Our community is engaged in an important discussion about public safety and police accountability. Prompted by tragic police killings, disproportionately of Black men (De’Von Bailey, Elijah McClain), public debate sometimes degenerates into partisan finger-pointing. Around elections, rhetoric escalates and becomes more based on fear than fact, more on polemics than reasoned policy. We must undertake our police accountability debate respectfully and civilly, relying on facts and evidence. The current climate where data and science are disregarded, where repeating falsehoods creates credibility, where internet claims are cited as truth, needs to change.
For example, a recent Colorado Springs Gazette guest opinion commentary described a Front Range “crime wave,” stating, “Crime is up all across the Front Range, both property crimes and violent crimes.” The author blames the alleged crime wave on contempt for law and police by Democratic legislative leaders who view police as “evil.” The opinion then states that Colorado passed SB20-217, “Law Enforcement Integrity,” removing liability protection from police for “simply doing their jobs.” These claims are as erroneous as they are inflammatory.
Disputing this “crime wave” narrative, Colorado’s Division of Criminal Justice states that both nationally and in Colorado, all crime has generally decreased over the last two decades. Moreover, the report “20 Safest Cities in Colorado” located fourteen of the 20 along the Front Range. There is no Front Range crime wave. Furthermore, as we debated and passed SB20-217, police were important allies. Their revisions were heard, valued and incorporated. As a result, the bill had significant bipartisan support, passing 84-14 overall (Senate-32-1, House 52-13). Contrary to claims, Democrats respect and honor law enforcement and condemn violence. Assertions to the contrary are fallacious.
Debates over crime and public safety are not new. When there’s fear of crime and violence, politicians advocate “law and order” and getting “tough on crime.” They call for more police and harsher sentences. This observation of H.L. Mencken is instructive: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, clear and wrong.” Criminal justice policy is nuanced and complex; it is not amenable to simplistic sound bite fixes.
Proof of Mencken’s proposition is established by Colorado’s experience with the 1985 Mielke bill and the 1994 federal Violent Crime Act. In response to rising crime, Colorado passed Mielke, doubling sentences. Relying on the Crime Act, we built more prisons. These two bills triggered mass incarceration and huge costs. Colorado’s prison population grew from 3,500 people in 1985 to 30,000 today. Our prison budget grew from $60 million to $1 billion. But with 50% recidivism, is incarceration the answer? Tough on crime is not smart on crime.
Colorado Springs’ Police Accountability Commission’s discussion about public safety should include assessing police responsibilities and budget. Proposals to “defund the police” are not reasonable policy options. They are simplistic and provocative. But re-allocation of resources and re-defining and clarifying responsibilities are policies worth considering, as, over the years, policing has experienced mission creep. Police respond to violent crimes, but that is only 5% of their work. Police now perform tasks they may not have been fully trained for. Should they be the first responders for mental health crises and assigned to schools? Or, should that be the province of EMTs and social workers? It is legitimate to ask if hiring more police increases safety and reduces violence. A Brennan Center study found that having more police does not necessarily lower crime rates.
I look forward to police accountability commissions undertaking their missions with respectful civil dialogue, free of partisan rhetoric and false narratives; and recommending policies grounded in best evidence practices designed to heal relationships, promote racial justice and bring our communities together.
Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat, represents District 11 in the Colorado Senate. He is chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.