The greatest challenge to public safety in Colorado Springs is the skyrocketing traffic death count, said Police Chief Pete Carey, who is retiring Feb. 1.
“Forty-seven people have died on our streets. That’s the No. 1 issue,” Carey said during an interview Monday. “It’s not all the Police Department’s responsibility. I mean, we have issues of congestion, we have all kinds of cars on the roads that weren’t here five or 10 years ago. But as I go into 2019 for my last couple of months, that’s my battle cry with our police officers: We have a big part to play in this.”
On Halloween, the city surpassed its record of 43 traffic fatalities set in 1986.
“When you leave here, getting back to the office in one piece on a cloudy, snowy day ... is the biggest threat to you,” Carey said. “It’s not gang violence. It’s not drug crimes or anything like that. It’s traffic safety.”
Carey, who turns 61 on Tuesday, has challenges for the next chief, from homelessness to marijuana to attracting officers.
Police must figure out “how to best serve our whole city as it relates to homelessness — applying a humanitarian aspect to our folks that need help and some kind of shelter, but also holding everybody accountable,” he said. “It’s a hard balance. Our Homeless Outreach Team has received international awards. They go and train other PDs. They do a good job with that. But it is a struggle.
“That homeless issue is really a polarizing issue. I hate to say this, but what I’m seeing if I think there’s a number of people in our community who are losing their compassion, they’re losing their sense of humanity on it. They’re scared about fires burning their homes and their neighborhoods down, and they’re seeing some things in our community and our downtown area that’s compromising what they believe is their quality of life.”
“This won’t be very popular,” Carey conceded, but one of the biggest issues to be faced in the next few years is “trying to figure out the impact of marijuana in our community — our schools, our streets and our kids.”
And the department must work to attract talent.
Agencies across the state “are fishing from the same pond for that next police officer, be it Denver or Aurora or Manitou Springs,” Carey said.
“We have to be nimble in the way that we do that, and we have to say, ‘This is a place where admittedly, it’s dangerous work, but you’re going to help your community. Because of what you do, this is going to be the place where you want to live, be a police officer and raise your family.’ That’s a huge challenge, it really is. There’s a lot of moving parts with that. Pay is only one of those.”
When Carey was appointed chief in January 2012, the department still was suffering from budget cuts prompted by the 2008 recession.
Then in 2016, he reorganized the department to compensate for a “critical” staffing shortage that left officers feeling stressed and unsafe and residents waiting more than 14 minutes on average for help in the most dangerous situations.
The move rankled some officers, but response times were reduced.
After advocating for better officer pay and funding to hire more, Carey leaves the department in a prosperous upswing. The city’s 2019 budget includes pay raises for current officers and money to hire 61 more. Mayor John Suthers has pledged that 100 officers will be hired by 2020.
“I call it getting our fighting strength back, and that is most evident in response times on priority-one calls for service,” Carey said. “Our numbers are hovering around 12 (minutes) right now, and I’m proud of that. I’d sleep better if they were around eight minutes or so.”
Carey said he’s proud of equipping officers with body-worn cameras and fostering volunteer and outreach programs in the department, including the Community Advancing Public Safety program and the Youth Advisory Council to Law Enforcement.
“Any one of those, I’d be very, very proud to be aligned with, but to sit here and look at you and say, ‘Yeah, that’s ‘cause of my work,’ that’s not true. The culture was right around here where we just had to apply ourselves to certain new programs, and we’ve done a good job with that.”
He said another of his biggest accomplishments was “having my sons take over and be better police officers than I was.” One son works for the Police Department, and the other two work for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office. His daughter is in the Police Department’s cadet program for teens and young adults.
“It’s like a freaking TV show,” he joked.
The chief said he has no plans to leave Colorado Springs, where he’s lived since 1981. He said he can’t imagine returning to Philadelphia, where he grew up, for anything “other than the food.”
He began his law enforcement career with the Sheriff’s Office in 1982 and joined the Police Department two years later.
He rose through the ranks, supervising the Patrol Bureau, the Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence Unit, SWAT and the Major Crimes Unit, among others. He’s also been a narcotics detective and crisis negotiator.
“The last few years, it’s been a great job, it’s been very challenging, and I lose sight of all the cool things I can do as someone who just lives here,” Carey said.
“It’s going to be fun to see some of the sights here and not think about crime scenes and all the things that we’ve done in the last few years — riding past cool things to go to work.”
But Carey, whose salary this year was $187,354, declined to specify what he might do next.
“I’ve got a couple opportunities presented to me, and I’ve got to think about them,” he said. “I want to take a month or two and do that — and I’ve got to talk to my boss, my wife, and see what she thinks about it. Right now, I’m not certain what I’m going to do.”
Suthers has said the city will launch a national search for the next police chief.
“I’ve been through a number of chiefs as a police officer up through the rank of deputy chief, where I got a front-row seat to some of this,” Carey said. “I think there’s a time and place where an outside perspective helps a police department.”
But he said he’s “very proud” of the Police Department’s culture and customer service.
“I don’t think it’s broken, and I don’t think it needs to be changed. I think that speaks highly for some people in-house that could probably take it to the next step.”
Gazette reporter Kaitlin Durbin contributed to this report.