When Vanessa Wilson, interim chief of the Aurora Police Department, addressed a special meeting of the Aurora City Council convened on June 30 to discuss her department’s response to recent protests, she began by making a comment that surely echoed the thoughts of many residents in the sprawling suburb of 379,000.
“I never thought it would happen here,” Wilson said, referring to the demonstrations against police violence and racism staged at the Aurora Municipal Center on June 27, which ended with police officers wielding batons and pepper spray against protesters.
Denver quickly became the focal point of local Black Lives Matter protests in the early weeks of the nationwide wave of activism that swelled following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in late May — but it’s Aurora that now finds itself in the spotlight. Renewed outrage over the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain following an encounter with Aurora police officers last August has drawn national attention and prompted Gov. Jared Polis to appoint a special prosecutor to review the case. Images from Saturday’s protest showing officers in riot gear advancing on the crowd attending a “violin vigil” for McClain soon went viral, and several of the department’s officers are reportedly under investigation for photographing themselves in chokeholds at a memorial at the site of McClain’s death.
While it’s big-city police departments that are most often targeted by activists aiming to drastically reform or — in the words of an increasingly popular slogan — defund the police, many more Americans live in rural areas and suburban enclaves like Aurora, including millions of Coloradans in the Denver metro area and small towns along the Front Range and Western Slope. A Newsline analysis of municipal budget data from across Colorado shows that it’s often these smaller communities that spend the most on policing, both as a percentage of their overall spending and on a per-resident basis.
The governments of Colorado’s 25 largest municipalities budgeted on average about one-third of their general funds on law enforcement in the 2020 budget year, making police the largest single category of expenditures for nearly every city and town. Denver, a combined city-county government with a massive annual budget, ranks on the low end, spending just over 27% of its $1.49 billion general fund on its police and sheriff departments. By contrast, Lakewood spends just under 45% of its budget on police, while Centennial spends almost half of its funds on a policing contract with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office.
Denver’s police spending ranks much higher, however, when measured on a per-capita basis; at over $382 per resident, it will spend more on its police department this year than all but three other large Colorado municipalities: Lakewood, at $396 per resident; Englewood, at $482 per resident; and Grand Junction, which at $568 per resident boasts a police budget larger than that of several Colorado towns nearly twice its size.
At the county level, too, Colorado governments collectively budgeted more than $1 billion, or roughly one-third of the average county’s general fund, on sheriff’s departments, jails and other law-enforcement services in 2020. Together with the roughly $1.5 billion in spending on prisons appropriated from the state government’s general fund, the residents of Colorado’s 25 largest cities will spend about $3.7 billion on law enforcement and incarceration at all levels of government this year.
Experts and local government officials caution that it can be difficult to draw precise budgetary comparisons between different cities, which can vary widely in terms of governmental structure, accounting practices, police standards and more.
Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul told Newsline in an interview that his city’s high police spending is due in part to its requirement that officers have a four-year degree, as well as an ordinance that mandates top salaries for officers. These are part of Lakewood’s tradition of community policing, he said.
“We’ve put a lot of things in place to become a kinder, smarter police force, and I think that’s carried us a long way,” Paul said. “Certainly not to say we’re perfect, but I think that has really brought a lot of trust from the community.”
The United States now spends roughly twice as much on law enforcement as it does on social welfare programs, and the gap between the two has steadily widened since 1980. Over the last 30 years, police budgets have continued to soar, even as rates of violent crime have fallen precipitously across the country, according to data compiled by the Urban Institute.
There’s little evidence, however, that spending more on policing helps reduce crime rates, according to Brenden Beck, a University of Colorado Denver sociologist who studies police budgets.
“Globally, there’s been this huge crime decline, and no one has a very good explanation for why,” Beck said. “Crime has been going down since the early nineties in cities that spent a lot on their police, and crime has been going down in cities that didn’t spend a lot on their police. Police spending is hardly the only factor that influences crime.”
Amid a national conversation about policing sparked by protests over Floyd’s death, Tuesday’s special city council meeting in Aurora highlighted the contentious nature of the debate in a diverse, fast-growing suburban community where public opinion can be sharply divided. City officials read aloud dozens of comments from residents who advocated for dismantling or defunding the Aurora police department while Mayor Mike Coffman, a former Republican member of Congress, looked on. Councilman Juan Marcano, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who participated in Saturday’s protests, grilled Wilson and other police officials over their handling of the protest; Councilman Dave Gruber, a retired Air Force colonel, praised the police response and criticized demonstrators, whom he accused of trying to repeat “the Denver riots.”
Beck told Newsline it’s no surprise that debates over policing are increasingly spilling out into suburban communities. In research published in criminology journal Crime & Delinquency last year, he found that racial disparities in “low-level quality-of-life crimes” — which are aggressively enforced under a model known as the “broken windows” theory of policing — have risen in suburban areas since 1990. He also pointed to a FiveThirtyEight analysis showing that while the number of police killings has decreased slightly in large cities in recent years, it’s grown in rural and suburban areas.
“We’re seeing policing in suburbs increasingly resemble the urban policing of 20 years ago,” Beck said.
As calls to “defund the police” grow, however, some local officials argue that the debate between funding police departments and funding mental-health programs and other social services is a false choice. Paul, who was elected to a second four-year term in 2019, boasted on his campaign website that during his tenure Lakewood had increased its public safety budget 25% and added 20 new police officers. But not all Lakewood officers are tasked with “law and order,” he said.
“We created a brand new team, which is 10 (officers) — eight police agents and two sergeants — called the Community Action Team,” Paul said. “That’s a lot of money, and those folks are dealing with mental health issues. They have two homeless navigators that are part of their team, they have members from the Jefferson Center for Mental Health. And they’re the ones that are engaged in neighborhood disputes, they’re engaged with our homeless population, doing a lot of innovative things.”
Activists have staged Black Lives Matter demonstrations in dozens of cities and small towns across Colorado in the weeks since Floyd’s death, from Aurora and Boulder to Alamosa and Rifle. A sweeping police reform bill introduced by the state Legislature in response to the protests was passed by large bipartisan majorities. There’s a broad consensus that policing needs to change — but the conversation, inevitably, will look different in some communities than in others.
“Our values reflect what the community wants, and public safety is a big part of that,” Paul said. “I think it’s been an educational opportunity for us to talk to the community about what we do and how we do it, but also for us to listen. We’re always self-examining and trying to look at better ways to do things.”