Denver has always been known as a safe and clean city; what changed?

oRTEGA bANNER.png
The numbers tell the story. From 2019 to 2020 the murder rate jumped 50.8%. Aggravated assault was up 25.26%. Burglaries were up 32.1%. Theft from motor vehicles was up 29.2% and grew by another 2.6% in 2022. Auto theft was up a startling 58.8% and jumped another 48.6 % in 2021. Folks are understandably feeling unsafe in the community. Many things contributed to this rapid growth in crime: the pandemic, a general acceptance of uncivil behavior following the Trump era, rising opioid use, fentanyl use, impact of decriminalization of certain crimes, a lack of accountability for those who commit crimes resulting from bond reform, and rising housing costs pushing people onto the streets.

 

Just as the causes are complicated; so is the solution. There is not a single action that will make the problems disappear, but we can build a toolbox to address the problems. The first step is to realize that Denver cannot go it alone. Our neighboring cities and counties are experiencing similar problems. It will take a team effort to solve these problems. We must act regionally to provide comprehensive solutions, and the State of Colorado must be a partner.

Reforming Policing

Since the early 1990’s Weed and Seed Program, Denver has focused on building police/community relations to deter gangs and crime. This work continues to this day and must be strengthened. Chief Pazen is committed to building stronger ties with the community.
Another key piece of building community/police partnership is the STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) Program. Begun in 2020, the program dispatches licensed mental health professionals and paramedics instead of police officers when someone is experiencing a crisis related to mental health issues, poverty, homelessness, or substance abuse. The program provides the assistance people need, while freeing police resources to address criminal activity. Based on the success of the first year, the program was expanded in 2021. If the success rate continues, City Council will consider providing additional resources to the program.

 

Reforming The Criminal Justice System

During the pandemic, people were released from jail early. In response to calls for better policing following the George Floyd demonstrations, the legislature moved to reduce the number of people held in jail while awaiting trial and to reduce the costs of bonds. We need to fine-tune these approaches. In 2021 DPD took 2,095 guns off the street. 723 of the individuals arrested for possession of a weapon were previous offenders; 32% had been released on a personal recognizance bond. One person was arrested six times in 2020 for auto theft, bonding out each time to continue stealing. 

 

Metro area cities and counties need to band together to ask the legislature to reconsider and fine-tune what crimes are classified as felonies, and who should be eligible for the new lenient bonding requirements. Rerouting low-risk offenders makes sense, but we must properly assess the impact on the community when people re-offend. As Chief Pazen has pointed out, we tend to view non-violent crimes as “harmless”, but they are not. The elderly woman who has her home broken into and ransacked loses peace of mind, as well as possessions. A person whose car is stolen loses their transportation to their job, doctors’ appointments, etc. and must rethink their daily activities. A bike stolen from a car can end a young person’s dream of competing on a national level. And, we simply cannot again have a 32-year-old mother shot and killed by someone who is out on the street after three armed robberies in three separate counties. We must develop tools to adequately assess who should be rerouted from jail, and who should be provided alternatives to sentencing, while identifying those who will continue to harm the community and hold them accountable.

 

Opiods

Opioids, drugs laced with fentanyl, and meth are creating havoc in our communities and ruining people’s lives. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is 60 times more potent than morphine and 30 times stronger than heroin. It is being laced into other pills like Oxycontin, Xanax, and Adderall, leading to numerous deaths. Today’s meth is chemically different than the drug of the past. It causes severe mental illness that is worsening our homeless crisis. A recent Atlantic article by Sam Quinones quotes Ken Vick, director of a drug treatment center in Kansas City, MO, “I don’t know that I would even call it meth anymore.” Quinones found “Meth overdoses have risen rapidly in recent years, but they are much less common than opioid ODs – you don’t typically overdose and die on meth; you decay.” Three years ago, the penalty for possession of four grams or less of an illegal drug was classified as a misdemeanor. Four grams of fentanyl can kill 13,000 people. The move also took away the “hook” we used to hold drug users accountable for their actions. A misdemeanor ticket is not sufficient to motivate someone to enter treatment. I believe we need to hold offenders accountable for their actions and choices while providing robust treatment options. Denver voters chose to provide tools in the toolbox when they voted to increase the sales tax for mental health/substance abuse treatments. Dollars from the National Opioid Settlement Fund will also provide additional tools in our box. As a member of the committee that will determine where the dollars flow, I am committed to ensuring that the funds have meaningful impact/benefit to those who want to get away from existing day-to-day.

 

No one city or county can go it alone on this. I am currently working to build support for regional treatment and educational complexes to assist our addicted neighbors. Instead of leaving people on the streets to suffer and die, we have a unique opportunity to help rebuild lives. 

 

Homelessness

The number of people living on our streets is a grim reminder of the challenges we are facing. The number has exploded because of the pandemic, high housing costs, low wages, and drug abuse. Denver has significantly increased the services available in our community. Once again, Denver Voters, with the creation of the Affordable Housing Fund, have stepped up to fund affordable housing projects, including for the folks on the street. The successful Housing First approach funded through social impact bonds should be expanded. Councilwoman Kniech and I will be introducing an ordinance to require job training opportunities on city-funded projects. We are expanding the requirement that a percentage of homes in a project be affordable to developers of rental units. The City has purchased motels, rented hotels, and expanded shelter capacity to address the problem. On most nights, we have 100 shelter beds go unused. I think we should continue this path. Expanding treatment, counseling, and job training are necessary steps. Many of these steps were funded with Federal COVID dollars. Denver cannot financially sustain that level of funding with City dollars alone. Working regionally, with the State and Federal governments as partners, we must move boldly to move those living in unsanctioned homeless camps into treatment and housing. This threat to the residents’ safety and the environment cannot continue.  

oRTEGA SIGNATURE.png

Deborah "Debbie" Ortega
Councilwoman At-Large

PS-

South Platte Derailment 

Last weekend there was a train derailment near Park Ave at the South Platte River. Since 2014, I have worked with the city to assess and mitigate risks of development near freight rail lines. I am glad to report that outside engineering assistance is being engaged to help the city identify hazards and appropriate means to reduce risks to those near freight rail operations. I will be involved throughout this process. Findings and recommendations should be available later this year.