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Election-year debate over crime as Colorado panel moves bill

March 4, 2022 GMT
FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, file photograph, the Colorado State Capitol is shown in Denver. The partisan divide over how to confront escalating street crime came to the fore on Thursday, March 3, 2022, in the statehouse as a Colorado legislative panel advanced a Democrat-sponsored bill designed to let local communities use state grants for neighborhood improvements in high-crime areas. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, file photograph, the Colorado State Capitol is shown in Denver. The partisan divide over how to confront escalating street crime came to the fore on Thursday, March 3, 2022, in the statehouse as a Colorado legislative panel advanced a Democrat-sponsored bill designed to let local communities use state grants for neighborhood improvements in high-crime areas. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, file photograph, the Colorado State Capitol is shown in Denver. The partisan divide over how to confront escalating street crime came to the fore on Thursday, March 3, 2022, in the statehouse as a Colorado legislative panel advanced a Democrat-sponsored bill designed to let local communities use state grants for neighborhood improvements in high-crime areas. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, file photograph, the Colorado State Capitol is shown in Denver. The partisan divide over how to confront escalating street crime came to the fore on Thursday, March 3, 2022, in the statehouse as a Colorado legislative panel advanced a Democrat-sponsored bill designed to let local communities use state grants for neighborhood improvements in high-crime areas. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, file photograph, the Colorado State Capitol is shown in Denver. The partisan divide over how to confront escalating street crime came to the fore on Thursday, March 3, 2022, in the statehouse as a Colorado legislative panel advanced a Democrat-sponsored bill designed to let local communities use state grants for neighborhood improvements in high-crime areas. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

DENVER (AP) — The partisan divide over how to confront escalating street crime came to the fore Thursday as a Colorado legislative panel advanced a Democrat-sponsored bill designed to let local communities use state grants for neighborhood improvements in high-crime areas.

Debate over the bill, co-sponsored in the Democrat-led Senate by Sens. Janet Buckner of Aurora and Nick Hinrichsen of Pueblo, mirrored the national conversation heading toward the midterm elections. Republicans insisted it’s time to directly fund police who have weathered protests against police brutality after George Floyd’s killing. Democrats say a host of factors, including the coronavirus pandemic, are to blame and that a multipronged approach is needed.

The Senate Local Affairs Committee advanced the bill by a 3-2 party-line vote after its sponsors and supporters, including law enforcement officers from Pueblo, Arapahoe and Boulder counties, argued providing local governments grants to clean up crime-prone areas would free up police to address other priorities, including violent crime-solving and the fentanyl crisis.

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The bill would allocate more than $10 million in grants to be distributed by the state Department of Public Safety.

“We’re not talking about old, failed policies that did not work,” Buckner said, citing burglaries at businesses in her hometown of Aurora in blighted areas that she said could benefit from the bill. “The city of Aurora is strapped to find ways improve crime prevention and safety. I live in Aurora, and I’ve done my homework.”

She insisted it’s just the first of several bills this session to address crime and promote police recruitment and retention, adding she’s working on the latter with GOP Sen. John Cooke, a former Weld County sheriff.

Crime -- or the perception of rising crime -- and the soaring cost of living are key issues this midterm election year. Colorado’s minority Republicans in the Legislature have seized upon a national GOP playbook to argue that policy reforms after Floyd’s killing in 2020 have led to a dramatic rise in violence in Democrat-led cities such as Denver and Pueblo.

Republican Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer assailed the safe streets bill on several fronts, saying that local governments already have the ability to reduce blight through zoning and that local police agencies already use localized crime data that the bill would require the Department of Public Safety to compile prior to dispersing the grants.

“I’m actually having a hard time understanding how spending $10 million is going to reduce crime in our state,” Kirkmeyer said. “This looks like a bill that’s trying to do something that’s already being done.”

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Funds could be used for graffiti and trash removal and erecting lighting and security cameras in high-crime areas. Grant proposals that would arbitrarily force the homeless to move elsewhere or that call for facial-recognition technology aren’t eligible.

Pueblo Police Chief Steven Noeller, representing the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, and Sheriffs Joe Pelli of Boulder County and Tyler Brown of Arapahoe County testified for the bill, arguing it would help their forces focus on crime-solving, devote funds to re-staffing, and other priorities.

The bill advances to the Senate Appropriations Committee.