Pandemic policing: Numbers show 2020 spike in calls for service

Numbers could be influenced by a variety of factors, SSPD commander says

The number of calls for service to the Steamboat Springs Police Department dropped significantly from 16,308 in 2020 to 13,234 in 2021.

The new data was presented to the Steamboat Springs City Council upon request this week, and the data provided a short-term look at police activity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nearly 15% drop puts 2021 closer to 2019, during which there were 14,859 calls for service. In 2018 and 2017 the number of calls remained stable around 12,500, down from about 14,500 calls in 2016.

Thus, it appears 2020 was more of a spike — an anomaly — than any notable downward or upward trend in crime, conflict or calls for service.

The ongoing pandemic undoubtedly had an effect on policing and calls for service — though precisely in what way and for what period of time remains a complex question with countless contributing factors and not enough data to draw any hard conclusions.

Emphasizing that any data analysis at this time is largely speculation, Steamboat Springs Police Commander Jerry Stabile shared some observations on what may have led to such a significant drop in calls in 2021 — or increase in 2020.

Regardless of what is behind it, a drop in calls can be viewed as a positive, Stabile said. “Less calls for service is reflective of less conflict out in the community.”

In some ways, the pandemic reduced certain types of calls, Stabile said.

First, he noted the inclusion of officer-initiated calls in the total service call number. Those cover anything initiated by a police officer, he said, such as proactive bar checks and traffic stops.

Particularly during the pandemic’s early months, officers were not asked to do as many self-initiated calls, Stabile said, but were more focused on responding to calls for service.

In addition, when establishments — such as bars — reduced their capacity and operating hours, that typically meant a reduction in calls for police assistance.

However simultaneously, when more restrictions were in place, police saw an increase in an entirely new category of calls — reports of violations of the pandemic rules.

“We did get a good number of those,” he said.

In addition to reports such as too many people at a gathering or violations of lodging restrictions, confrontations over masks in public places were not uncommon.

Steamboat Springs Police Department calls for service by year
Year Calls
2021 13,243
2020 16,308
2019 14,859
2018 12,613
2017 12,560
2016 14,512

While not reflected in official population counts, Stabile also pointed to the “significant amount of folks who took refuge from the pandemic in the mountains.” More people likely contributed to more calls, he said.

Another factor contributing to the drop in calls in 2021 may be the police department being short-staffed, Stabile said.

With the department currently down eight sworn officers, Stabile said there is less manpower available for those officer-initiated calls and proactive patrolling.

Being short staffed also may have an impact on traffic accidents, Stabile said, with fewer officers dedicated to things like running the radar and controlling speed.

Traffic accident numbers curve in the opposite direction of total calls and animal calls, with a dip in accidents in 2020.

In 2019, Steamboat Springs Police responded to 666 traffic accidents, 535 in 2020 and 613 in 2021. The accident numbers are likely primarily impacted by the changing volume of traffic, Stabile said.

There was a decrease in travel in 2020 as people hunkered down, while at the same time more people were driving instead of flying when they did travel, he noted.

The availability of the Ikon Pass likely has added traffic, Stabile said, as have the numerous Glenwood Canyon closures.

Another trend of note was the large spike of animal calls in 2020.

The 2020 spike somewhat corresponds with the total calls for service: 1,282 animal calls in 2019, 1,662 in 2020, and back down to 1,162 animal calls in 2021.

So what accounts for a nearly 30% decrease in animal calls from 2020 to 2021? Again, Stabile emphasized that any answers are only speculation.

“A lot more people were home with their pets,” Stabile noted, and were likely outside recreating more with their pets, potentially leading to “a lot more opportunity for conflict.”

There was also a significant increase in adoptions in Steamboat, he said, just as there was across the nation. That means more pets and more pet owners, thus more opportunity for conflict or calls for things like a dog on the loose.

Giving an early glimpse into the 2022 numbers, the data showed total calls for service increased by 22.3% for January 2022 over January 2021.

The past three years of pandemic policing “has been interesting across the board,” Stabile said. “We are not immune to these unforeseen things that come out of a pandemic.”

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