Last year, when Yellow Scene was interviewing Governor Hickenlooper for our annual election guide, we asked him about the over-militarization of local police forces, highlighting the fact that Lafayette had been given 42 M-26’s. Lafayette doesn’t seem like the kind of city that requires that sort of firepower, and the governor agreed.L
“This whole program of taking surplus military hardware and then distributing it to communities all over the country, a) in many case those communities don’t need as much firepower as they’re getting and b) it really does send out the wrong message,” Hickenlooper told us. “It implies that there’s something to be fearful of, that the government is fearful of being attacked. I don’t think that’s the case anywhere – not in Lafayette, not anywhere. I think that program is going to be reevaluated now, and we’ll see if it doesn’t get reconfigured in a more constructive way. You look at some of the gigantic vehicles that these small communities have – it’s hard to imagine them ever needing a vehicle like that.”
This sentiment, coming straight from the mouth of the governor himself, got our minds working. The police is supposed to be in place to “protect and serve,” right? Boulder County doesn’t have the kind of community that needs fear striking into it; while we do have crime here, the numbers are way lower that at other places in the country, largely because poverty isn’t a big problem here. So the questions that kept going around our collective heads were, just how militarized do our local police forces need to be? When stopping people for, say, speeding, how aggressive do the police officers need to be? And when you really start digging into it, is protection always the priority over collecting revenue for the city?
It should be a given that our police officers have our best interests at heart. And we believe that most of the police officers out there are good and decent people who get into the profession for the right reasons. But there are too many stories of mistreatment of citizens for it to be a coincidence.
Take Stacy Lock, a Longmont resident who sued the City of Longmont, the Longmont Police Department, and four of its officers last year for an incident in May 2013. According to the Times-Call, Lock alleged that, “officers Paul Beach, Phillip Piotrowski, Tyler Schall and J. Winship used excessive force while arresting her, breaking her ribs and puncturing her lung in the process… The city and police department claim in the police report and court documents that Lock was interfering and obstructing the officers from doing their jobs that night and she was injured before police showed up.”
Now, to be fair, the officers implied that Lock was intoxicated and behaving badly, but still, her injuries don’t correspond with the story from either side. Take a look at Yelp, and the Longmont PD has an overall rating of one star, with one reviewer going by KT stating, “I have never had a good experience with the Longmont PD (they are slightly better than Boulder PD but that’s like saying one pile of dung smells better than another.) [I]was at a party, guy drank too much started vomiting and raving wildly. So we did the right thing, called 911 to get him help. Cops showed up [and] wrote tickets to everyone who was under 21 for drinking even though of the eight who got a ticket only one had actually had anything to drink, then proceeded to interrogate me like I’m some sort of terrorist or psychopath even though I called 911 in the first place, and were that not all screwed up enough they pulled me over half a block from the house after I finally got to leave their witch hunt and gave me a ticket for ‘speeding.’
Supposedly I was doing 48 in a 35 because, yes, I speed with tons of cops right behind me, in a 14-year-old car that physically could not get to 48 in the 200 some feet I had driven at that point. In other words, the Longmont PD is far more concerned with making money, meeting ticket quotas, and doing their best to control people’s personal lives when they aren’t hurting anyone than they are with protecting or serving anyone.”
Those opinions are not uncommon. Boulder PD gets a slightly better 2.5 overall rating, but the stories are still disturbing. That said, if we in the publishing industry know anything at all, it’s that people really only ever feel inclined to write something online if they’re angry.
That same mentality of sharing our opinion whilst angry doesn’t only apply to scathing Yelp reviews or letters to the editor. For officer Sue Barcklow of the Boulder PD, people on the street are more likely to voice their disdain than praise. With the recent scrutiny police departments throughout the nation have received, even the officers in Boulder County have had their share of protests and comments from citizens.
“In the last year I’ve had people stop and stare at me, throw their hands towards the sky and yell, or mouth, ‘don’t shoot,’” Barcklow said. “This would have never happened fifteen years ago. A lot of people are pulling out cell phones as well, no matter why we stop to talk to them. It’s as if they are expecting us to be cruel and mean.”
“In the last year I’ve had people stop and stare at me, throw their hands towards the sky and yell, or mouth, ‘don’t shoot,’”
Officer Sue Barcklow
But is this is an irrational fear? Rather it be on the news, on Facebook or through Twitter our newsfeeds have been flooded by viral videos of officers abusing their power, leading to deaths, mistreatments and racial profiling. Since the George Zimmerman verdict, there have been several other high profile stories of police brutality, notably Michael Brown, Eric Garner and most recently Sandra Bland.
In every case, social media became both the engine for raising awareness and an outlet for outrage. But the outrage doesn’t only rest behind the computer screen.
For Barcklow, a few instances shouldn’t shape the overall view of police work and the people sporting a badge and a gun.
Barcklow knew she wanted to be a police officer from a very early age. With the absence of her father, it was a family friend, and police officer, who checked on her and her siblings when they were teenagers. She knew she wanted to be like him when she grew up. She wanted to protect people, make them feel safe and secure.
After studying criminal justice at a college in Long Beach, Barcklow joined the force in California and found out it was something that she no longer wanted to do. So she moved out to Boulder to get her masters degree and waiting tables on the side. When to police officers who ate the restaurant found out she used to be a police officer, they convinced her to join the force again.
The stress is still there, but Boulder has a relatively low crime rate compared to other cities with the same population. Most of the calls Barcklow responds to are petty thefts, or home invasions. On any given shift, she spends part of it doing community outreach, talking to children or people on the street, and then responding to small calls with the occassional fight, or active robbery.
“There isn’t an average day,” she said. “You are always dealing with someone different, in a different situation, at a different place. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job.”
But, there are downsides to working a job with so much danger and scrutiny. Barcklow said if she knew how technology would interfere with her work that she would have chosen a different career.
“I come home jaded, and it’s not fair to my family,” Barcklow said. “I don’t have anything to hide, but the way people are treating officers all around is discouraging. Eventually every officer will have to wear a body cam, which will help show both sides of a story and not just the perspective of an observer’s cell phone.”
Even in Boulder, however, where the crime rate is low and most of the calls are domestic there is still a racial disparity that has some people concerned. In 2013, Boulder had a population of 103,163 people. Of that population, 89.9 percent was made up of white people, while the black population made up only 0.9 percent. However, when you look at the arrest citations provided on boulder-police.com, the black population accounted for 5.8 percent of the arrests.
According to a recent analysis by USA Today, Boulder had the second-highest disparity in the frequency of arrests for blacks and non-blacks in the state of Colorado between 2011 and 2012. African Americans in Boulder were about five times more likely to be arrested than all other races. The only police department in the report with a higher disparity was Arvada, where black people were about six times more likely to be arrested than other races.
None of the police officers commented on the disparity among arrests.
Only last year, four Boulder County sheriff’s deputies were cleared after being accused of using excessive force against inmate Robert Kirkland who said he had suffered a broken leg and multiple other injuries while in custody.
“We are gratified for the vindication of our deputies, who are good cops with good hearts, and who were falsely accused,” Sheriff Joe Pelle said in a statement. “This gentleman claimed he was beaten in the intake garage, and we have video of his intake, and there was no altercation at all. Period. Then he said he was beaten in his cell, that he was thrown down on the bed… We felt very steadfast in our deputies’ behavior, that it was appropriate, that nothing nefarious took place and that nobody was beaten up.”
So the important thing to note here is that the deputies were cleared, and we have to trust that the judge heard the evidence and the resulting verdict is correct. However, it’s worrying just how often these stories pop up.
Brian Rosipajla, support services commender for Lafayette P.D., was kind enough to provide us with some answers and, in part, put our minds at rest. Regarding the 42 M-26’s that we opened this story with, Rosipajla clarified, saying that, “The Lafayette Police Department received 40 M-16’s through the 1033 Program. Since the early 1990s police departments have switched from carrying exclusively shotguns in their patrol vehicles, to carrying patrol rifles. This has occurred because of many high profile incidents to include the Hollywood bank robbery, the Aurora Theater shooting, Sandy Hook, and Columbine to name a few. In many of these cases the active aggressor had high powered rifles and they were wearing body armor. The patrol rifles were the answers to help protect the lives of police officers and the citizens. As for the rifles we received from the government, these are modified rifles that anyone could go to a sporting goods store and purchase. They were all modified to semi-automatic weapons when they arrived and were then placed into service.”
In addition, when it comes to the issue of revenue generation, Rosipajla said that, “The Lafayette Police Department states in our policies that, ‘The goal of traffic law enforcement is to reduce traffic collisions and improve the safety and quality of life for the community through traffic law compliance,’ We strive on reducing the amount of serious and fatal crashes which occur on our streets. I can’t speak for every officer across the county, however police officers generally join this profession to help people, reduce crime, and make it a safer place for the citizens they serve to live. They are not there to worry about whether their actions are generating revenue or not. As you probably saw on the Channel 9 News’ report a couple of months ago on this topic, the City of Lafayette was shown to be well below the average amount for fines generated by citations compared to the budget. The Colorado average was shown at 4 percent while the City of Lafayette was at 2.8 percent. When it comes to changing perceptions of the public that police officers are only there to generate revenue, this is something only education can assist with. One way we reach out to our community is by inviting them to the Lafayette Police Department Citizens Police Academy. This gives citizens the ability to see first hand why and how police officers do their job. We have an entire section in the academy just on the traffic unit and why they do what they do.”
The Lafayette Police Department has a mission statement of, ‘Service with Honor and Integrity.’ Our fine police officers stand by this mission and treat everyone equally.”
Officer Brian Rosipajla
That’s fine, but it’s worth nothing that Hispanics make up 18.2 percent of the population, and African Americans 0.9 percent, so there is still an imbalance.
Of the 1,033 arrests that the Lafayette P.D. made in 2014, 63 percent were white/non-Hispanic, 21 percent were white/Hispanic, and 3 percent were black. Rasipajla said that, “The Lafayette Police Department has a mission statement of, ‘Service with Honor and Integrity.’ Our fine police officers stand by this mission and treat everyone equally while they are patrolling the streets of Lafayette and taking official action.”
Even in Boulder County, where the crime rate is low and the racial diversity is even lower, the citizens are still questioning the tactics and motives behind the men and women sporting a badge. BoCo is part of this national trend, and people are entitled to ask difficult questions. And sometimes there is smoke without fire. But our police departments have to remain accountable and that’s where we come in.
Ryan Howe contributed to this story.