Pop quiz: What is government’s highest priority?
A former Colorado governor put it pretty simply to me: Government’s first priority is public protection.
And yet, after mass shootings in Boulder, Arvada, Aurora and Colorado Springs that have left more than 20 people dead in the last couple months, I would argue that Colorado has never felt as unsafe as it does right now.
In Colorado’s three largest cities – Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs -- 2020 was a year of record homicides. Denver saw 95 homicides, the police department said, up from 63 in 2019. Aurora recorded 43, compared to 30 the previous year. Colorado Springs reported 39 homicides, up from 24 in 2019.
After a 50 percent, nearly 25-year-long drop in violent crime in the United States from the early 1990s until 2019, serious, violent crime is trending up in 2021 in virtually every category.
And yet, what do we hear from Colorado’s politicians about how they are going to address the spike? Crickets. They seem to have forgotten their prime directive – keep us safe.
Colorado’s cities aren’t alone.
New York City police reported 462 homicides last year, up from 319 the previous year. Police in Phoenix said there were 200 homicides last year, up from 139 in 2019
Homicides are up in the first quarter of 2021 over the same period last year in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Orlando, Pittsburgh and Tampa, according to data collected by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group of law enforcement leaders.
According to a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, more Americans now say violent crime is a “very big problem” in the country than say the same about COVID-19.
If that poll is accurate, policing and public safety could come to dominate the political conversation as the pandemic subsides.
It’s been more than a year since the George Floyd tragedy. It’s high time for communities and cops to repair the rupture in their relationship. It’s clear now that that rupture has made policing less effective.
Many Republicans say the cause of the spike in crime and homicides has been an overzealous criminal justice reform movement.
Democrats contend that the widespread availability of guns and social inequities are responsible for the rise in crime, not the police reform efforts launched in the last year.
In reality, the rise in crime can probably be attributed to a perfect storm of the pandemic, spikes in mental illness, less active policing and less cooperation from communities shocked by the George Floyd incident.
Regardless of the reasons, we need to hear from politicians about how they plan to help, how they will bring down these frightening crime rates, how they can recreate some sense of safety in our cities and suburbs. How will they heal the violent stresses of the pandemic and the shock of Floyd’s murder?
A shift is already happening in Washington that our political reporters haven’t yet seen evidence of in Colorado.
President Biden recently threw the weight of the White House behind a crime-fighting agenda, urging local governments to use federal relief money to beef up police departments and hire more police officers.
A former policeman running on a law-and-order platform is leading in the Democratic primary voting for mayor of New York. Eric Adams has derided “Defund the Police” activists and has accused a rival candidate, Maya Wiley, of focusing of anti-police sloganeering “at a time when Black and brown babies are being shot in our streets.”
Democrats in Congress are rallying around a beef-up-the police message to counter a coordinated strategy emerging in the national Republic party to portray Democrats as soft on crime in next year’s midterm elections for Congress.
That former Colorado governor I spoke with thinks criminal justice is going to be a defining issue in the 2022 elections.
If crime rates continue to climb even as the pandemic abates, I’m guessing we’ll see some law and order candidates in the next round of elections in Colorado, too.
But Colorado’s politicians need to start telling us now what they are going to do about runaway crime.
Holding police more accountable and insisting on body cameras and transparency in police use of force are well and good. But now the conversation needs to move past “reforming” police and way past “defunding police” to a conversation about public protection again.
It’s the prime directive, after all.