Prepared remarks: Attorney General Phil Weiser to the County Sheriffs of Colorado (Jan. 18, 2023)
Thank you for the opportunity to visit with you today.
As I begin my second term as Attorney General, I am committed to continuing our work together as we advance public safety, serve the public, and protect victims. Today I’d like to share a bit about our work in the Attorney General’s Office to (1) support peace officers; (2) combat the opioid epidemic and disrupt fentanyl trafficking; and (3) curb the rise in organized retail theft and other organized crime rings.
Supporting and Elevating Law Enforcement
Let me start by recognizing that we face a very significant challenge on the law enforcement personnel front. I continue to hear from you that your agencies are short on personnel and resources to keep staff. That’s why last legislative session our office fought for millions more in funding for peace officer recruitment and retention efforts, resulting in $5 million in new state funds through a program now managed by the Department of Public Safety. We will continue to evaluate how these funds are invested and how we can advance this work. I know that some of you have received grants for these funds. I will be eager to learn how these investments make a difference, and how we can ensure that these funds continue to support you, without unnecessary strings attached.
We also can all recognize that there are many signs of the stresses and strains of the profession, which is part of the reason that large numbers of officers have left the profession. Because morale issues are a challenge for many in law enforcement, it is important that leaders play a role in making the case for the importance of this profession and highlight the spirit in which so many are serving the public. At the Peace Officer Standards and Training program, known as POST, we have responded to this need by developing a My Why series, which captures the stories of many who serve as peace officers. We believe that this series can serve as a tool for encouraging more young people to enter this noble profession. If you have not seen this series yet, I encourage you to take a look. And we would welcome agencies submitting their own videos, helping to make the case for “Why I Serve.”
Related to the challenges we face in terms of officer morale, we must do more to recognize the challenges sheriffs and deputies face. And that starts with having more resources to support peace officers’ mental health. At POST, we are intensely focused on how we can advance peace officer mental health and wellness. To support this work, I went to the state legislature last year to fight for funding in this area, with the goal of ensuring that every agency in the state has adequate access to mental health services. We succeeded in securing an additional $3 million for the state peace officer mental health program managed by the Department of Local Affairs. We are interested in ensuring that these funds reach your agencies and support this important work. As you have experiences with this program, whether positive or negative, we want to learn about them so we can help it realize its ambition and make improvements where necessary.
One of the key duties of the POST Board is to set peace officer training and certification standards. Currently, the POST Board has an opportunity to re-think and re-design how we best train peace officers. As I have shared with you all before, POST has initiated a multi-year project aimed at updating and revising Colorado’s basic law enforcement training academy curriculum. Here’s a brief update on where we are at with this effort.
Our overall project is to develop a standardized academy curriculum as well as a training course and certification process for academy instructors. By investing in both projects, we believe it will be easier for academies to effectively train peace officers. We will also provide more resources and tools that address how to teach and not just what to teach. To that end, we will be developing a hands-on course for instructors focused on the best-practices for teaching entry level peace officers—including tips for better classroom discussion facilitation, how to deliver scenario-based learning, best-practices on cultivating emotional intelligence in students, and ways to support cadets’ mental health. In particular, we heard loud and clear that increasing the amount of reality-based training would improve law enforcement training and we are ready to provide our instructors with more support and training on how to use these techniques in their teaching.
A goal of the redesigned curriculum will be that our already taxed instructors will no longer need to develop all of their own scenarios and lesson plans. Rather, we envision that our revised curriculum will provide those. With the benefit of pre-approved and high-quality lesson plans and teaching materials, law enforcement academy instructors will be able to focus on the ways to deliver material that is best for their students in their communities.
The first step of our law enforcement academy redesign project was to conduct a Job Task Analysis, capturing the basic knowledge, skills, and abilities that peace officers need. I understand that some of you participated in this effort and I appreciate the expertise and engagement you lent to this project. This job analysis identified the core tasks and competencies for entry level peace officers, thereby helping us identify the key courses and course objectives for the standardized curriculum. To advance this work, we are establishing Curriculum Development Committees that will work closely with our Department to develop the curriculum for each course. We will be taking applications for these committees soon. So please keep an eye out for outreach from our POST Director Bo Bourgerie inviting you and individuals within your offices to apply.
We are also thinking long and hard about the values and mindsets we want to make sure are woven throughout the curriculum. To that end, we are considering the values and mindsets themselves, identifying ways to define these concepts, and then how to effectively ensure these ideas are taught throughout the curriculum. The mindsets and values range and include everything from emotional intelligence to constitutional policing to situational awareness. These concepts will guide the work of the Curriculum Development Committees discussed above.
The understanding and articulation of these concepts will continue to evolve and we invite your partnership in our effort. I would be very grateful for feedback from each of you to make sure we get this important effort right. Please reach out to me or to POST Director Bo Bourgerie at any point to learn more or to include your perspective in this important work.
The Opioid Crisis and Fentanyl Trafficking
The crisis we are facing with the rise of fentanyl distribution is one that my Department is intensely focused on. The statistics for 2022 drug fatalities have not been released yet, but most expect them to tell a heartbreaking story of more fentanyl poisoning and overdose deaths than ever before. You and your deputies have seen first-hand how addiction to opioids and other substances destroys communities and lives and puts new and complex pressures on your agencies in what you respond to and how you respond.
We all are familiar with how this crisis started in corporate boardrooms in the mid-1990s, as Purdue Pharma and other companies pushed opioid prescriptions like Oxycontin. The marketing campaigns that pushed those pills targeted doctors who overprescribed them. As a result, a generation of Americans who received pills for simple treatments such as back pain or broken bones, or those who took pills from their parents’ medicine cabinet, became addicted to opioids. This is a painful chapter in our history in which millions of people lost their lives or continue to struggle with addiction – all because of corporate greed to increase profits by hiding the addictive nature of their product.
To hold accountable those who spurred the addiction crisis, I led a nationwide effort to go after companies like Purdue Pharma, McKinsey, and others that fueled this epidemic. Thus far, we’ve secured over $700 million dollars for Colorado from these bad actors. To put these funds to work, we established 19 regional councils—with a law enforcement presence on every one—to support critical initiatives to respond to this crisis. 90% of the total funds will be distributed at the regional and local level. It is up to you, your mayors, commissioners, councilmembers, and public health directors to determine how these funds should be deployed in your communities.
The funding for the regional councils can be used for a range of purposes. As you know, many of those arrested and in jail struggle with an opioid addiction and/or addiction to other substances. Consider, for example, that a recent National Institute of Drug Abuse study shows that 85% of inmates have an active substance use disorder and/or were incarcerated for committing a crime that involved drugs or drug use. Or just talk to Sheriff Robert Jackson who broke the painful news to me almost six years ago that his jail’s population is composed overwhelmingly—90% or more—of inmates addicted to opioids. And he told me recently that this situation hasn’t gotten better.
We deal with the consequences of our addiction crisis every day. I know that many of you have already adopted Medication Addiction Treatment programs in your jails. Indeed, some of you—like Jaime FitzSimons, Tyler Brown, and KC Hume—are big proponents of such programs. For starters, MAT programs can help avoid substance use-related deaths during incarceration (which are on the rise), can enable inmates to get on a path to recovery, and can help avoid the material risk of overdose upon re-entry. Working with our State’s Jail Based Behavioral Health Services, we are ready to support your adoption of such treatment programs, as the State has funds currently available to institute MAT in every jail.
On re-entry from jail to our communities, I want to recognize that the state legislature imposed a mandate that all jails institute a Medicaid navigator program to enable all of those leaving jail to ensure that they have access to Medicaid. This is a good public policy. But it’s wrong to mandate this requirement without funds to enable you all to implement it. To that end, I will be exploring how our State’s share of opioid funds can support jails developing this capacity, which is critical to enabling those receiving MAT to continue receiving services after they complete their sentence.
As I noted above, 90% of the settlement funds we are bringing back to Colorado will be invested at the local level. Some regions, to be sure, are further along in developing their plans for spending these funds. As we approve regional opioid response plans by our State’s Abatement Council, we will post them on our website. Similarly, after funds are spent by regional bodies or local governments, those expenses will also be captured and published on our website. For more details, you can check out our opioids response webpage at www.coag.gov/opioids.
I am excited to hear about innovative responses to this crisis and to spread the word across the state about how different communities are paving the way for emerging best practices. This can include, for example, the increasing use of co-responders trained to interact with those experiencing opioid use disorder. Colorado is already a nationwide leader in responding to this crisis, with a robust adoption of naloxone to provide life-saving interventions for those experiencing an overdose. If you have yet to engage with your regional council, and would like to do so, I am happy to help get you plugged in.
But the fight against opioids isn’t on the downswing. Instead, it’s evolving. The painful arc of our opioid crisis migrated from the pills pushed out in the 1990s and 2000s to heroin, which drug cartels pushed in the last 15 years or so more cheaply and availably than prescription pills. More recently, however, those same cartels have turned to fake prescription pills, which are composed of fentanyl. Those fentanyl-laced pills are 50 times more potent than heroin and far more likely to cause an overdose. Indeed, drug dealers are now selling fentanyl in other disguised forms, such as cocaine, meaning that any drug sold on the street may well be deadly. That’s why, between 2020 and 2021, we saw a 69% increase in fentanyl-related overdose deaths. And as I noted earlier, the problem is getting worse: in the first five months of 2022, law enforcement partners across Colorado seized over 2 million dosage units of fentanyl, more than the total amount of fentanyl seized in Colorado in all of 2021.
To meet the challenge of rising fentanyl distribution, last year I stood with law enforcement leaders, including DAs and sheriffs, to ask the General Assembly to address this crisis. While they did enact a solid bill, I was disappointed it failed to include all the policies we pushed for. But I do believe this bill makes important progress in fighting fentanyl. It did, for example, create a new criminal offense: distribution of fentanyl resulting in death. With the enactment of this provision, we are better positioned to hold accountable those who engage in what can only be called fentanyl poisoning.
In the bill passed last session, we also secured funding for law enforcement to specifically investigate and go after fentanyl traffickers. Our Department is involved in this work, advising the Department of Public Safety and serving on the review and selection committee. And to support this work, we co-sponsored a summit last spring with Denver, working with DA Brian Mason and others. We also continue to work on such investigations in our Department, building on prior cases and continuing our long-time cooperation with local law enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Agency. These are complex investigations that take time, but we will continue to make this work a top priority.
The availability of these fake fentanyl-based counterfeit prescription pills scares me. I had the chance to meet the head of the DEA recently, who has made this work her top priority. As she put it, “the drug dealer isn’t just standing on a street corner anymore. It’s sitting in a pocket on your phone.” This easy access to deadly drugs means that we need to be vigilant in getting out this message. As the DEA has stated in its public awareness campaigns “one pill can kill.” We are now working on a public outreach effort to do just that and will be sharing more details shortly.
In the 2022 fentanyl bill, our Department also took on the role of spearheading a report on the use of social media platforms to distribute fentanyl and other illicit substances. Having met with parents who lost children to such sales, I know that this threat is one we must take seriously. In our report, we intend to call out what practices social media companies should adopt, how social media companies can better work with law enforcement, and what public policy measures would address this threat. If you have experiences or suggestions about how to meet this challenge, please let me know as we are in the final stages of our work, preparing for a report that will be released in a matter of weeks.
Organized Retail Theft
Finally, I want to discuss our work on organized retail theft for a few minutes. Last session, I worked with private sector and business leaders to craft a law to remove the ease in which thieves can sell stolen goods online. But removing incentives for these thieves is one of many steps to address this escalating crime. To that end, I am convening an Organized Retail Crime Task Force that will bring law enforcement together with retail investigators and on-line marketplace representatives to combat these criminal enterprises. Our core concern is that organized retail theft is creating public safety concerns and is costing Colorado businesses millions of dollars. And it makes for highly unsafe situation for retail workers and customers. The cost of organized retail theft is also reflected in higher priced goods, unsafe products being introduced into the marketplace, and lost tax revenue. The first Organized Retail Crime Task Force meeting will be on February 13th. Please contact Janet Drake, our Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice, if you are interested in attending the meeting or would like more information about this work.
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As we meet the challenges we face regarding public safety, it is imperative that we be in constant communication and share best practices. When I travel the state, I look forward to meeting you in your communities and learning more about your concerns and goals. And please don’t hesitate to reach out as issues arise. As those of you I have worked with can relate, we do our very best to be a responsive and collaborative partner.
Thank you for your continued partnership, your counsel, and, above all, your service to your communities and to Colorado.