One of the few luxuries of growing old is the ability to set the record straight on the past, because I was there.
For the record, hiring a ton of police and locking everybody away did not make everyone safer.
For the record, also, rounding up homeless people, prostitutes, drug addicts — or anyone many folks see as undesirable — and forcing them to just go somewhere else, anywhere else, has never solved the problem of homelessness, crime, drug addiction or prostitution.
Never in my career. Never in my lifetime. Never ever.
A relatively long time ago, like in the 1980s, Republicans ran most of the show in Colorado and Aurora. At least they professed to be Republicans. If you were to talk to people like former crime-and-extra-punishment-please JeffCo DA Don Mielke, it would seem that the answer to ending crime was to lock away all types of scofflaws and criminals until they lost the will to do bad things. As long as it takes. Fellow Republicans were overjoyed with the idea, as well as more than just a few Democrats.
Lock them up. It didn’t matter to Mielke much about circumstances or even the suspect’s age.
“A criminal is a criminal is a criminal” no matter what their age, Mielke famously said. He famously said and did a lot of things that appealed to the conservative types. He pressed, successfully, to try kids as adults in many cases. It would have been all cases, if state lawmakers and courts had never stopped him. It was about this time “three strikes and you’re out” made the state’s “habitual offender” law a way to nuke mostly young, delinquent minorities to prison for decades.
That Wild-West “cut their fingers off” mentality appealed greatly to people like former state Rep. David Bath, who helped push through Colorado’s also famous Make My Day Law, allowing residents to shoot holes in people that scare them at home. Bath was famous for two things. He also notedly said, “Sometimes, blowing dirtballs away is the reasonable thing to do,” as also former state Rep. Jerry Kopel recalled.
Bath also became famous, as a law-and-order Republican, for being convicted of meeting teenage boys in motel rooms — along with the types of people he otherwise wanted to send to jail — for activities not focusing on law and order. After a videotaped orgy at an Aurora motel went public, Bath less famously said, “There are no words I can select to properly express how disappointed I will always be in myself.”
Just as disappointing were the laws he and others enacted that swelled Colorado’s jail population by about 500% since the 1980s. Rest assured, the crime rate did not go down by that much. I was here then and now.
Similarly, Aurora police and a faction of law-and-order city lawmakers persuaded the public in 1992 to vote to mandate that the city hire two cops for every 1,000 residents. The idea was that the more cops Aurora had, the fewer crimes the community would suffer.
It never worked. The city never funded the mandate, it was too hard to train enough cops to make it work, and as modern crime fighters understand, cops don’t prevent crime, they respond to it.
Crime isn’t Colorado’s only “get tough” debacle. Many a mayor, councilperson and more have said that getting tough on homeless people gets the problem solved.
Aurora’s current mayor, Mike Coffman, is trying to rally support for his latest get-tough scheme that would outlaw homeless people “camping” in public places.
You only have to ask the obvious question, “So, umm, where will they go?” to understand why that tact has failed so miserably in Denver and every other city in the state and country that’s tried it.
The answer is: Some will go to jail for a few days, at enormous expense to taxpayers. Local sheriff’s have already worked to put the kibosh on that. Aurora’s police leaders have already made it clear they think it’s a bad idea to use cops to enforce what amounts to animal control for people who are homeless. But most will go to live in the alley behind your house, behind the dumpster in the store around the corner, under the bridge where you and your kids ride bikes, and, if they’re lucky, to live in their car wherever they can for a few days and then move on again.
They do not, I promise you, simply go “away.”
Despite that, the old ideas of crime and punishment keep coming back. Lock them up. Shoo them away. Give everyone a gun and shoot them dead. Just say no. Not my problem.
The fairytale plans never end, even though they never work.
It’s time to try something else. I’m not exactly sure what that is, but I know what it’s not. It’s not Coffman’s get-tough-and-get-out nonsense. It doesn’t involve building a wall and deporting people who don’t speak English. It doesn’t involve paying upwards of $30,000 a year, per person, to house troubled people in jails instead of housing people in houses for far, far less money. It doesn’t involve an army of cops or a gun in every purse, pocket and stroller. It might involve understanding that people learn more things that will benefit them, and all of us, in a classroom than in a jail cell.
The good old days? They weren’t that good. I was there. Aurora, and all of Colorado, still face a lot of serious problems. Let’s ask the real experts this time and try something different.
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