Prepared remarks: Attorney General Phil Weiser at County Sheriffs of Colorado Winter Conference (Jan. 20, 2022)
Thank you all for allowing me to join you today. At the onset, let me express my appreciation for the work all of you do in our communities to protect public safety. Your work is critical to keeping our communities safe. And I recognize that it is not an easy time to be in law enforcement. I appreciate all of your commitment to serve and continue to be inspired by each member of the profession I have the privilege to work with. I am grateful for our continued partnerships and collaboration.
As we turn the page to 2022, let’s begin by reflecting on the last year and how we move forward. In my talk, I will do so by touching on a few fronts—the level of overdose deaths we are seeing (mostly from opioids), the challenges we see in recruitment and retention, and the opportunity to continue to improve peace officer training opportunities.
I. The Opioid Epidemic
As peace officers, you see trauma and tragedy up close on a daily basis. In the last reporting year, you saw firsthand the deadly impact of the opioid epidemic. According to the CDC, more Americans died of drug overdoses over a one-year period than ever before—over 100,000 lives. That exceeds car crash and gun violence deaths combined. That’s a crisis. And as you know well, at the heart of this epidemic is the rising menace of fentanyl.
The opioid crisis began in the boardroom, with bad actors like Purdue Pharma pushing out addictive prescriptive pills, such as Oxycontin. The last 25 years saw the United States plunge deeper into this crisis. These companies are now being held to account. As a result of litigation we brought, Colorado will receive over $400 million from those companies who acted illegally.
As we work our way out of the crisis, we will have to address three critical fronts—(1) the supply side; (2) the demand side; and (3) the criminal justice system. On the supply side, we need to be vigilant on drug interdiction. The good news—litigation like the lawsuit we brought is now cutting back on the availability of prescription pills. So too have programs like “drug take back days” that many of your offices sponsor. The painful news, however, is that this vacuum is now being filled by drug cartels ready and willing to manufacture and supply deadly fentanyl as an alternative. And fentanyl is a killer—60 times more potent than morphine and 30 times stronger than heroin.
We have work to do to track and curtail the distribution of fentanyl. Our office has focused on taking out major cartels. Recently, a case led by our office resulted in 64 charges for trafficking of fentanyl, cocaine, heroin, and meth into our State. That operation alone captured 77,000 counterfeit oxycodone pills that contained deadly fentanyl—removing those pills from the illegal market and undoubtedly saving countless lives. I appreciate the leadership of the Arvada Police Department on this effort as well as the collaboration from the Denver and Aurora Police Departments.
But we have more work to do. Our state legislature must relook at our criminal laws as they relate to fentanyl. After all, four grams of fentanyl is not equivalent to four grams of cocaine. The General Assembly must reevaluate and update our laws to account for the heightened lethality of this substance. That should include stiffer penalties for dealers who deliberately sell fentanyl-laced drugs to unsuspecting buyers, leading to their deaths.
We cannot focus on the supply side alone. We must also address the demand side, which means tackling addiction and better educating the public so those struggling with addiction do not unwittingly fall victim to fentanyl or fentanyl analogues. And by providing more education about this threat to the public, we can prevent first and one-time users from ever taking a pill in the first place as well as warn those struggling with addiction from risking their lives by taking fentanyl. With the funds obtained from the companies that illegally pushed the opioids into our communities, we are ready to provide funding for such awareness and education campaigns. But we need your engagement on the local levels to complete that work effectively. As we prepare to use the $400 million in settlement funds to help us rebuild from the opioid epidemic, I’m asking for your help in determining how best to invest these funds. I would welcome any input or questions you have. Please get in touch with Heidi Williams, our office’s Opioid Response Director, to share your suggestions.
To use these settlement funds most effectively, we need law enforcement at the table. The agreement we crafted with local governments creates regional collaboratives that will receive funds that they can use to invest to respond to this crisis. As I have heard from many of you, your communities lack drug treatment and recovery pathways, meaning that your jails are often housing those struggling with substance abuse and you are unable to help them recover. As regional collaboratives are established, I encourage you to get engaged with them—and each board will have a law enforcement member—and work to advance this once-in-a-generation opportunity to build more drug treatment and recovery.
Finally, I mentioned that there are critical connections between the opioid crisis and the criminal justice system. Let me mention a few. First, I believe almost all of your agencies are now equipped with Narcan so that you can save the lives of persons who are overdosing. Second, I know that an increasing number of you are investing in Medication Assisted Treatment for those in jail. For those of you who are interested in this program, please reach out to Heidi. Finally, we recognize that we need to work together on better handoffs for those who do detox in jail and are released. Better coordination will create a path for lasting recovery rather than a revolving door of addiction and incarceration. This work, as you all appreciate, includes better support for those with mental illness, as such conditions are often co-occurring for those struggling with substance abuse disorder.
II. Recruitment and Retention Challenges
I continue to hear from you that the law enforcement profession faces considerable trauma and challenges. And this is exacerbated by not only unfair public criticism, but a lack of understanding of the heroism, resilience, and service that peace officers perform on a regular basis. Related to these dynamics, and the staffing challenges you continue to endure, let me share a few thoughts and explain what we are doing in the Department of Law and with the POST Board to address these challenges.
With respect to the overall narrative around peace officers, I recognize that the stories of your “whys” is one that is not often told. When I joined an academy in Grand Junction recently, I asked “what drives you to want to join the law enforcement profession”? In response, I received inspiring answers—“to help those who are vulnerable,” to “serve my community,” and to “protect public safety.” I feel strongly the public should know about your dedication to public service and what drives you to each day put on your badge. To do this, POST has released a “My Why” series that we developed. We’re asking for your help in getting these videos out and supporting this program to increase the public’s appreciation for the law enforcement profession. Each of you should be receiving sample videos and a social media toolkit from POST, if your agency would like to participate. For more information on this effort, please contact our POST Director Bo Bourgerie, who both developed and launched this concept and is with me today. And give you a sense of these videos, let me show you a few now.
Officer retention challenges are also on my mind. According to our statistics, law enforcement agencies were only able to fill 73% of the vacancies left by departing peace officers in 2021, resulting in a further reduction in peace officers statewide. That’s a problem and calls for vigilance in both recruiting new peace officers and retaining current ones. And this comes after we rolled out a new scholarship program at POST to support those entering rural law enforcement agencies. Clearly, we need to do more.
Let me share with you a story I heard from one of the chiefs in this room that underscores the importance of supporting the mental health of our peace officers. It involves an officer who responded to an incredibly traumatic scene—I believe it was a case of child abuse—and he went right from that call to another situation, still severely shaken from what he had just experienced. In that second call, he used excessive force and lost his job. As this story underscores, we must do more to support peace officers when they endure trauma and mental health challenges, in particular, we need to make sure our peace officers know that they can reach out for support immediately after a traumatic call, even if that is just speaking with a supervisor.
We are getting better in society in acknowledging the effect of trauma on our mental health, but we have a very long way to go. For many peace officers, the message has been, and continues to be, “tough it out.” No one would suggest that we tough out cancer. We should not tough out anxiety or depression either. But the lack of support for peace officer mental health contributes to unfortunate suicides by peace officers—a figure that now exceeds law enforcement officers feloniously killed on the job. It’s well past time that we do more to support our peace officers and their mental health.
As an initial response, the FBI is finally set to establish a database that tracks all officer suicides from across the United States. It is often stated “you cannot manage what you cannot measure”. That is true here, too. By tracking officer suicide data, we can take these stories out of the shadows and learn more about what actions could have prevented such tragedies. Thankfully, the FBI—as of January 1—is now gathering data on suicides by law enforcement officers and is set to release, starting this summer, the first in a series of annual reports about peace officer suicides and attempted suicides. I would encourage all of the leaders in this room, and across the state, to participate in this voluntary data reporting. By learning more about law enforcement suicides, including how and why they occur, we can develop better strategies to save the lives of our peace officers.
And on the state level, I know we can and should be doing more to support you and peace officer mental health. That’s why last fall I submitted a request to the General Assembly to dedicate $10 million in new spending to supporting peace officers. This investment would include needed funds for peace officer access to behavioral health professionals for all law enforcement agencies and their family members—as well as additional dollars to help you recruit and retain peace officers. As Sheriff Steve Nowlin explained to me, providing mental health services to officers and their families is a great investment that will enable them to continue to serve as well as to support them in living better lives. It’s critical that the legislature make this investment—and they’ll be hearing from me throughout this legislative session to ensure we secure these funds to help your agencies.
III. Improving Law Enforcement Training
On both the academy level and on the ongoing training front, we are looking to better support peace officers and prepare them for the challenging work they face. Starting this year, our Department is undertaking and leading a much-needed effort to redesign law enforcement training academies’ curriculums. We have not, in over forty years, conducted a scientifically based wholesale reexamination of our basic peace officer academy curriculum and asked how it can be better redesigned. Over the last forty years, we have learned a lot about how we can give peace officers the tools necessary to avoid tense situations from escalating—protecting both the public and peace officers. We have begun that process, evaluating what core competencies we need to teach entry-level peace officers. And to assist this work, we put together an advisory board, with a number of leaders in this room supporting the effort. If you are interested in helping with or learning more about this initiative, please reach out to Director Bourgerie.
We are also working hard to develop additional training opportunities for existing peace officers. One will be on tactics for improving decision-making under stress. Another is developing curriculum to teach officers how to more effectively work with and assist people with disabilities. Finally, we are exploring how to provide more effective bystander training. This would include supporting peace officers through greater awareness of their and others’ emotional states. Such awareness, for example, could have resulted the case I discussed above—where an officer left one call where he encountered severe trauma and went right to another call where he used excessive force—to turn out differently.
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We are at an important moment for law enforcement. Officers, sheriffs, troopers, and marshals all serve the public, often under traumatic and challenging circumstances. You have my continued admiration and gratitude for your service. My office and the POST Board are committed to supporting you in your work and knowing what you need so we can be of service. Thanks for your leadership and your continued partnership.