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How many police are enough?

Article by Ray James

Law Enforcement – April 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Central Colorado’s relative peace likely proves as much of an attraction to most ex-urban immigrants as do the low real estate prices. The mountains offer bucolic refuge for those who have lived with drive-by shootings, gang violence, serial killers and street-corner drug markets. Once “home” in the Rockies, if newcomers think of law enforcement at all, it is to be thankful that there are enough police to ensure that their old nightmares don’t come for a visit.

Yet one of the most cherished traditions of the West was once the “live and let live” attitude of the life-time residents, their police, and their sheriffs. As custom had it, as long as folks kept to themselves, as long as they didn’t drink themselves insensible on Main Street, didn’t go into Safeway naked, and didn’t shoot their guns in town, they could pretty much live as they wanted. .

For old-timers, lawmen were often old school pals. The police took them home when they had sipped too much Friday afternoon medication, and the police brought home their wayward children.

But the times and law enforcement are a changin’.

Today, we have more police officers, more equipment, more calls, more ordinances, and more enforcement than ever before. Even in rural areas, a casual “Andy of Mayberry” enforcement style is no longer policy — nor politic.

In Chaffee County in the last twenty-five years, law enforcement has grown to consume a tenfold increase in budget, and personnel has more than doubled. Inflation accounts for a fourfold increase, and Chaffee County’s population has grown by 50% (from 10,162 to 15,000). But neither factor accounts for the present overhead.

Tourism also plays a role, however. Although tourists may not show up in census figures, they use our roads and sometimes require police protection.

Because they are often vacant, second homes can be a more attractive lure for criminals than first homes, and Central Colorado now has homes tucked behind almost every hill and dale. But all in all, the growth in law enforcement is occurring all over the country, whether the region is home to scenic byways or not.

In 1996, the police say their departments must grow faster than the population, because people expect more now. In America and in Chaffee County, law enforcement is booming.

Why the boom in law enforcement?

It’s easy to ask, and some of the area’s wild-eyed radicals do ask, why the number of law enforcement officers has increased so dramatically since the 1970s. With the increase in law enforcement personnel has come an increase in costs, and even sedate citizens have questioned the boom in vehicles and personnel. The answer is not so easy to provide, however.

Some factors include: a national “war” against drugs and drunk driving; a blooming “crime bureaucracy” nourished by a proliferation of mandatory paperwork; and an increased concern for civil liberties. It is also possible that the media contribute to the increase in law enforcement by the nature of crime reporting.

But the most basic reason more officers patrol the region’s streets and roads is that more people call the police or sheriff and ask for help or issue complaints. For example (see chart on next page) the Salida Police responded to 1,856 calls in 1983 which resulted in case reports. In 1994, reports had jumped to 3,897. By 1995, the total reached 4,148. In the five years from 1989 to 1994, calls more than doubled.

One of the reasons calls have doubled is the ease of use of the 911 emergency call system and the awareness of it by the public. Another factor, according to Salida Police Chief Darwin Hibbs, is that people call the police to resolve disputes more frequently than in the past.

“At this point I don’t know what the problem is,” Chief Hibbs said. “We do have more domestic violence calls than we’ve had. We have a lot of calls through social services — child abuse, sexual abuse — that sort of thing,” Hibbs noted.

The Salida Police Department was dispatched on 80 domestic situations, eight child abuse cases, four sexual assaults and 65 civil situations in 1995. Some calls come directly to the police office in Salida, or an officer is stopped on the street by a citizen, or an officer sees a criminal act or suspicious behavior and initiates action on his own. The latter calls, however, are not always included in the dispatched total.

“The statistics here are what we point to — to say we need people and we can’t do our job with any less,” the chief said. “These are calls for help and people expect us to respond.

“I think at this point we’re currently staffed with enough people, most likely. If the city continues to grow, then you’re going to see more people and more officers, there’s no way around it. There has to be [more police in Salida] because if you look at the population it’s at least 5,000.” In addition to calls within the city limits, Salida officers handle some county calls close to Salida, because the Salida Police Department is the only law enforcement agency in the county with 24-hour patrols, seven days a week.

Hibbs, who joined the Salida force in 1965 as a parking law and code enforcement officer, said in a 1995 interview, that he thinks that people trust the police now as much or more than they ever have.

“I think their perception of us is that we are professional, and that we are going to help, and that they feel that they can get a fair shake, and I think that’s part of it [why there are more calls]. Plus I think there’s a heightened awareness, for example in 1977 we wrote two DUI tickets and last year [1994] we wrote in excess of 100.” There were 91 in 1995.

“Public perception has changed somewhat over the years: there were things in those days that the public would put up with and, because of their heightened awareness, the public just won’t put up with anymore. They demand that something be done. We see that as a mandate for our department — that they feel they can call us and we are going to respond,” Hibbs said.

The chief is certain that things are changing and changing quickly in Salida.

“There’s a certain degree of apprehension about things now that there hasn’t been before. You have a body count everyday on TV. People want to guard against that, and I think we’re in concert with the community because we too want to keep those horrendous things [rapes, murders, kidnappings] from happening. To a degree I think [Salida] people feel safe, but they want to maintain that with a professional, well-trained police department to hold the line on gangs, on dope, the whole thing,” the chief said.

“But I still don’t think there is a citizen in this community who can’t walk the streets of Salida late at night and not feel safe. I think that still exists here,” Assistant Chief Mike Sanchez adds.

“We’re being pro-active to make sure what’s happening in Front Range cities doesn’t happen here,” Sanchez said. “My wife and kids live here, and I don’t want them to face drive-by shootings and the like; we are trying to prevent it from starting here.”

“We’re trying to do the best job we can,” Hibbs said “and sometimes that’s perceived as over-zealous, but we feel we’ve been given our marching orders by the city council and the city council, by the people that they serve, and that this is what people want. We feel that we are in step with the community.”

“I don’t think the philosophy of the department has changed, it’s remained constant through the years from Harry Cable, to Leonard Post, to Darwin Hibbs,” Sanchez said. “The philosophy is the same, we want to make sure we’re one community, that we are approachable, that we need the support of the community in order to be effective, and that hasn’t changed.”

Some parents, some teen-agers, some senior citizens, and even some members of the legal community have a decidedly different perspective on the Salida Police department. Their viewpoints, and an explanation of the methods the Salida Police are using to keep big-city crime out of Salida, will be covered in the second part of this story in May.

Over the years, many changes have shaped the Chaffee County Sheriff’s office. Today, the department staffs the dispatch center for all law enforcement, fire, emergency and emergency medical agencies in the county and adjacent areas in far western Frémont County; it acts as civil process server (a task that has more than doubled in a litigation-happy society); it maintains the jail and control of prisoners (an increasing complex and difficult task according to Sheriff Ronny Bergmann). The department also assumes responsibility to transport a variety of people involved with the legal system.

Deputies must take juveniles to youth detention facilities (usually in Pueblo). Deputies must take those caught abusing alcohol to detoxification centers in Alamosa or Pueblo. And deputies must also travel to the State Hospital in Pueblo to drop off and pick up an ever increasing number of people who have been found in need of mental health care.

The sheriff says that if his office had to take care of all the transport required, he wouldn’t have any deputies left for road patrol. He credits the Salida Police Department and, on occasion, the Buena Vista officers for helping with transport duties to free Chaffee deputies for patrolling county roads.

“That’s the number one thing people mentioned they wanted,” Bergmann said. “When we asked them in the survey last year: [they wanted] more patrols to stop speeders on county roads. That’s what we’ve tried to give them.”

The sheriff’s effort to create a school-based “resource officer” is more controversial. The concept, borrowed from the Front Range’s big cities, would place an officer in Salida High School, Buena Vista High School, and the Chaffee County High School. This “circuit rider,” working with a social services person, would seek to head off trouble before it begins and to bridge the gap between law enforcement and young people.

In a concept paper on the proposal, Sheriff Bergmann suggests that the officer “wear a ‘soft’ uniform [blazer, sweat shirt or polo shirt etc.] with youth officer insignia.” No firearms would be worn in the schools unless the officer was in full uniform. Bergmann said the schools would decide how to use the officer and could opt to have an armed, uniformed officer if they wanted. Some Front Range resource officers do carry guns. The officer would drive an unmarked vehicle.

Marmie Witty, a six-year Salida school-board member, says the idea is “scary.” Witty felt that if the schools allow such a plan, they would be surrendering control of the schools to law enforcement. She added that she thinks the plan would alienate young people even more from the schools and law enforcement.

Sheriff Bergmann says that another reason for larger budgets and more personnel in county law enforcement is the paperwork required by state and federal agencies. It has increased to the point where three full-time records people are necessary to keep up with the flow, Bergmann said. He noted that he and his deputies used to spend one hour filling out a three-part DUI arrest report. Now such reports have 10 parts and can take up to four hours to complete.

The need for an increased dispatch staff came in 1995 when the sheriff’s office handled 104 emergency medical calls. Bergmann notes that during such calls the dispatcher cannot attend to other business, and that means a second dispatch must be available to handle normal law enforcement traffic.

Buena Vista Police Chief Dennis Upton says that juggling the schedule for officers in his small department is a major task. With time allowed for vacations, comp time, sick leave, and training, his officers can only provide 24-hour coverage of the community about 80 percent of the time. Arrests and convictions are up significantly in Buena Vista. In some categories, arrests are up six to 12 times over arrests for similar crimes the year before.

Upton made headlines with his talk of “zero tolerance” for crime, but he says people have now come to understand that he and his officers have zero tolerance for alcohol abuse, drugs and DUI, and discretion exists in traffic enforcement and other aspects of their law enforcement work.

In the second part of this story other perspectives and points of view will be melded with the law enforcement perspective.

Ray James is a past editor of Arkansas Valley and San Luis Valley newspapers, a really good cook, a photographer, and still single despite all his efforts. He just turned 50 and is not dying of cancer as the rumor mill had it.