When City Councilor Helen Collins called for more police protection in the southeast sector, or, as she put it, the city's "war zone," Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey and his cops responded indignantly.
Via email, Carey accused Collins of politicizing the issue, saying her "disparaging comments" were "not only inaccurate but unprofessional" and "devalue" efforts of officers working in the Sand Creek Division and other parts of the city.
Collins says she bears no ill will, and was simply pointing out that "people are dying" in the notoriously crime-ridden division. Records show that 16 of last year's 31 homicides occurred southeast of Galley Road and Union Boulevard, an area that includes Collins' Council District 4.
Sand Creek Cmdr. Kirk Wilson says police are abundantly aware of the division's problems, which he says are largely driven by a concentration of high-density housing and gang violence. But he tells the Independent that programs either recently adopted or soon to kick off could have a major impact on Sand Creek's crime rate.
Where are the cops?
At the Feb. 25 Council meeting, Collins noted her district is plagued by violent crime, and that fighting crime should be the city's highest priority. Yet, she said, the city is talking about spending "hundreds of millions on museums, sports and other tourist traps," a reference to the $250 million City for Champions tourism project, which she opposes.
She also complained that officers provide security for Mayor Steve Bach, and that one officer is posted at Council meetings to "save the Council" from the people who elected them. At one City for Champions meeting, she said, she counted four officers.
"Meanwhile," she added, "citizens in southeast are being gunned down. My Council district right now is a war zone. There's a lot of gang activity. A lot of city police are assigned elsewhere for political and personal motives, not to fight crime.
"Police should patrol the high-crime areas, not tranquil suburbia. We don't need more staffing; we need better staffing. We don't need more pay raises; we need more paying attention. We don't need more managers at desks; we need police on patrol."
The Police Protective Association, like Carey, didn't take kindly to her remarks. PPA president Barry Freeman wrote in his online newsletter to members that Collins was "disparaging" officers. He also noted the PPA didn't endorse Collins when she ran for Council in 2013, and added, "I'm guessing we won't endorse her for re-election either."
But data speak to Collins' frustration. The city hasn't achieved its goal of responding to high-priority calls in eight minutes or less, in accord with general policing standards, since at least 1995, despite a special voter-approved public safety sales tax adopted in 2001.
The ballot measure, mounted in November 2001 just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, contained language that promised the tax money would help "improve emergency police response times," among other things.
That year, police averaged 13 minutes and 30 seconds for emergency calls citywide. In 2002, the average response time improved to 12 minutes and 49 seconds. In 2003, it was down to 11 minutes and 28 seconds.
But the city lost ground when the recession hit. In 2010 alone, the number of sworn officers fell from 653 in January to 612 in December.
By 2013, the city budgeted for 635 sworn officers, but response times lagged. The best average response time last year came in the north Falcon Division, at 12 minutes and 20 seconds. The slowest average response was clocked in Sand Creek, at 13 minutes and 42 seconds — worse than before taxpayers granted the tax hike for public safety.
Cmdr. Wilson and Collins both say Sand Creek's crime woes are partly tied to a concentration of people. Although it has the lowest population of the four divisions, Sand Creek has people packed into smaller spaces. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, densities in the Sand Creek Division reach 8,500 people per square mile — 23 percent higher than the most dense areas in other parts of the city, and twice as dense as many areas.
"I think it has a lot to do with multi-family housing," Wilson says. "With lots of people bumping into each other, you're going to have a higher crime rate."
The Police Department is working on Sand Creek's crime problem, Wilson says, noting about half of the department's 12 gang-unit deployments last year were conducted in Sand Creek.
Yes, he says, Sand Creek needs more cops, even though it already has more officers on duty than other divisions, because the high number of violence-related calls eat up more police time than other types of Priority 1 calls. Some officers don't even have the luxury of a 30-minute lunch break, Wilson says.
"It certainly puts pressure every single day on the officers to be at their best and respond to calls."
Some help, Wilson says, has come from the addition citywide of 39 community service officers. They don't carry guns and can't arrest people, but they do ease the pressure on cops by handling cold burglaries and auto thefts and unexpected things, like an emergency road closure that otherwise would sidetrack six or seven officers.
Another program will be rolled out soon, following a promising 2013 pilot. Called Data Driven Approach to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS), the program uses calls for service and traffic-crash data to dictate where officers are deployed. Applied in the general area of Platte Avenue and Murray Boulevard and also downtown last year, DDACTS drove down the number of calls in those areas, Wilson says. In fact, 2013 was the first time Sand Creek didn't post the highest number of calls for service in the city, compared to other divisions.
"It's not based on hunches," he notes. "It's based on data we actually have."
The department also is beefing up a program in which officers work with apartment managers to make complexes less crime-friendly through environmental design, which can include lighting, key access to hallways, and placement of bushes and trees. In addition, crimes are reported to complex managers "to make sure the managers know what's going on at their properties," Wilson says.
"Everybody in the city should care how these places are run, how they're kept up," he adds, "because it affects everybody."
More cops are on the way as well, since Bach and Council funded 27 new sworn officers for 2014. (Ten of them will be funded with Public Safety Sales Tax money.) Some will be assigned to Sand Creek, Wilson says, which started the year with 87 officers and hopes to grow by five to eight as more recruits graduate the police academy.
"Every division commander," Wilson says, "will tell you they would like to have more officers."
Asked if she thinks her complaint did any good, Collins says, "I think my comments did help. There seems to be more of a presence." Then she adds, "That's my problem with new taxes — promises are always made and they're never kept."