Colorado Democrats plan to spend $113 million to reduce crime. Here’s what their plan includes

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Lights on a police vehicle.

Gov. Jared Polis joined state lawmakers and others to present what was billed as a “comprehensive” plan to address rising crime.

“Nobody should feel it’s dangerous to walk home from work or a store at night, or to play with their kids in their neighborhood,” Polis said. “We want to put Colorado on the path to becoming one of the 10 safest states in the country in the next five years, and this plan is a step in that direction.”

The state would spend about  $113 million over two years on priorities like hiring and retaining police officers, “hardening” security at schools, supporting victims of crime and funding “co-responders” who specialize in mental health crises. Most of that funding would go through local governments and nonprofits.

Sage Naumann, spokesperson for the Senate Republicans, said his party would likely support some of the spending plan, but he dismissed the overall effort as a political maneuver. The package is smaller than the $150 million Polis has proposed to spend on electric school buses, he said.

“It’s a drop in the bucket. Right now, this is not a priority. It’s a campaign pitch,” Naumann said.

Democratic leaders said that the plan is meant to address legitimate concerns about crime. 

No one expects “this alone will do it,” Polis said. “This is the first step — important step.”

The plan includes:

  • $16 million for community programs such as Denver’s STAR program, which dispatches mental health responders to some emergencies
  • $10 million in grants for law-enforcement hiring and training
  • $10 million to prevent crime through “safer streets” with measures like improved lighting
  • $4 million for grants to reduce youth crime
  • Money for school safety, including mental health support and physical security measures
  • Money to try to prevent bias-motivated crimes, also known as hate crimes

Full details of the plan weren’t immediately available. The proposals will be spread across a number of bills before the legislature. Democrats said the money will come from sources including the general fund and federal COVID-19 relief programs.

Republicans and Democrats see different causes for the rise in crime

The Denver Post recently reported that the state’s crime rates are indeed rising, with violent crimes in 2020 hitting their highest rates since 1995. There’s been an upward trend for six years, The Post reported.

Polis blamed the pandemic and changes in the economy for rising crime. Democratic leaders said that there are hundreds of potential causes of crime, and Polis suggested a sociologist might be able to explain it better.

Meanwhile, Republicans and some law-enforcement leaders have blamed Democrats.

The statewide organizations representing sheriffs, police chiefs and police officers are not fully supporting the plan because of “its failure to advance policy changes alongside ongoing budgetary proposals,” they wrote in a letter. The letter was from the County Sheriffs of Colorado, the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police.

The organizations blamed recent laws passed by Democrats for making “crime prevention more difficult.” They implied, without referring to a specific law, that there is an “inability to arrest and hold offenders” which is resulting in more crime. A representative for the groups did not immediately answer a question about what law the letter was referring to.

The plan did draw support from sheriffs in Pitkin, Douglas, Summit and Boulder counties, among others.

What laws has Colorado passed lately?

It’s unclear whether changes to Colorado law have had a significant effect on crime. Many of the biggest police and justice reforms were backed by both Republicans and Democrats in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer.

One bipartisan law that changed misdemeanor sentencing guidelines doesn’t take effect until March. A Democrat-sponsored law changing pre-trial detention practices takes effect in April.

A bipartisan law that took effect in 2019 reduced penalties for some drug possession crimes, while a Democrat-sponsored law that had strong bipartisan backing created broad new reforms for police forces, including rules for protest response and a new standard for the use of force, among other changes.

While Republicans supported some of those major changes, Naumann said they are blaming other Democratic priorities for crime. 

A list he provided included a “ban the box” measure that limits employers’ ability to ask about criminal histories. He also pointed to laws meant to reduce adult and juvenile prison populations; expand parole for people who committed crimes at young ages; reduce the use of solitary confinement; and regulate the use of ketamine.

But the bigger problem, Naumann argued, was the feeling among police officers that they’re not supported by the government, including after the 2020 “riots that destroyed the state capitol.”

Protestors caused about $1 million in damage to the Capitol in graffiti, broken windows and doors and other parts of the building. The damage has since been repaired.

Democrats said the spending package was meant to shore up law enforcement and slow the pace of resignations. Meanwhile, Polis also said he remained committed to criminal-justice reforms, including efforts to reduce incarceration.

“The data shows that, often, over-incarceration can lead to people entering a criminal lifestyle. That’s why, as a society, we’ve moved toward substance-abuse disorder help rather than incarceration for low-level drug abuse,” he said in response to a question from CPR News.

“... With regard to somebody that needs help, the goal should be to set somebody on a path where they don’t violate our laws, they’re not a threat to others, rather than on a path that only increases the likelihood that they’ll commit crimes, including violent crimes, against our fellow Colordans.”

But for now, he said, he was focused on the “very specific plan” rather than any more sweeping reforms.