DENVER (CBS4)- Police officers across Colorado's Front Range have drastically decreased their interactions with the public in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the re-emergence of cries for further police accountability. With the decline in officer-initiated contact, criminal justice experts warn there could be an exodus of police officers from the state and a potential increase in crime.
Statistics compiled from nearly a dozen major law enforcement agencies along the Interstate 25 corridor showed most had a significant decline in officer-initiated interactions with the public in May and June of this year. Following the emergence of COVID-19 and Colorado lawmakers eliminating qualified immunity via Senate Bill 217, multiple agencies and law enforcement experts confirmed good officers are reconsidering the profession.
Officers from multiple agencies, between Douglas County and the Wyoming border, told CBS4's Dillon Thomas the pressures on law enforcement officers have dramatically increased in recent months, which in turn has caused many officers to limit non-dispatched interactions with the community. Some agencies even told their officers to limit their traffic stops to decrease the odds of contracting or spreading coronavirus.
Arvada Police Detective Dave Snelling told CBS4 in his nearly 30 years of service, the summer of 2020 has been the most trying time he has seen the profession go through.
"This has been one of the most challenging years in my career," Snelling said. "(COVID-19 and national movements) just added a lot of stress to an already stressful job."
By comparing year-to-year statistics CBS4 was able to see how most of the surveyed agencies experienced drops in officer-initiated traffic stops (OITS), while calls for service (CFS) were often not impacted to the same extent.
|May 2019||May 2020||Variance||June 2019||June 2020||Variance|
Criminal justice experts and police officers said some outlying factors to those statistics could be an increase in investigations for crimes which commonly increase in the summer months, and major agencies assisting in protest and riot control.
Snelling said polls taken by the City of Arvada show police tend to have a positive relationship with the surrounding community. However, he confirmed there has been some turnover within the profession in recent months.
"For our police department we had more of a turnover," Snelling said. "There are other agencies where officers have left the profession."
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith told CBS4, via written statement, that he knew of multiple officers from agencies who were considering leaving their departments to work in cities and counties, or even a state, which better supports law enforcement officers following the passage of SB-217.
"We've heard from some very good officers in other agencies who've shown interest in applying at the LCSO because they still have a desire to serve, but they are disheartened by the unwillingness of city leaders to stand up for them and their families," Smith wrote.
MSU Denver professor Stacey Hervey is a former police officer and currently teaches criminology to students at both the collegiate and high school levels. Hervey said the reason most agencies saw drops, some close to 70%, in officer initiated contact with the public was due to COVID-19 and SB-217.
"You are seeing a huge pendulum shift with society," Hervey said. "You are seeing officers who, because of what is happening in the community, not really wanting to be as proactive in those stops."
Hervey said following the elimination of qualified immunity in Colorado, which came soon after George Floyd's death in Minnesota, many officers aren't as willing to put themselves in situations which they aren't dispatched to.
She said the fear of contracting COVID-19, or putting their families at financial risk for actions they believed were necessary to protect the community, pushed many good-officers away from a profession they've loved.
"I personally know five officers who, when (SB217) passed, started looking for other jobs or retirement," Hervey said. "There's definitely a movement to get out as soon as they can."
While agencies work to restore confidence and support in local officers, some feared the current climate and pandemic could keep promising aspiring officers to not pursue their dreams.
"It is really hard when you are not hearing anything positive from the communities you serve. You are only seeing the negative," Hervey said. "But when you have the liability you have now, it is risky for officers and civilians too… It is going to be more difficult to recruit strong police officers who have a strong relationship with community policing."
Snelling said officers in his department are pressing forward with as positive of an attitude as they can, even when placed in situations that put either their safety or health in jeopardy.
"It is frightening when you see these things nationally, locally," Snelling said. "(Officers are) sensitive to these topics. But, I think they also understand they have a job to do and a community to keep safe. We want our officers to be safe. If they don't feel safe, and they don't feel confident, then they can't protect their community."
Both Snelling, and Hervey, agreed one of the best places to start in the journey to repairing relations with the community comes at the hiring process. Snelling said his agency requires a four-year degree, which often means applicants are thoroughly versed in the profession before patrolling the streets.
Hervey said most of her students are from minority communities, and many want to use their upbringing to diversify and strengthen departments in Colorado.
"The change has to come from within. It is not a perfect system. Hopefully (society doesn't) get so far that we can't swing the pendulum back in to the middle ground," Hervey said. "Most police officers go in to it because they want to do good. They're going to still help people who are in need."
As law enforcement officers in Colorado navigate a new reality with COVID-19 and increased pressures for accountability, many say the public should be reminded that most officers have a heart to serve anyone in need.
"The only thing we can do is go out and keep doing this job and understand that above all of this is a greater job to do," Snelling said. "The people who expect us to be there on their worst day, we can't let them down."
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