It’s a new year with a new election cycle, and predictably we’re seeing crime-rate hyperbole from the political right. It’s an old ploy; don’t fall for it.
This fearmongering usually includes some type of bugle call to rally round law enforcement, and a suggestion, implied or explicit, that the other side does not appreciate law enforcement’s work.
Let me state clearly: Democrats support local law enforcement. We are fortunate to have good law enforcement in La Plata County and a highly professional and responsive District Attorney’s Office. But we all need to do more than wave blue-striped flags to help them.
First, some facts. The crime rate has not gone up in La Plata County. Rates have stayed nearly flat for the last 10 years. Check the data on the FBI or the Colorado Bureau of Investigation webpages.
Your chances of becoming a victim of violent crime here are practically nil, though significantly higher if you’re Native American (of the 78 reported victims of violent crime in La Plata County in 2021, 12 were Native American).
In 2021, there was one reported murder in La Plata County and four robberies. In 2021, there were 48 reports of aggravated assault for the whole county, and most of those reports are certain to have involved people who knew each other.
Because of Colorado’s mandatory minimums and habitual criminal enhancements, prosecutors have greater power than ever to leverage those accused of committing serious crimes into accepting plea agreements, and courts are still handing out long prison sentences. This is one of the reasons why the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Yes, people do get out on bond or parole and commit new crimes. It’s certainly fair game to criticize a prosecutor’s or a judge’s decision when this happens. But hindsight is 20/20. And while the safest bet is to lock everyone up pending trial and then hand down long sentences, do we really want judges and prosecutors more focused on avoiding criticism than doing their best to balance the sometimes complex equities involved in resolving a criminal case?
So, what can our community do to support our law enforcement professionals? We can pay higher salaries to attract and retain good people. Our police officers, sheriff’s deputies and county prosecutors are on the low end of law enforcement compensation in Colorado. If we can’t pay them significantly more, we need to find ways to help them live in the communities they are policing. “Tax” is a dirty word to some, but if we want to maintain highly competent professionals in tune with our communities’ needs, we’re going to have to pay for them.
We can also reduce law enforcement’s burden. Most of the people police arrest have mental health and/or substance abuse issues, and police are forced to act as our front-line social workers. While some agencies have come up with innovative approaches, such as Durango’s program teaming up a patrol officer with mental health worker, we shouldn’t ask police to step too far outside their traditional role. We can, however, invest more in social services to reach people earlier and reduce the numbers of police contacts overall.
So when we hear politicians talk of “crime waves” we should be skeptical. And if we want to support local law enforcement, we should advocate for their increased compensation and for the expansion of our social service network.
Herb Bowman, a Durango High School and University of San Diego graduate, is a former prosecutor, FBI agent and criminal defense attorney. He is the current chairman of the La Plata County Democrats.