About this series
Thursday marked one year since Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order as COVID cases in Colorado surpassed 1,000. Starting today, The Leader is taking a look at the impacts of the pandemic and the adjustments it prompted in organizations including city government, health care, law enforcement, nonprofits and schools.
Today: Petty crimes and changing procedures: Pandemic has had an impact on law enforcement, criminal justice | (Español)
Sunday: School during the pandemic: The good, the bad, the ugly, and what the future holds
Businesses, nonprofits, health care providers and schools are not alone in feeling the impact of the changes brought on by COVID-19. Law enforcement also has had to change tactics during the pandemic and some say it has been the driving force behind a rise in petty crimes.
“Initially, it is a lot like most of the things Public Safety deals with, something comes through the system and it’s not something that we have encountered before,” Rob Spendlow, interim Longmont Public Safety chief, said. “Public Safety is a pretty resilient bunch. They do a good job of figuring out very quickly how to mitigate and try to stabilize the situation. I would say this (the pandemic) started out similar.”
Longmont Public Safety is made up of fire, police and emergency services with just under 300 employees working every day year-round, according to the city website.
“We don’t get to stop doing what we are doing, we have to go to calls. We don’t get to say ‘let’s pause everything for a week and figure out … the dangers.’ We had to engage,” Spendlow said.
Public Safety also is a “team sport,” Spendlow said. It became a challenge for police officers and fire staff to always observe social distancing protocols while on the job.
“... The stress levels and the fatigue with doing the job and the isolation, not having that built-in support system of their coworkers and that downtime where you could be together and relax and decompress, that has all been somewhat taken away, especially early on in this,” he said.
Social distancing changed the way Public Safety communicated as well. Staff had to become much more adept with technology, a skill Spendlow said was challenging at first. The challenge also grew when it came to protocols and procedures for responding to emergency calls, dealing with medical directives and the proper safety equipment to wear.
COVID impacts jail capacity
Also new and challenging were the guidelines for who would and wouldn’t be accepted at the Boulder County Jail as it was faced with reducing its population in an attempt to control outbreaks of the virus.
In March 2020, the average population of Boulder County Jail was around 420 detainees, said Timothy Oliveira, jail support services commander.
The jail worked with the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office and the 20th Judicial District to reduce its numbers by examining who “can we safely release back into the public, not release them of their charges, but maybe put them out on bond or some other form of incarceration such as at-home detention, ” Oliveira said.
With the combined effort, the jail population was reduced by 50% in a short period of time, Oliveira said.
To prevent widespread infections at Boulder County Jail, staff had to change the procedures for housing detainees and how it processes people when they arrive.
Housing quickly became a large hurdle, as the jail was expected to observe social distancing among detainees, Oliveira said. The lack of space also required the jail to reevaluate who it would accept based on the crimes they were accused of “because we didn’t want to flood the jail again,” he said.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle had to explain to police departments and municipalities across the county that new arrest and charge standards limited who and how many people would be allowed into the jail, Oliveira said.
“That’s where it has caused chiefs of police a little bit of struggle because at the end of the day, who do they answer to, their constituents, right? People are seeing (people who commit) trespasses and nuisance crimes that might have been able to normally come to jail, right back out on the street. It frustrates businesses, business (owners) and private citizens. But it is a necessity in order to keep this facility safe,” Oliveira said.
Increase in petty crimes, car thefts
The result and knowledge the jail is not accepting people accused of certain crimes has led to lesser serious offenders getting more brazen, Spendlow said. Some people are more inclined to attempt eluding police and are escalating the brazenness of their crimes since police are now limited in who they can book into the jail, he said.
Standards are restrictive about who can come to jail during the pandemic, with felonies, victims' rights cases and domestic violence-related crimes all meeting the bar, Pelle told the Leader in December. Felony property crimes do, too, he said, but the reality of the pandemic means many people booked at the jail for such offenses are released on personal recognizance bonds within a few hours.
Spendlow said he doesn’t feel the department has seen large jumps in the number of serious crimes, “but a lot of our petty offenses, a lot of our minor stuff, we have definitely seen increases across the board.”
Police officers have been frustrated by the inability to control the situation, he said.
Longmont Police Sgt. Matt Cage said, “It makes things quite interesting on the streets when people are stealing cars and getting caught and getting a ticket.”
He said he believes the increase in certain crimes is due to people knowing they will not be jailed for their offenses.
In 2019, Longmont Public Safety reported 300 stolen vehicles. That number increased to 443 in 2020. That increase is being mirrored in communities across the Denver metro area. In October, CPR News reported metro area car thefts from July to September were up 80%, and last week, the Denver Post reported auto theft in Denver was up 145% in the first few months of this year.
In the past, car thefts often were attached to a theft ring, Cage said.
“... They commit a lot of crimes, maybe steal some cars, some burglaries, car break-ins, all related. They can do it for a while and then we catch them and then our rates drop and then a new group will start to do this and then we’ll catch them and they’ll drop (crime rates). But that’s not happening right now,” he said.
Another factor in play that is pushing petty crime rates up is need, Cage said.
“With COVID, a lot of people have lost their jobs and people are going and shoplifting at the grocery store, Walmart and Target,” he said.
Cage said he and other officers try to connect those stealing to survive with other resources including the Longmont Community Justice Partnership; the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program; and the Angel Initiative, depending on the severity of the crime.
In many cases, crimes that might have been jailable offenses prior to the pandemic are now addressed with summonses.
Pandemic impacts court system, too
Although suspects are being handed summonses, for a large portion of last and this year they were not able to attend court for their offenses.
“Statewide, trials have been suspended for most of the past year and that’s caused us a really significant trial backlog,” Boulder County District Attorney Michael Doughety said.
Boulder County had 113 felony jury trials scheduled over the course of 100 days beginning on March 1, the date on which jury trials resumed. Statewide the backlog has grown to 14,000 trials. Because of health protocols and the multiple days it takes to complete each trial, the District Attorney’s Office is only able to try a few cases at a time, Dougherty said.
The backlog of cases and the inability to try cases through the pandemic has forced the District Attorney’s Office to examine the trial process and ensure it “helps everyone in the system really access the case,” Dougherty said, adding that scheduling trials pushes prosecutors, defense attorneys and defendants to evaluate whether a case can be resolved with a plea or proceed to trial.
Throughout the pandemic, the District Attorney’s Office also attempted to use and expand its restorative justice program to divert appropriate cases from the court system.
“We have a very successful rate of completion in diversion and for each of those offenses, the recidivism rate is really low,” Dougherty said.
Despite best efforts, there are cases that cannot be resolved without a trial, he said. One of his concerns is that the state Legislature has yet to address the topic of speedy trial, which could result in some cases being thrown out of court.
“... Here we are a year later and the Legislature is back in session. I’m hopeful that they’ll address it this session because otherwise we are going to end up in a difficult position of having the court dismiss cases for us failing to try cases within the defendant’s speedy trial time,” Dougherty said of the mandate that trials take place within six months of a defendant entering a not guilty plea.
Dougherty said he hopes lawmakers will adopt legislation allowing the courts or the governor to declare a suspension of the speedy trial requirement during times of emergency. Such a policy has been implemented in other states, as well as in New York in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“We aren’t going to move to dismiss cases just to lighten our caseload. We are going to fight for justice in each and every one of those cases,” Dougherty said.
The community can help play a role in preventing some crimes such as car theft by locking their vehicle doors. The Boulder County District Attorney’s Office and Longmont Police Department have used social media and other means to remind residents to keep valuables locked up and out of sight. The police department also has provided a way for residents to register their outdoor cameras to help officers catch suspects in crimes.
“Statewide, but also here in Boulder County, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of cars being broken into. I think breaking into one’s car, stealing one’s car is such an impactful property offense because whether you are driving a BMW or you’re a low-income person and you have one car for the entire family, when that car goes missing it can really have a devastating impact on your ability to get to work, child care and so on. So we’ve been engaging in a lot of safety bulletins to the community … around locking car doors,” Doughety said.
For some crimes, restorative justice works. Dougherty spoke of a man who was suffering from mental illness and in 2019 was arrested 100 times for the same crime. Theman was placed in a mental health restorative justice program and was arrested once in 2020. Over the last few years, the county’s mental health restorative justice program has expanded 350%.
Even though the mental health restorative justice program has been successful, the state Legislature cut funding for it due to the fiscal crisis caused by the pandemic, Dougherty said. Boulder County was able to divert funds to continue it.
“That’s the last thing in the world the Legislature should cut. At a time when the Legislature is demanding criminal justice reform, they need to put the funding into it. It is one thing to talk about it, it's another thing to make it happen and cutting the funding is going in the absolute wrong direction,” Dougherty said.
Opportunity to start new conversations
Although there are frustrations over the ability to control crime in the community, Spendlow sees a silver lining.
“We have an opportunity here. We have had a lot of stuff happen in this past year that I think has created some leverage points for conversation that I don’t know that we would have had otherwise. I don’t know that it would be conversations that we would even start to broach because they would just be unheard of in concept based on tradition and what we’ve normally done,” he said.
While he isn’t sure the processes in place now will be long-term answers, they do serve as a starting point for conversations about restorative justice and changing expectations on the front end, Spendlow said.
Even after the pandemic is considered over, Spendlow said he hopes to open up more conversations with the community about the expectations of the police department “to have an ongoing conversation, to have a better way to communicate with our community in both directions.”