Arrest rates doubling across Summit County as visitor numbers surge
August 18, 2016
Arrests have soared in Breckenridge, Dillon and Silverthorne, where all three police departments have already made more arrests this year than they did in all of 2015. The Summit County Sheriff's Office is on track to handily exceed last year's arrest numbers. Case filings with the district attorney's office are also rising, up roughly 7 percent from last year.
The population of Summit County has increased steadily for decades, and its status as a destination resort area has helped ensure a non-stop influx of visitors. But, with the populated areas of the county almost completely hemmed in by mountains and federal land, housing and building sites are in short supply. The resulting growing pains are felt most sharply by the men and women charged with keeping the peace and prosecuting.
"If you look at the sheer volume of visitors, it makes perfect sense," said interim Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, whose department's 301 arrests as of June 30 are on pace to sharply eclipse last year's total of 473 — itself a big jump from 2014's total of 347. "More visitors, more calls, more arrests."
The Breckenridge Police Department has already made 661 arrests this year, on pace for a staggering 1,322 compared to last year's 404. A lot of that has to do with beefed-up ski pass fraud enforcement and greater numbers of kids trying to buy marijuana with fake IDs, said police chief Dennis McLaughlin.
“If you look at the sheer volume of visitors, it makes perfect sense.”Jaime FitzSimonsinterim Summit County sheriff
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"I think we've seen trends going up for the past several years, with more special events, more cars," he said.
The sheer volume of people visiting Summit County is staggering, and there are few law-enforcement jurisdictions in the country that have to contend with such a highly-variable population. More than 1.3 million people passed through the Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70 during the month of July alone, 87,000 more cars than passed through during the same month last year. And while that's great news for businesses, it can create headaches for police.
"Summit County is kind of like a small town in a big city," said Dillon police chief Mark Heminghous, whose department is already close to doubling its arrest numbers from last year. "These communities here aren't that big, but we just have so many people passing through."
The highways that weave through these pristine mountains bring mostly well-meaning (and well-heeled) tourists hoping to enjoy the area's natural beauty. But with them come a small minority of petty individuals, who, according to Heminghous, will sometimes roll through town snatching valuables from unlocked cars and hopping back on the highway as quickly as they came, forming a predictable pattern of clustered incidents.
"People will say 'I've lived here 20 years, and I've never locked my car!' But I assure you, it happens all the time, " he said.
Silverthorne police chief John Minor said his department is notching arrests at twice last year's rate.
"The vast majority of people who come here behave themselves, and we appreciate that," he said. "But not everyone."
So far, police departments have adapted to making double the arrests with roughly the same resources. But chiefs can only economize so much, and, as Summit County continues to fill with people, more resources will likely be needed.
"We have to be creative with our resources these days," said McLaughlin, whose department has streamlined its paperwork and citations procedures to help keeps cops on the street and out of the office.
"We just have to deal with it," said Minor. "If we get short staffed, we still have to get up and go. If that means having me out there helping patrol, so be it."
He said that town police departments are having trouble recruiting officers, in part due to scarce housing and the allure of higher pay in the Front Range.
"It puts a strain on dispatch, on cops, on the jail — on all of our resources," said FitzSimons, whose department has had difficulty keeping its jail fully staffed. And, while shuffling personnel has helped — and even had some side benefits — there's a limit to stopgap measures in the long run.
The increase in district attorney case filings has been far less pronounced, although not insignificant. While there is a relationship between arrests and case filings, it is far from a neat correlation. Mental-health contacts and detoxes, for instance, don't always lead to formal charges with the DA.
There doesn't appear to be a spike in any particular class of crime, said District Attorney Bruce Brown. Felonies, juveniles, misdemeanor and traffic infractions all appear to be rising at a similar clip. But, in Brown's opinion, the severity of felony crimes has increased.
"I can speculate that this increase has to do with the urbanization of Summit County," said Brown. "When you add big box stores, when housing becomes more dense and businesses are thriving, our society becomes more urbanized. And that can mean more crime."
To help handle the heavier caseload, he added another attorney to his team this year. If his numbers are right and filings in the 5th Judicial District climb at roughly eight percent a year, he expects to add an attorney every year or so.
Projections by the State Demographer estimate that Summit County has grown by 9.6 percent between 2010-15 and is expected to add another 4,553 residents by 2020, a 14.8 percent jump. If current trends continue, the county can expect many more people in years to come, which means it can expect more crime as well.
"More people, more problems," said Minor.