Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers On Race And Policing, Keeping Housing Affordable And The State’s Infrastructure Failures

March 5, 2020
Colorado Springs mayor John W. Suthers in the Capitol rotunda.Colorado Springs mayor John W. Suthers in the Capitol rotunda.Courtesy of the State of Colorado
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers spoke with Colorado Matters on March 5, 2020.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers says his city's police department has, on average, better-educated and better-trained officers than virtually any department in Colorado.

"I would hold our department up against Denver's anytime," Suthers told Colorado Matters in a Thursday interview.

With regards to the death of Devon Bailey, the 19-year-old who was shot and killed while running away from police in August 2019, Suthers said the officers, "acted in total accordance with the law and the police, the department procedures."

In November, a grand jury ruled that the shooting was justified. Colorado has a "fleeing felon" law, which allows police officers to shoot fleeing suspects who are suspected of violence if the officers “reasonably believe that it is necessary” to defend themselves or others from imminent serious harm.

Suthers took exception when asked about those who disagree with the idea of a law that protects those who might shoot someone in the back.

"First of all, you say shoot in the back," Suthers says. "Have you watched the breakdown of the tape? As the officer's moving into search the individual, he brings his hands down. As his arms are coming down, the officer's reaching for the weapon. Takes two and a half seconds as he's turning with his hands on his … You can say, some people disagree. Any expert who watched this would not disagree."

Suthers also discussed how the city is striving to keep housing costs affordable in the Springs, and why he thinks the state needs to look at local governments to find answers for issues like transportation infrastructure.

Interview Highlights

On housing and cost of living in Colorado Springs:

"It's going up. There's no question about it. We used to be below the national average in cost of living. We're now right at the national average, but I would challenge you to look at the 25 most desirable places in America to live. We're the only one that's even close to the national average in cost of living. But, our rents are going up, our housing costs are going up and you need to do what you can about that...We need just to take care of the high school and college graduates from Colorado Springs who want to live in Colorado Springs, we need to create 5,500 jobs a year."

On Colorado's infrastructure:

"We have about a $9 billion transportation deficit in Colorado and I just don't see the governor or the legislature doing much about it. They like to blame the fact that the citizens haven't passed a couple of issues, but in my mind, the state needs to look at what the local governments do to get success. They go to the voters, they say, this is what we need to do, this is how much it's going to cost and this is exactly what we're going to do with your money. The state, unfortunately, tends to have kind of a, 'Give us $1 billion attitude and trust us.'"

On coronavirus and the possibility of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan being canceled:

"Well, it would mean a lot of folks that have trained in the Springs and a lot of folks who work in the Springs with the Olympic Committee would not be traveling to Tokyo. I don't think it has as significant an impact on the City of Colorado Springs as obviously it does on Japan and Tokyo, but given the amount of preparation that's gone in, I can tell you I saw what happened in 1980 when the Games, US didn't participate in. It would not be a good thing."

Read The Transcript

Ryan Warner: While reporting here, I've also become more aware of racial tensions, issues we'll broach now with Colorado Springs mayor John Suthers. He's had a long career in public service and justice. He was a Colorado Attorney General for a decade, US Attorney before that, picked by George W. Bush. Mayor Suthers, It's nice to see you again.

John Suthers: Glad to be with you.

RW: Let's start with Coronavirus. What are you doing to make sure Colorado's second most populous city is prepared?

JS: Well, we're working very closely with the Office of Emergency Management, which is a combined city and county office. The Colorado Department of Health, and of course the El Paso County Health Department. You know, people have to remember that epidemiology, which is the branch of medicine that deals with the prevention and treatment of infectious disease is a core function of public health, and this is exactly what these folks prepare for all the time. They've been conducting tests to deal with a new virus like this, and I think we're well-prepared. I think the state of Colorado is well-prepared.

RW: What about the hospitals in town?

JS: We have a tremendous hospital system here. We have, of course, UC Health who conducted some testing yesterday. If folks come in with coronavirus, what are we going to do? Things like that. Obviously Penrose, St Francis and Children's hospital, there'll be at a press conference that I'm having at 10:30 this morning, and everybody will talk about the state of their preparations to deal with an outbreak of Coronavirus in Colorado.

RW: We sit here in Olympic City, USA and there is a possibility at least to that Coronavirus results in the cancellation of the Tokyo Games. What would that mean for the Springs?

JS: Well, it would mean a lot of folks that have trained in the Springs and a lot of folks who work in the Springs with the Olympic Committee would not be traveling to Tokyo. I don't think it has as significant an impact on the City of Colorado Springs as obviously it does on Japan and Tokyo, but given the amount of preparation that's gone in, I can tell you I saw what happened in 1980 when the Games, US didn't participate in. It would not be a good thing.

RW: You grew up here. You like to point out there are as many college students in the Springs today as there were people total here when you were a kid. This means that today housing is tight. Building permits, I understand, only just reached pre-recession levels. That means a rising cost of living. Is that unavoidable in your mind?

JS: To a certain extent it is. Let's make sure we keep it in perspective. Our affordability index in Colorado Springs about 69%. That means 69% of the people, the wage they make, they can afford a house in Colorado Springs. That's pretty high. Denver would be about 50. Boulder would be significantly lower than that. Someplace like San Francisco would be 8%.

RW: But, would it be expected that that will change?

JS: It's going up. There's no question about it. We used to be below the national average in cost of living. We're now right at the national average, but I would challenge you to look at the 25 most desirable places in America to live. We're the only one that's even close to the national average in cost of living. But, our rents are going up, our housing costs are going up and you need to do what you can about that.

JS: Number one, and I have to tell the anti-growthers this, you need to build new houses because if you don't, then the un-affordability just skyrockets. Boulder would be a perfect example of that. We need just to take care of the high school and college graduates from Colorado Springs who want to live in Colorado Springs, we need to create 5,500 jobs a year. That means growth.

RW: What is the city's role in encouraging that kind of construction, making it the right kind of construction so that people aren't spending their lives in traffic. Talk to me about what smart growth means to you. That term is used a lot. I'm not entirely sure what it means.

JS: It means doing the best you can to try and figure out what the patterns are going to be and things like that. Obviously infrastructure is frankly my big concern. Making sure we have the infrastructure to deal with the growth and on the basis of the fact that the citizens of Colorado Springs have really stepped up in the last couple of years to deal with infrastructure that's no longer my major concern. My major concern is that the lack, that the state of Colorado is doing such a poor job of investing in transportation infrastructure. I don't know how familiar you are with it, but we have-

RW: It's certainly something we've covered a lot.

JS: Yeah. and we have about a $9 billion transportation deficit in Colorado and I just don't see the governor or the legislature doing much about it. They like to blame the fact that the citizens haven't passed a couple of issues, but in my mind, the state needs to look at what the local governments do to get success. They go to the voters, they say, this is what we need to do, this is how much it's going to cost and this is exactly what we're going to do with your money. The state unfortunately, tends to have kind of a, 'Give us $1 billion attitude and trust us. '"

RW: You think that if the state came out with a proposal for voters that were more specific, you think they'd be more inclined to pass it?

JS: Absolutely.

RW: Because they literally, they just have not succeeded statewide tax measures of really any kind lately.

JS: But I'm telling you, for example, the one that just, the Tabor Retention, the one that just lost. If they would have said, "We're going to do it, retain it for the next 10 years. We're going to put it all on transportation. The legislature doesn't have any discretion in the matter." Remember, under the provision that just occurred, the legislature could have changed it the next day because the formula was statutory, and these are the projects the money's going to go to. It would have passed.

RW: All right. You heard it from John Suthers there. I want to talk about teen vaping. It's an epidemic with especially high rates in Colorado. I understand the Colorado Springs city council could raise the tobacco purchase age to 21, require licenses for retailers to sell tobacco products. Just very briefly, do you support those two approaches?

JS: I do. Keep in mind that's already the federal law, but the concern is the feds don't have the ability on a microscopic level to enforce it.

RW: There's also I think, a slow rollout with some of that.

JS: Yeah. So, I think it's appropriate for local governments to have corresponding laws.

RW: Okay, so you back both of those measures?

JS: Yes.

RW: Should the city council pass them? Okay. The police shooting this summer of a young African-American man, 19-year-old Devon Bailey, exposed tensions around policing in Colorado Springs. Bailey was shot in the back after running from a police stop. They then found a gun on him. The killing was investigated by the El Paso County Sheriff's Office and critics felt that was too cozy, saying deputies work closely with police officers. Mayor, in February, I attended a forum at the church where Bailey's body was laid to rest and there, a professor at UCS and a US Senate candidate, Stephanie Rose Spalding was on the panel.

Stephanie Rose Spalding: I'm here because I live in this community and policing and how we utilize policing in black and brown communities has always impacted me personally, my family, my brothers, my sisters, my nieces and nephews. This work and accountability, it has to happen. This is a standing room-only situation, which means that community is crying out, that they want to be respected, that they want to be heard and they want to participate.

RW: Specifically, she and others in attendance want independent police oversight, something akin to Denver's Independent Monitor. There are lots of different approaches to this, but would something like that be good for Colorado Springs?

JS: Not in my personal opinion. I mean, the council may feel differently, but I have a lot of experience in this area and as I look around the country, first of all, it's typically the police departments that have historic problems that tend to go towards civilian monitoring as a frankly, a political compromise and they tend to be very inefficient. Police departments are paramilitary organizations. You need to impose discipline quickly and appropriately. If you look around the country, civilian review boards, including in Denver tend to slow down the process quite a bit.

Ironically enough, if you look very carefully, they result in civilians standing in the way of discipline in situations where officers should be disciplined because the police simply don't understand the importance of, for example, lying in a police department is a heck of a lot more serious offense than a lying in the KRCC studios. Typically civilians don't have the experience to know the framework of why it's so important in a paramilitary organization to be able to deal with those issues very, very quickly.

RW: Isn't it also true though, that the perception of policing, that it's fair, that cases are reviewed fairly, that that's really important as well and that civilian oversight might increase the community's trust in the process? Isn't that important?

JS: It might have a perception of it, but if it doesn't actually do that, that's my concern. Look, this is the things that have to happen. Number one, you need to recruit a police department, which to the extent possible reflects the community.

RW: Is that true enough in Colorado Springs?

JS: In certain areas, I think we do pretty well. Good job recruiting Latinos. We get quite a few women into the department. Black males is are a problem, but it's a problem across the country. We just don't get a lot of applicants, but I think we're moving towards a department that reflects the community. Second of all, you have to train the officers to the best extent possible. I was the head of the Police Officer Standard Training Board for 10 years in Colorado. I will tell you, the Colorado Springs Police Department on average, has better-educated officers on the street and better-trained officers than virtually any department in Colorado, including the city and County of Denver. I would hold our department up against a Denver's anytime.

JS: Thirdly, anytime there's an incident, you have to make sure that if the officers acted inappropriately, they're dealt with and appropriate discipline. If they're, if they do the appropriate thing, you have to stand behind them. Let me tell you about this incident here. These officers acted in total accordance with the law and the police, the department procedures.

RW: I will say there are some who disagree with the idea that the law protects those who might shoot someone in the back.

JS: First of all, you say shoot in the back. Have you watched the breakdown of the tape? As the officer's moving into search the individual, he brings his hands down. As his arms are coming down, the officer's reaching for the weapon. Takes two and a half seconds as he's turning with his hands on his ... You can say, some people disagree. Any expert who watched this would not disagree.

RW: The time has flown by. I appreciate your time. Thanks Mayor.

JS: You bet. Appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.

RW: John Suthers is Mayor of Colorado Springs.

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