than victims of crime.

It is no secret that law enforcement agencies across the country are facing staffing challenges. In Denver, 145 officers in 2021 and 132 in 2022 left the department, up sharply from just 78 in 2020. Police officers are the most visible aspect of local government. The public’s perception of the department and their safety has an outsized impact on how they view the quality of their local government. When people perceive policing positively, they are more likely to feel safe and trust their local government.

A tale of two cities

An appropriately staffed and supported police department is essential to a prosperous city. Consider the differences between Denver and Colorado Springs.

Denver and Colorado Springs are about 70 miles from each other. The population of Denver is 705,000 and Colorado Springs is 488,000. Since 2010, each city has experienced different trends in the crime rate, uniformed policing numbers and police budgets.

From 2010 to 2022, the crime rate in Denver rose from 5,139.17 per 100,000 to 6,783.13 per 100,000, a 32% increase. At the same time, the number of uniformed police officers fielded by the Denver Police Department declined from 239.1 per 100,000 to 203 per 100,000, a 15.1% decrease.

In Colorado Springs, the crime rate decreased 15.9% from 8,555 per 100,000 in 2010 to 7,195 in 2022, while the number of police officers fielded by the Colorado Springs Police Department rose 5.7%, from 154.2 per 100,000 to 163 per 100,000 in 2022.

In the absence of trust in government and police, our community members will fill in the gap. A recent story in Time magazine highlighted the increase in armed guards in other states, and here in Denver we have seen an increase in individuals obtaining security guard licenses — 6,719 in 2022, up 19% from 5,645 in 2020 — to meet the demand for individuals and businesses looking to protect their neighborhood or business.

Safe, healthy communities support the local economy by stimulating job creation for local residents and bringing in additional businesses that want to take advantage of an educated populace and access to local amenities such as Colorado’s plentiful recreational opportunities. This reduces unemployment rates and increases the income of local residents, which contributes to greater economic stability and prosperity.

A thriving retail, recreational, and dining scene brings in greater tourism dollars and large conferences, further increasing our state’s visibility and reputation as a destination for leisure and entertainment. CSI research recently found that sports, recreation, and tourism contributes $60 billion (nearly 14%) toward Colorado’s gross domestic product.

These activities at the end of the day lead to higher tax revenue, which we can use as a state to fund public services such as education, transportation, social services and infrastructure improvements.

The recent increases in crime, however, can have a significant negative impact on our ability to attract businesses and spur employment activity. Crime creates an environment of fear and insecurity, which can deter businesses from setting up shop in the area and discourage people from coming to work or visit.

Businesses require a safe and secure environment to operate effectively. If an area has a reputation for being unsafe or having high crime rates, businesses might be hesitant to invest in the area due to concerns about employee safety, theft, and vandalism. Additionally, for individuals who live in the suburbs, exurbs and rural Colorado, crime and the perception of crime act as a deterrent to individuals and their families visiting urban areas.

Therefore, it is important for community leaders and law enforcement agencies to work together to address crime and improve public safety to create a more attractive environment for businesses and residents.

A path forward

To change course, we have to address challenges with facts and data-driven strategies, not emotion. Following emotion and not evidence has led us to a placed where we pass legislation virtue signaling to a political base without any robust policy evaluation or reflection.

The result? We fall short of our basic responsibility in government to protect all who call Colorado home. This is not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue; nor is it a choice between abolishing the police or locking everyone up. There is a way to increase public safety in a fair a just manner; evidence and data, not emotion is how we improve the quality of life for the people of Colorado.

President John F. Kennedy famously asked, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” It is one of my favorite quotes.

Public safety calls upon each one of us. It is not solely the commitment to serve as a police officer, it is also about engaging in our communities, getting to know our neighbors, and finding ways to focus on what brings us together rather than those things that divide us.

Paul Pazen, a former Denver police chief, is a public safety fellow at Common Sense Institute.

Paul Pazen, a former Denver police chief, is a Public Safety Fellow at Common Sense Institute.