Opinion | Susan Knopf: Stressed out in Summit County
For th record
There used to be a wood, when you entered the River Run access to Keystone Resort. It wasn’t much, just a little grouping of trees that the developers hadn’t destroyed yet. It used to give me a sense of peace and calm as I glanced it on the right, the first thing I saw before I would navigate the pot-holed, ice-covered parking lot the size of several football fields. Before the juggernaut parking lot there was a little piece of peace. No more. It’s condos or townhomes now. My friend has a very nice place there. It’s an example of encroaching density. Density is at the very heart of what Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons says is driving the increase in calls for service for the second straight year in a row.
Density creates stress. It’s not something we associate with Summit County. That’s something I think about when I go to New York City. But it’s a thing. We saw it last Sunday when the traffic backed up. Turned out last Sunday, not a holiday, was one of the highest traffic volume days ever, 3,000 cars shy of the record.
What happens when about 55,000 cars go through the Eisenhower Tunnel? (And that’s just the tunnel. I can tell you the approach to Loveland Pass was a parking lot last Sunday afternoon.) You have an increase of density that can ignite real tension. Kudos to locals, seasonal workers and visitors that more #%*! doesn’t happen. But let’s not confuse luck with a plan.
FitzSimons says he needs more people on the street. He says he went to the Summit Board of County Commissioners last year looking to add four more officers and a sergeant. Thumbs down. He reports the sheriff’s office responded to 2,500 more calls than two years ago. That’s 1,500 more calls in 2017–18, which was up from 1,000 more calls in 2016–17. “Something’s gotta give,” he says, when you “stress staff over a long period of time.”
The sheriff points out that in the past two years there have been two officer-involved shootings in Summit County. Prior to 2016, FitzSimons says there hadn’t been one since the 1980s. He is the first to point out that it’s not just officers, it’s the people. He says people are stressed out trying to afford groceries, housing, gas and health care. Health care is at the root of almost every call for service, according to the sheriff. If people can’t afford the drugs they need, the sheriff says they will self medicate with the drugs they can get — alcohol, marijuana.
We are sitting on a “perfect storm,” FitzSimons says, and “the people are not getting the service they deserve.”
Demand for ever-more luxurious vacation homes puts pressure on the locals to find housing. It can be stressful to drive by fancy houses and condo construction sites when you live in your car and have to move to a new parking place every night.
FitzSimons reports “substance abuse and recurring mental issues are at the nexus of every call.” He says he will use money from the recently passed 1A referendum to put a “co-responder team” on the street. That’s a deputy paired with a mental health professional. That’s one team 40 hours per week. Not enough, says the sheriff. In our conversation he estimated there are about seven officers on the street at any given hour of the day, counting all the law enforcement agencies: sherriff’s office, police departments in Breckenridge, Frisco, Dillon and Silverthorne. FitzSimons says we could use twice the number of sheriff’s deputies given the transience of the local population and the rising number of visitors. According to the U.S. Census, the population of Summit County has risen 16.5 percent in the past 10 years. But the sheriff says his office hasn’t gotten more line officers during that time to handle the load.
According to Governing.com, a community of our size, about 31,000 people, has on average 17 officers per 10,000 people. When you examine more closely, communities with a more transient population and large influx of tourists have ratios of 32 officers per 10,000 people (Charleston, South Carolina), and as high as 71 per 10,000 people (Atlantic City, New Jersey). We have 91 law enforcement officers across five departments. That’s a ratio of 30.3 officers per 10,000 people. We do not appear to be short handed, nor would it be unreasonable, given the data to say we need more officers.
Regardless, the stress is palpable in our community. That’s why the sheriff says he trains all officers in crisis intervention. One issue that concerns FitzSimons is the underreporting of officer assault. It’s not so much that an officer fails to report what happened. It’s that what happened doesn’t rise to the threshold required to be reported to the FBI as an officer assault, for the purpose of aggregating the statistics, so we can all understand the problem better. The sheriff gave an example of a fisticuff with a suspect. The suspect attempted to punch the deputy. The deputy was successful in subduing and restraining the suspect without incident. That’s a classic example where no officer assault would be reported because it was averted. But it doesn’t mean that deputy didn’t feel the stress of the attempted assault.
Another stressor we are all concerned about hasn’t been counted until this year. According to the FBI, “at the request of major law enforcement organizations, the FBI established the National Use-of-Force Data Collection (Jan. 1, 2019) in an effort to promote more informed conversations regarding law enforcement use of force in the United States. The goal of the collection is not to provide insight into specific use-of-force incidents, but instead to offer a comprehensive view of the circumstances, subjects, and officers involved in such incidents nationwide.” FitzSimons says Colorado Bureau of Investigation will also be collecting the data.
You can bet we’ll be looking at those statistics next year, for the record!
See our digital online version of this column for links to source material. Susan Knopf is a Summit County resident. She has won awards from the Associated Press and United Press International for her news reporting.
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