Combatting prejudice: Panel focuses on local police reform
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In the wake of nationwide protests against systemic racism and law enforcement misconduct, both the Steamboat Springs Police Department and Routt County Sheriff’s Office are reevaluating their approach to public safety.
Such changes were a main topic of discussion during a virtual “Steamboat Conversations” town hall Wednesday focusing on community policing and police reform. The event was sponsored by Steamboat Pilot & Today and the city of Steamboat Springs. The panel consisted of Steamboat Police Chief Cory Christensen, Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins, Steamboat Springs City Council Member Lisel Petis and Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton.
As the nation seeks solutions for better policing, a common argument is the need for more co-responding strategies when responding to emergencies. This model pairs law enforcement officers and behavioral health specialists to more effectively respond to people who might be in a mental crisis or dealing with other behavioral health problems.
Such an approach, proponents of the model argue, can help to de-escalate situations and mitigate the need for the use of force. As Melton said, the current model demands too much of law enforcement officers, forcing them to respond to calls that would be better suited for other professionals.
“I think we’ve asked law enforcement to do a lot of things where maybe we should be examining who the right person is to serve individuals,” she said.
The primary goal of a co-response strategy, Christensen explained, is to connect people in crisis to treatment services and divert them from the criminal justice system, a path that often perpetuates rather than solves behavioral health problems.
The Police Department plans to partner with Mind Springs Health to implement a co-responding program in September.
“The officers are all in on this,” Christensen said of the co-responding program.
The police chief said the approach would help to address many calls his department receives. He could think of three incidents this week that could have benefited from having a mental health professional on scene, including a man who became belligerent toward officers Monday. Christensen said the root cause of the man’s behavior was a mental health problem.
Officers eventually were able to take the man into custody and transport him to the hospital for treatment, Christensen said.
More broadly, the 14th Judicial District, which includes Routt, Moffat and Grand counties, secured funding in July to implement an adult diversion program. It provides an alternative to prosecution and incarceration for certain lower-level offenses and offers rehabilitative services that might not otherwise be available in the criminal justice system.
Debates over reforms
Sheriff Wiggins challenged the intensified focus on race and ethnicity, arguing it perpetuates prejudice rather than solves it.
“I think as long as we keep skin color at the forefront, racism will continue to be a problem. We need to start dealing with people as people and not take into consideration the color of one’s skin or their ethnicity,” Wiggins said. “It’s time that we start treating everybody with dignity and respect.”
This view differs with the approach of the recently passed Senate Bill 217, which, among a sweeping list of reforms, requires agencies to document the demographic information of people involved in police responses, from use of force to traffic stops. One of the primary goals of this database is to track any biases that may exist in how officers treat the public.
Wiggins agrees with a provision of the bill that removes bad cops who try to seek employment at other law enforcement agencies after instances of misconduct. Under new laws, officers would be permanently decertified if they plead guilty to or are found guilty of an inappropriate use of force, failure to intervene to stop excessive force or are found civilly liable for excessive force or failure to intervene. A public database will document officers who have been decertified, fired, found to be untruthful or who repeatedly failed to follow training requirements.
Without this system in place, bad cops are able to leave behind “a trail of tears” as they commit further grievances at other agencies, Wiggins said.
Both Wiggins and Christensen said the bill is well-intentioned, but it will not solve systemic issues on its own.
“Senate Bill 217 will do nothing to reform law enforcement,” Christensen said. “It doesn’t mean it is entirely a bad thing.”
As he argued, requiring officers to wear body cameras — one of the bill’s mandates — will not stop a bad cop from doing bad things. What agencies need, Christensen said, are strong leaders who foster a culture of accountability. Part of this approach, he added, is listening to and working with the community.
This approach, known as community policing, has been around for decades, Wiggins said, but it is coming to the forefront amid the recent calls for reform. He and Christensen are facilitating discussions with the public and local leaders in an effort to be more transparent about their agencies’ policies and the changes they are undertaking.
Diversity within law enforcement has been a major priority for Christensen since he took over five years ago. At the time, the Police Department had no female officers and had never had a woman in a leadership position. Now, more than a quarter of his officers are female, and Cmdr. Annette Dopplick oversees department operations.
Recruiting a racially diverse staff has been more challenging, Christensen acknowledged. About 7.5% of his sworn officers are Hispanic and 3.7% are Asian.
He and Wiggins have been taking steps to make the public more comfortable in interactions with law enforcement, such as providing Spanish-speaking officers when necessary.
Beyond police reform
Systemic racism is an issue beyond law enforcement, Melton said, meaning all people need to take a critical look at themselves and their organizations to make meaningful improvements.
“We all have unconscious biases that we are not aware of,” she said. “We are in a time right now where we as a county are being asked to examine those biases both within ourselves and within our systems.”
As she acknowledged, the county needs to focus more on policies to encourage diversity, equity and inclusion.
Petis talked about how City Council recently passed a draft of an ordinance that would create a formal complaint system to document allegations of discrimination or misconduct among city officials. Currently, the city does not have a structured procedure to address such complaints, Petis said, meaning people either feel forced to speak up about misconduct or their complaints do not get the response they deserve.
The council member encouraged people to reach out to her and the other panelists with additional questions, concerns and recommendations.
“It’s hard to know how to go forward if we don’t know where we are at now,” Petis said.
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