Summit County bucks statewide trend, sees reduced crime in 2020 |

Summit County bucks statewide trend, sees reduced crime in 2020

A volunteer performs a field sobriety test with Sgt. Mark Gafari and Deputy Steve Maes of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office during a simulated DUI traffic stop Jan. 8, 2020, in Breckenridge. Summit County reported a decrease in crime from 2019 to 2020.
Photo by Liz Copan / Summit Daily archives

The number of crimes increased across the state last year, but Summit County was able to buck the trend and reduce the number of crimes locally, according to data collected by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

The bureau released new data from hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the state earlier this year, and the numbers largely show trends moving in the wrong direction.

There were a total of 353,528 crimes reported in Colorado in 2020, about a 3.9% increase from 2019, according to the bureau. Violent crimes increased by 6.5% and property crimes increased by 10.4%, including a considerable 38.6% increase in motor vehicle thefts, which has been a problem in Summit County, as well. Only what the bureau calls crimes against society — violations related to drugs, gambling and animal cruelty, among others — saw a statewide decrease of about 26%.

Colorado Bureau of Investigation officials said data sets from 2020 might be incomplete due to some law enforcement agencies not having submitted their complete statistics for the year. The bureau also warned that year-over-year comparisons might not be apples to apples, as some agencies might have switched or upgraded record-management systems. Though, the data should still provide a worthwhile look at overall trends.

While the state as a whole saw an increase, Summit County’s law enforcement agencies recorded a decrease in crimes across the board in four major categories: property crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and driving under the influence. According to the bureau’s data sets, Summit County’s law enforcement agencies — the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Blue River, Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco and Silverthorne — reported 1,235 crimes last year in those four categories, a near 20% decrease from the 1,542 reported in 2019.

Over the past five years (2016 to 2020), Summit County has averaged just more than 1,375 crimes per year, and 2020’s numbers show below average reporting throughout each category. Though, the total number of crimes in 2020 doesn’t appear to be a dramatic departure from the norm. As recently as 2018, there were a total of 1,245 crimes reported from the four categories in Summit County, just 10 more than in 2020.

The dip also didn’t necessarily mean that local police were less busy. Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said his office saw a significant decline in call volume from January (1,747) to April 2020 (1,381). But the office’s total call volume actually increased from 20,256 in 2019 to 21,572 calls for service in 2020.

While local law enforcement leaders voiced their opinions about what exactly the trend means, it’s clear there’s no single answer for why crime numbers grew statewide and dropped in Summit County. Though, most agreed that COVID-19 played a part.

FitzSimons pointed to the exodus of tourists in the community at the onset of the pandemic and noted that any decrease in crime would be easy to spot in Summit County given the relatively low numbers historically.

“Less people, less crime,” FitzSimons said. “… We have a tourist population, and that was just completely cut out. … Obviously, when you don’t have a lot of crime to begin with, it looks like quite an impact on the percentage.”

FitzSimons continued to say there were myriad other factors at play, and the differences in crime rates were also a result of policies and events happening in other communities around the state, including stricter enforcement of COVID-19 regulations and arrests as a result of civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd and other related incidents.

Silverthorne Police Chief John Minor said the pandemic likely emboldened criminals in some areas who knew that law enforcement was taking active steps to reduce jail populations and that offenses would be met with a summons in lieu of an arrest. He also noted that in Silverthorne, officers would pull drivers over only for egregious violations during the height of the pandemic, and warrant arrests became rare except for with victims’ rights issues.

Minor also said that while he didn’t believe it was happening in Summit County, some agencies might be disengaging from more proactive policing. He pointed to the growth of auto theft in the state, and said criminals’ understanding of current police tactics has made them feel more free to commit some crimes.

“Back in the day, we used to chase people in a stolen car,” Minor said. “We don’t do that anymore. You just let them go. Why? Because of the liability. So they feel more empowered to steal more cars. They’re not just stealing cars. We’ve had people stealing catalytic converters inside stolen cars and doing other crimes, too. And they know that once we get behind them and they take off, unless it involved a crime of violence, we’re not chasing them.

“Does that have an impact? You bet it does. Are police officers more aware of their personal liability? You bet they are. Are they going to stick their neck out for a property crime? No. … You can go down a rabbit hole with crime statistics, and we’re speculating to a degree. But some of the speculation is based on hard facts.”

Frisco Police Chief Tom Wickman pointed to some crimes that remained a problem throughout the pandemic, including motor vehicle theft and domestic violence, but he said offenses in the town are generally crimes of opportunity, and he attributed the decline in reports to the well-behaved nature of residents.

“I think from Frisco’s perspective, it’s a very well-educated community of people, and I think they’d rather discuss things than take it out on somebody for the most part,” Wickman said. “… I don’t know if criminals don’t travel because of the pandemic, but certainly, it could weigh in in terms of our numbers being reduced.”

While officials made it clear there were far too many variables to consider to give any definitive answer on shifts in criminal behavior over the past year, they said that closely monitoring the rest of this year might help to contextualize what’s happened so far.

“It will be interesting to see what happens now as restrictions lift, more people start coming to the county, bars open up, and we start to get back to business as usual as a tourist economy,” FitzSimons said.

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