The Durango Police Department is reimagining policing through a pilot program in response challenges such as a rise in local crime and national calls for police reform.
Durango police Chief Bob Brammer presented the pilot program to City Council on Tuesday. The program would leverage community partnerships to include social workers, emergency medical technicians or other crisis professionals in policing.
City Council fully supported the idea. For Brammer, the program is a possible solution, but it needs sustained effort from the community.
“It’s going to require both dedicated resources and an enduring commitment from police leaders, community members and elected officials,” Brammer said during the City Council meeting. “This isn’t something we can do by ourselves.”
The Durango Police Department is a full-service organization, answering calls for everything from welfare checks to violent crimes.
Serious crime rates in Durango in 2020 have increased compared with 2019 and 2016. This includes robbery, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft. The only serious crimes that have decreased compared with 2019 and 2016 are murder and rape.
After a lull during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, local crime “went through the roof” during June and July, Brammer said.
At the same time, the department is down seven officers. Some have left to work in Front Range cities; others have left in response to Colorado’s recent police reform law or for personal reasons. Eight more positions are waiting to be filled by officers still in training or on alternative assignments.
That means only 15 officers are able to be on the streets, when the department typically has 30 officers, Brammer said.
National protests, sparked by several deaths of Black Americans caused by police, have also drawn more attention to police reform. Protesters have called on communities to diversify who responds to incidents.
For example, a mental health crisis professional, social worker or emergency medical technician would respond to suicidal subjects, welfare checks and drug overdoses. Police would respond to criminal calls.
Brammer said this nationwide and local conversation provided an extra push for DPD “to take a real deep dive into our practices, protocols and how we serve the community.”
In the first stage of the pilot program, police officers would co-respond to incidents with crisis professionals from Axis Health System. The crisis professionals would lead the response for noncriminal incidents, including homelessness, public intoxication and citizen assists. A police officer would step in to secure scenes when necessary.
“This is truly transformative. I’m trying to applaud you for taking such decisive action as quickly in response to national events,” said Durango Mayor Dean Brookie. “I’m a little concerned that we’re relying so heavily on Axis to step up. If they can, that’s a wonderful thing.”
The second stage of the pilot program would include specialized professionals responding to noncriminal calls on their own. Police would be called in if needed. These teams could provide homeless support, nonemergency medical referrals, crisis counseling and more.
“If someone needs mental health treatment, we shouldn’t be putting them in handcuffs, sitting them in the back of the car and taking them to the hospital,” Brammer said. “What kind of stigma does that create?”
This specialized team approach would offer a more humane response, he said.
Some details still need to be worked out, such as funding. The police department also plans to ask for community input.
“What I really want to see out of this is success,” Brammer said. “We want to properly align resources with the needs of our community and get police officers focused back to their core function, which is law enforcement.”