Law enforcement calls drop as officials seek middle ground in enforcing public health order
DILLON — Law enforcement agencies in the area have seen a considerable drop in call volume over the past month, with most of the county making a concerted effort to stay home, social distance and space out on the trails.
The number of calls for service — including the county’s law enforcement and emergency services — dropped by more than 16% from February (6,023) to March (5,051) this year and by more than 20% compared with March 2019 (6,314).
Taking a closer look at the data provided by the Summit County 911 Center, primarily the types of incidents to which officers are responding, the drop in volume might actually be more pronounced.
Most notably, the area’s law enforcement have been engaging in significantly more “area patrols” since the onset of the county’s public health order March 16, which enacted widespread closures of nonessential businesses and asked residents to begin engaging in extreme social distancing efforts.
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Area patrols are when an officer will “self-initiate” an incident by simply going to patrol a certain block or neighborhood, without dispatch receiving a call about a specific complaint or request for a police presence, according to Jerry Del Valle, the county’s emergency dispatch director.
In March of 2019, a total of 2.3% of law enforcement incidents were characterized as area patrols, but that number jumped to more than 15% in March of this year. In other words, while officers are continuing to patrol, they’re definitely getting fewer calls for assistance from the public.
And while most crime is down, there are a couple of categories in which officials have seen increases since the shutdown. Domestic violence numbers are up, both for law enforcement officers and the Summit Advocates for Victims of Assault. Traffic stops have been slightly down, though officials are still concerned with the number of people getting caught traveling at high speeds or under the influence.
“It’s still dangerous to drive,” Colorado State Patrol Capt. Jared Rapp said. “We’re trying to keep people out of the hospital so that those beds can be used for ill patients instead of stretching resources for crashes because people are driving too fast or impaired. Those are the top contributing factors for fatal crashes every year, and those are increasing with traffic being lighter and people thinking law enforcement isn’t going to stop them. But we’re still stopping people who are driving too fast or making the wrong choices before getting behind the wheel.”
Rapp said State Patrol also has increased its presence in high stress areas since the shutdown, such as Loveland Pass, where crowds initially gathered in droves to ski and hike. With troopers at the top and bottom of the hill, the agency has been able to cut down significantly on the number of individuals parking illegally over the past couple of weekends.
Similarly, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office announced late last week that deputies would be more strictly enforcing parking violations on county roads. While both Rapp and Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said the increased enforcement has paid off in reducing parking woes and gathering at trailheads, other potential violations of the county and state public health orders remain a concern.
According to data from the Summit County 911 Center, dispatch received 25 calls regarding potential violations of the public health order from March 18-31. From April 1-6, there were 30 such calls, according to Del Valle. And while all calls might not necessarily denote a legitimate violation, the trend is certainly moving in the wrong direction.
- 911 Center non-emergency line: 970-668-8600
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Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown said law enforcement agencies and district attorneys around the state largely have maintained a nonenforcement policy for the public health order. He noted that zero citations have been written in the entire district, which includes Summit, Lake, Eagle and Clear Creek counties.
“I had a call with many of the DAs around the state, and nobody is really seeing any concerted effort to cite,” Brown said. “I don’t think anybody is heavily enforcing. That doesn’t mean there have been no citations. There have been a few (in other districts), but I’m guessing it’s in the single-digit range. … It is one of those situations that’s fluid, meaning if circumstances warrant, we will change our practice on a dime.”
Some communities already have begun to tighten the enforcement around restrictions.
Law enforcement leaders in Pitkin County — including Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and police chiefs in Aspen, Basalt and Snowmass Village — issued a joint statement March 31, warning residents that all four agencies would be citing violators of the public health order.
The letter reads: “Sadly, we have seen some behaviors which are incredibly thoughtless as well as potentially dangerous. We will not hesitate to arrest and summons individuals who make such poor choices that endanger fellow community members or first responders.”
Violating the public health order is a class one misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and up to 18 months of jail time.
Locally, law enforcement is still trying to influence public behavior using less extreme measures. FitzSimons said local police would be rolling out a new system this week to deal with violators. Instead of simply dispersing violators, officers will begin issuing written warnings, which they’ll be able to track. Individuals who are identified as violating again likely will be cited in some capacity.
FitzSimons called the program the “next evolution” in attempts to enforce the public health order, noting that it would serve as a pathway to policies similarto Pitkin County’s if violations continue.
“Because we’re keeping track of this, if we have to go back to someone a second time, there would be a citation,” FitzSimons said. “It will help our deputies and officers who are used to taking enforcement actions. Now they’re filling out a form and handing it to someone. And members of the public will see deputies actually handing them something, and hopefully that will make them think.”
Brown noted that violators also could see civil action taken against them, in which offenders would be ordered by a judge to comply with the order or be held in contempt and jailed or fined.
The new warning system also should give officials and the public a better understanding of how many legitimate public health order violations there actually are over the next few weeks. Officials are still asking members of the public to comply willingly and to help self-police the area. But if violations do continue to be a problem, the pressure to tighten enforcement policies could lead to fast changes.
“If we had mass noncompliance or instances that were threatening to community health, we’ll reevaluate quickly,” Brown said. “… The thing that strikes me as the most likely is that we could see enforcement at the social gatherings occurring at trailheads and drop-in spots for backcountry skiing. If people are congregating like they usually do around the back of their cars, socializing and not keeping distance, I think we’ll reevaluate. It’s been a problem.”
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