Report submitted by Shirley Bauer, Delta County GOP Volunteer
A big thank you to Colorado State Representative Matt Soper of House District 54, Delta County Sheriff Mark Taylor, Delta City Police Chief Luke Fedler and District Attorney Seth Ryan of Judicial District 7 (which covers 6 counties, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Hinsdale, San Miguel and Gunnison,) for hosting the Criminal Justice Town hall at Bill Heddle’s on November 10. We were also fortunate to hear their guest speaker Andrea Thomas, who is with “Voices for Awareness.” She talked about the impact of illegal drugs and Fentanyl on her family and our community. There was a great turn out from the community and well received. DCI reporter was there and recorded it live to the DCI Facebook page.
Each of the panel members introduced themselves then they all took turns presenting information that pertained to their area of expertise often overlapping or returning to a prior point. Rep. Matt Soper functioned as the moderator. Questions from the audience were taken by the speakers during the last 45 minutes of the town hall.
Rep Matt Soper opened the discussion by reviewing the laws currently on the books regarding law enforcement and their ability to deal with criminal activity as well as use of illegal drugs. In the 2019 session, HB19-1263 known as the “Offense Level for Controlled Substance Possession” law was passed. This bill made possession of four grams or less of controlled substance level I or II a misdemeanor. Then during the 2021 session, HB-1250, the “Law Enforcement Accountability” bill. This bill was to provide clarity and address issues discovered since the passage of SB-217 known as the “Enhance Law Enforcements Integrity Act.” SB-217 prevents any police from escaping liability for any misconduct. The law does not do away with “qualified immunity” but allows citizens to bypass “qualified immunity” and sue police officers in the state court. (Prior, “Qualified immunity”, was a doctrine that shields police from Federal Civil rights claims unless their alleged misconduct violated clearly established law.)
The HB-1250 bill was rushed through the house in eleven days. Matt explained that because of COVID, a lot of bills were delayed and carried over from 2020, then pushed through this session. In fact, earlier this year, I believe Matt said there was 600 plus bills they went through! As a result, a lot of things were missed in HB-1250 because of the rush to pass it. Part of the changes made by HB-1250 required law enforcement to report certain information related to each contact an officer has with a person beginning January 1, 2023. The act changes the start date of the reporting requirement to April 1, 2022. The act clarifies and adds to some of the information that must be reported, which helped a little but still there are some problems. This bill has hindered law enforcement working effectively in the community. Sheriff Taylor said the law requires that all law enforcement officers wear body cameras which he said was okay as that was something they did anyway. However, there are many restrictions that interfere with the ability to arrest someone breaking the law, including the “qualified immunity” status of officers. This makes it tougher for law enforcement to do their jobs. (You can find these bills on the Colorado State Web Site, https://leg.colorado.gov/bills for more detailed information.)
The major issue I heard was that with the passage of these bills and changing the laws, it has made it harder to stop illegal drugs in our area. Therefore, if a crime occurs and if the offender is arrested, they are later released. Most are released on a personal recognizance bond. During the COVID lock downs early on, that impacted arrests as well. Sheriff Taylor said he often had to weigh risk of COVID to inmates verses the crime and our laws.
Delta County does have Pre-Trial Service which has helped in Delta keep people who may be a risk to society in jail. Sheriff Taylor, DA Seth Ryan and the Chief Luke Fedler said their law enforcement team works to argue in front of a judge to assess and determine the individual’s risk to society before they are released. Through this matrix, the arresting officer can provide comments to the judge regarding the risk to the community by the offender before the individual is released back into the community. DA Seth Ryan said he would like that done in the other counties and districts.
Referring to HB19-263 Andrea Thomas said the changes in the bill affects what was considered a felony before. They changed the amount of drugs an individual can have in their possession and not be arrested. Per this bill, “four grams or less of a Level 1 drug like Fentanyl, heroin, meth, and cocaine is now considered a misdemeanor.” It is clear, the legislators didn’t investigate how many doses could be distributed from four grams. Per Andrea, heroin use is typically 0.10 grams so four grams of heroin is enough to deliver 40 uses. Four grams of Fentanyl pills are about 40 pills. The pills are usually quartered to equal four doses. So, 40 x 4 could potentially kill 160 people. Four grams of Fentanyl powder has the potential to kill 2000 depending on the strength. None of these numbers are for personal use amounts. They are distributor amounts. Andrea’s main focus was on Fentanyl as it was the drug that killed her daughter 3 years ago in Grand Junction. Her daughter had taken an illicit Oxycodone laced with Fentanyl. The same distributors of that Fentanyl are responsible for 10 other deaths from Fentanyl around the area. Her presentation was excellent. She had a picture of a few grains of Fentanyl next to a penny on the screen. She said that a mere 2mg of Fentanyl was fatal. She also said the Fentanyl being made now is 50 to 100 times stronger than before. It is produced in China, sent to Mexico and brought into our country through our Southern Border. What is being seized is only a small fraction of what is pouring in. Most people are not aware of just how serious the problem is.
“Most counterfeit drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, are being laced with Fentanyl powder to resemble other RX opioids, which is extremely dangerous” as many people aren’t aware these drugs are laced with Fentanyl. Per Andrea, there were 100,000 deaths due to Fentanyl this past year. The major concern is there is only minimal punishment for these drug distributors and users if they are arrested, so they just keep offending. There is no punishment or incentive to stop. The old program did provide a deterrent. There is a drug task force in the 7th district under DA Seth Ryan to go after the drug traffickers. The problem is with the Governorship who is pushing that the drug problem is a public health issue and not a criminal issue. Rep. Matt Soper said they will be going back and redoing the felony bill in the new session. His concern is that the Republicans are still outnumbered in the house. (For the sake of our children and grandchildren and communities, I hope these laws change.)
Sheriff Taylor and Chief Fedler reported on the crimes in Delta County. Sheriff Taylor said Delta is a safe place. The biggest crime is auto theft. His advice was to be aware of that and do not leave your keys in your car at night. Lock your car and do not leave valuables where someone can see them. Also, home burglary and thefts are huge as well as shop lifting. Drugs are a big problem in Delta which they felt, leads to stealing and break ins. There is quite a backlash regarding Drug felonies with the “four grams or less” of meth or Fentanyl and it is a huge issue. Mental health issues are also a big problem. Property crimes and sex offenses are also a problem. However, Sheriff Taylor said the overall rate of crime is down in our area a little due to the Back the Badge initiative and the increased number of officers we have in Delta County. In Jan, they had 8,302 calls. Total incidents were 16,000 crimes which were down a little from last year. Felony cases are down about one hundred. Traffic issues about the same. Speaking to Andrea today, I learned that because of COVID as well as the changes in our laws, more criminals are not being arrested because they would be released anyway. That also explains some of the lower number of crimes which is a little misleading on how bad crime and the drug problem is.
Sheriff Taylor and Chief Fedler were asked for a report of the “Back the Badge” funds. The “Back the Badge Program” raised funds of $659,000. COVID really caused problems with traffic control in the beginning but now law enforcement has at least two people back on patrol. They have a full- time staff person at the Delta School. They have been doing more in the community as well, including Community Outreach, Deltarado Days and recently the Trick or Treat Street, to name a few. They plan of bringing back “Stuff the Cruiser” in the future. Four additional Deputies were added to the Sheriff’s Department in April and are patrolling the County. Cedaredge has added more officers and the greater visibility is a deterrent to crime.
A major portion of the money raised is spent on salaries. Another $250,000 was spent on medical services. In the first four months, 3-4 individuals overdosed on meth. However, thanks to officers present, they were able to give Narcan and save their lives. All police officers carry Narcan for emergency situations. They also have increased the capacity of the jail from 53 to 83 beds by adding bunk beds, and still have their medical cells and isolation cells. There is still work needing to be done on the waste plumbing pipes above their offices as they sometimes leak. Chief Fedler said they are considering a new or larger building for the police department as there is limited space in their offices in their present building. This would make more room for interaction, communication, record keeping as well as case evidence. They have their eye on the old Armory behind the Post Office. DA Seth Ryan was in total agreement particularly for more room for examining case evidence.
There is more that has been done, but that gives you a good idea of how Delta County is using all the funds raised by the program and their future plans. We also have a better idea of the challenges Delta County Law Enforcement is dealing with because of the current laws we have in our State.