The state of Colorado has been experiencing the same twin dilemmas that have been plaguing much of the country for the past several months and this has had a rather drastic impact on police forces across the board. They’re dealing with the pandemic like everyone else, and police officers have jobs that put them in constant contact with the public. At the same time, protests and demonstrations blaming the police for many of society’s ills have led the state to eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement officers. This puts them a greater personal risk of civil suits or criminal charges if an arrest of an uncooperative suspect goes awry.
What’s the upshot of all of this been? Far fewer interactions with the public and a significant increase in police officers retiring early or simply quitting and seeking new types of employment. The biggest shift in police engagement has come in what are known as officer-initiated traffic stops (OITS). Meanwhile, the number of officers responding to calls for service (CFS) hasn’t declined nearly as noticeably. (CBS Denver)
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.
In terms of the threat from COVID-19, some departments in Colorado have actively issued guidance to officers to limit the number of traffic stops they make except for the more egregious offenses. In other departments, officers appear to be throttling back on their own. We can think of those OITS incidents as being the more “optional” types of engagements, though the cops on the beat will tell you that none of them should truly be considered optional. Every driver acting suspiciously or violating the traffic laws who isn’t pulled over represents one more chance for someone engaged in far more serious crimes to go unapprehended.
Conversely, calls for service (CFS) incidents, where a citizen is actively reaching out to law enforcement for help have remained mostly stable. There was a measurable decrease in such engagements, but state officials note that some types of crime have been down across the board as more people are staying home the majority of the time, either by choice or through government mandate. For the most part, when anyone reaches out for help in a crisis situation, the police have been there to help.
But the decline in the OITS numbers does seem remarkable. Comparing the number of stops in Jefferson County from May of this year to May of 2019, there was a 63% plunge, from 1,750 to 632. Littleton saw an even larger 69.8% decline from 954 to 288. Aurora also recorded a decrease of more than 40%
Strangely, this pattern wasn’t consistent in every part of the state. Boulder actually recorded a 55% increase in OITS engagements. Larimer County and Fort Collins similarly recorded increases in traffic stops.
As far as the police officers leaving the force, it sounds like more of them are concerned about the state’s removal of qualified immunity than battling the novel coronavirus. Several officers interviewed by CBS for this report commented on the disheartening nature of “the unwillingness of city leaders to stand up for them and their families.” Others noted how hard it is to maintain focus “when you are not hearing anything positive from the communities you serve.”
As with the rest of the cities seeing an exodus of law enforcement officers, both the civic leaders and the community are plowing toward a future where they may learn to be careful what they wish for. They may have been unhappy with some interactions with law enforcement, but the reality of a world where there aren’t enough police to keep the peace and maintain order is going to be far more dangerous.