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A closer look at crime in Fountain

 

Last updated 6/23/2021 at 12:06pm

Karin Hill

A Fountain Police Officer conducts traffic stops on Fountain Mesa Road earlier this month.

Crime is up everywhere, and Fountain residents certainly are not immune to it. In fact, the steady rise in crime has prompted Fountain Police Chief Chris Heberer to request four new police officer positions in an effort to stem the tide before it gets worse.

"Every law enforcement agency in our region believes this summer will be our busiest," Heberer said.

The City Council voted 6-0 Tuesday night (Mayor Gabe Ortega was absent) to approve the request for three additional patrol officers in the 2021 budget. FPD is expected to start the process of bringing those employees on immediately. FPD will request a fourth officer for 2022.

The area – El Paso County and beyond – has experienced a variety of disturbing incidents recently, from shootings to numerous vehicle thefts. An FBI report on crime statistics for Colorado in 2020 show major crimes up by huge percentages over previous periods.

Last year at this time, residents were becoming concerned with a rash of incidents including shootings, home invasions and vehicle break-ins. Compared to that time, crime events now are closer together and more frequent.

During a recent City Council meeting, Council Member Sharon Thompson noted that stolen cars often are used to commit other crimes, so having police deal with those is a vital step. At the same meeting, Heberer noted that the amount of guns and drugs taken off local streets in the previous 90 days was more than the previous five years, "and these aren't small busts."

Council Member Detra Duncan recalled a recent incident near her home by a neighborhood park when she found Fountain police officers "picking up shells from gunshots," adding it was "really an eye-opener to me, at my front door."

Despite the concerning trends – in addition to the stress of the last year working amidst the pandemic, election-year tensions and a sense of unease as police-citizen relations were strained nationwide – nearly all Fountain police officers have stayed the course, with the exception of a retirement and routine life changes that resulted in about two employees leaving. Meanwhile, many other departments are seeing officers leave at an alarming rate.

"They stay because we have a good culture here," Heberer said. "We treat them with respect, and we treat our citizens with respect."

The community has been supportive, buying officers lunch or coffee, sending notes of appreciation.

"That small gesture goes a long way," Heberer said, adding he implores residents to continue saying "thank you" when they can, praying for the officers and communicating any concerns with the department.

But, as the numbers have shown, violent crimes in particular have become a major concern here. Although officials say at least half of those major incidents have roots in Pueblo or other cities outside of Fountain, they make their way here and still impact this community.

The combined pressures of the job and current societal conditions leave officers feeling drained physically, mentally and emotionally. FPD leaders are trying to ensure they have "mentally balanced police officers," the chief said.

"They're cops – they're not going to say it – but they're scared," Heberer said.

The chief says he is trying to take the necessary steps to ensure they don't go over the edge, and adding more bodies to the force is a priority.

In the more than six years since Heberer became chief, FPD has added three officers – two of them for traffic, and one for patrol. Patrol is key to deterring crime, seeing things in the community that may be suspicious, clamping down on minor incidents before the perpetrators go for something bigger.

Now, he says, the traffic division was given a boost to help address citizens' concerns about speeding and accidents, but patrol needs a similar increase to provide even the minimum amount of coverage throughout the city that officials say is needed.

Not only has the population increased – and with it, crime totals – but liability concerns require officers to spend significantly more time on paperwork than they used to. Also, the types of calls to which officers respond more often than not require two or three officers due to the nature of the incident, meaning other parts of the city are exposed when those cops are tied up.

In the first five months of 2021, there were 18,609 calls for service. Of those, nearly 4,500 required at least two officers; at least three officers were required at 1,774 of them.

"That means on that day, if we're short on shift, we're out of cops," Heberer said.

Three new officers would cost around $293,000 annually, including all ancillary costs associated with the positions. For the remainder of 2021 that FPD aims to have these three slots filled, the impact is estimated at $98,000. Heberer says newly identified federal Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements coming in November are expected to cover the costs, and that they will continue to roll in yearly in order to cover the new salaries. He intends to ask for a fourth new officer in the 2022 budget. Officials credited Fire Chief James Maxon with identifying this source of revenue, which should bring in $580,000 this year and at least that much in future years.

The city currently has 58 police officers authorized in the budget, with 57 filled. Of those, 48 are uniformed positions. That includes two part-time and eight full-time school resource officers (SROs); many SROs participate in training during the summer months or take vacation, since they cannot do so during the school year. Some continue to work on campus for summer school, and some fill in on patrol.

Fountain Police Department

This document shows a comparison of calls for service that required two or more officers from January-May over the last few years.

Incidentally, the officer who was fatally shot in the Denver suburb of Arvada this Monday was an SRO who was working patrol during the school's summer break.

 

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