Prepared Remarks: County Sheriffs of Colorado Winter Conference, Loveland CO (Jan. 9, 2020)
One year ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police as a new Attorney General, and this year I have the honor of also being able to address the County Sheriffs of Colorado as well. When I first took office I appreciated—at a very high level—some of the challenges you face. After a year in office, after an opportunity to listen to and learn from you, I have a greater understanding of those challenges and even more respect for your service.
First, let me begin by acknowledging that today is Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, which gives me an even extra reason to acknowledge everyone here for your service and devotion to protecting the people of Colorado. We consider ourselves your partners in this enterprise so let me talk for a few minutes about areas where we are currently working together. In doing so, I’ll leave some time for discussion as well as an opportunity to hear your thoughts, questions, and ideas.
Today’s Law Enforcement Challenges
First off, let’s begin by acknowledging that more is being asked of law enforcement officers than ever before. You serve as school resource officers, protecting our youth in Colorado. You are tasked with managing jails with high populations of people confronting mental health issues and the challenges of addiction. You are also increasingly called upon to respond to tragedies on a scale that was unimaginable in the past. As I continue to hear from many in law enforcement, you need more resources and training tools to respond to these increasing demands.
With an awareness of the expanded roles you are asked to fulfill, the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board, which I chair, is embarking on a project to update and define the core competencies of being a law enforcement officer. This project, will involve conducting a “job task analysis,” which captures the roles that the men and women of law enforcement are being asked to perform. This analysis would then be used to develop an updated curriculum for law enforcement training academies. As Sheriff Justin Smith suggested when we discussed this effort, we could even begin this curriculum from first principles, starting with the concept of the rule of law as established by our Constitution and how law enforcement officers play a crucial role in our republic.
Updating the curriculum will create an opportunity to evaluate the best ways to develop basic law enforcement competencies. Consider, for example, that we might be able to shift towards more experiential learning, thereby developing greater awareness of how to conduct oneself in a pressured environment. While it is not always possible to simulate and predict the challenges that officers will face in the field we want to work to do the best we can, knowing that how we train peace officers will affect our citizens as well as the safety of our peace officers.
A few months back, I had the opportunity to visit with an officer who was shot in the line of duty, and his chief remarked on how well he handled the situation, maintained his judgment and acted appropriately. Unfortunately, such stories about your courage and commitment to public service do not get told enough. As I get to know peace officers who have made such sacrifices, peace officers that have turned down more lucrative careers to serve others and put themselves in harm’s way, I am privileged to, on behalf of the people of Colorado, thank you (and your families) for your service.
At a recent work session, we discussed the priorities for POST and outlined the following: (1) Building Confidence in Law Enforcement; (2) Celebrating Law Enforcement and Supporting Recruitment; (3) Supporting Rural Law Enforcement Partners; (4) Improving the Efficiency, Effectiveness, and Fairness of the Criminal Justice System; (5) Addressing the Challenges of Substance Abuse; and (6) Supporting the Mental Health of Police Officers. Let me discuss each in turn.
Training is one of POST’s top priorities. Providing training and certification for peace officers around the state helps ensure that peace officers are prepared for the challenges that come with the job. Additionally, trained peace officers build confidence in our communities; confidence that the criminal justice system is fair.
I mentioned earlier that POST is looking at the opportunity to improve our academy training system. To improve the academy system’s transparency, we are now posting the information related to those who graduate from the academies, including their certification rate and, once we are able to collect the data, their employment rate one year after graduation.
Our efforts also include a greater focus on the evaluation and oversight of both the curriculum being used by the academies as well as the academies themselves. As part of that oversight, we recently had to take action to suspend the Otero Community College program because it was not operating in a compliant manner. During that process, Otero County Sheriff Sean Mobley, a POST Board member, demonstrated real leadership and our POST Director, Bo Bourgerie, worked hard to ensure that our communications were clear, transparent, and reliable.
As I mentioned, we need to do more to celebrate law enforcement, honor your sacrifices, and spread the success stories that you all know well. As a newer member of this law enforcement community, and one with many avenues to engage Coloradans across our state, I want to find opportunities to share tales of bravery, service, and leadership, including traditions like the Special Olympic Partnership. As you know of efforts to celebrate law enforcement in your community, please let Bo, POST, and our office know so we can join them when possible and do our best to get out the word.
Over the last year, I’ve valued the opportunity to visit with rural law enforcement, from Severance to Durango to Craig to Steamboat Springs. I am so grateful for your hospitality and the opportunities to learn about your challenges—and your best practices. What Steamboat Springs Police Chief Christensen and Routt County Sheriff Wiggins have done in terms of their collaboration is most impressive. I am also very impressed that Mesa County and its individual jurisdictions have joined together to support a single Public Safety Answering Point, meaning that when people call 911 in that region, regardless of whether they are in Palisade or unincorporated Mesa County, they get to the same operator. In our next work session, POST will be talking about other successful models of collaboration in rural communities and how we can support them.
In terms of support for rural communities, let me remind you of one program and share with you a goal for the upcoming legislative session. First off, as I mentioned last year, Bo developed a program where rural jurisdictions have the opportunity to enlist colleagues from larger jurisdictions to step in for them so that they can take time for training off-site. Indeed, when I visited Dolores County last year, I had the opportunity to tell their training officer about this opportunity. Second, as a top legislative priority for this year, we want to secure the ability for rural jurisdictions to use POST funds to provide scholarships for training academies. We are engaging rural legislators now and look forward to seeing a bill before the General Assembly this coming session.
I recognize that, amidst new developments in law enforcement, it is a constant challenge to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and fairness of the criminal justice system. For POST, we will continue to develop appropriate trainings and model policies, similar to those we’ve been charged with creating for Extreme Risk Protection Orders and witness identification. We also will continue to learn from the challenges you face and work to educate legislators and others as to those challenges. I recognize, for example, that an unfunded mandate to process pre-trial detention decisions within 48 hours would cause major hardship in our rural communities, a point underscored in a conversation we held in Delta with local law enforcement leadership. I will do my best to explain these issues and challenges to the State Legislature if and when they come up in the next session.
With regard to substance abuse, I understand the significant impact addiction has on our jails. When I first met Alamosa County Sheriff Robert Jackson, he related that 90% of those individuals in his jail were addicted to opioids and that he lacked sufficient tools to address this crisis. More recently, Moffat County Sheriff KC Hume relayed that he has successfully implemented medically assisted drug treatment in his jail. And just, recently, with Chief Troy Davenport in Pueblo, we talked about the need for out-patient recovery programs so that those who go through treatment while in jail can be released and have a pathway for recovery.
Addressing the opioid epidemic—and taking on substance abuse challenges more broadly—is a top priority for our office. Through litigation against the drug companies, we may well be in a position before long to provide funding for the sorts of solutions that some of you are starting to experiment with. I very much look forward to that collaboration and ongoing work.
Finally, in terms of our work at POST, we are passionate about supporting the mental health of peace officers. You all know that many more officers die at their own hands than on the job. At POST, we are working to upgrade our wellness curriculum and will develop tools to support our officers who understandably confront depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. If you have ideas, suggestions, or questions on this front, please talk to Bo or myself.
Let me briefly talk about pre-trial reform. A pre-trial bail reform bill was introduced in the last legislative session, but it did not pass. Many stakeholders, including law enforcement officers and prosecutors, collaborated during the summer to develop another pretrial bail reform bill that will be introduced this legislative session. The goal of this bill is to change our model from one where individuals are detained based on their ability to pay cash bail or not, to one where multiple factors will be used to determine whether defendants are a danger to others in the community or a flight risk. This change, if enacted by the legislature, will protect public safety, be attuned to the needs of victims (and comply with the Victim Rights Act), avoid the unfair and unnecessary detention of low income individuals who are not a threat to the public, and help alleviate jail overcrowding and local budget concerns.
First off, I want to emphasize that my support for pre-trial reform is contingent upon getting sufficient state funds to support the local law enforcement efforts required under such a change. It is, as you know well, more time-consuming and challenging to develop and implement more particular evaluations of risk and careful monitoring systems to supervise those released from jail to both ensure the safety of the public as well as the return of individuals for court proceedings. With technological challenges and studies showing that the successful implementation of such reforms in a number of jurisdictions, I believe that we can make this change successfully here in Colorado as well.
Under the concept developed by our Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, the Department of Public Safety would receive funding to provide grants to local jurisdictions who would implement this basic reform. The Department would also provide guidance and convene leaders across the state to support those in charge of these programs on a local level.
If you have thoughts, ideas, or concerns about the directions that the legislature might take in reforming our pre-trial detention process, please let Bo or I know. There is still time to take account of those concerns and I very much want us to make this reform with all of the relevant considerations and concerns voiced and on the table. That’s how we improve public policy and our criminal justice system.
It’s an honor to serve with you. As you continue your discussions, please keep us in mind as a resource and partner. I look forward to a continued dialogue and opportunities to work together in the years ahead.