In an earlier chapter of my life, I started the Ben & Jerry’s store on Pearl Street and owned it for eight years. After a few years away from downtown, I came back and served as CEO of the Downtown Boulder Partnership for over a decade.
Over those many years, I have seen hundreds of businesses come and go and some that prospered through all the ups and downs. I know the shopkeepers and the restaurant owners. I know the crews who plant the tulips and scrub gum off the sidewalks. I know Mike the hotdog guy on the mall who razzes me every time I walk by. They are all amazing people who have invested their lives in building an incredible downtown that is the envy of cities across the country.
And then COVID hit. The pandemic has been tough on all of us, but it has been particularly hard on these folks. The shops and restaurants saw their customers disappear overnight. I remember standing at Pearl and Broadway on a sunny day last April and the shock I felt at seeing no one on the bricks. The tulips were spectacular but there was literally not a soul to enjoy them. It was an eerie sight and I hope I never see it again.
Not long after the crowds left, crime spiked. As customers took refuge at home, the shops and restaurants became easy targets and criminals took advantage. From 2019 to 2020, assaults jumped 11% in Boulder and property destruction went up 64%. Burglaries rose 89% and robberies shot up 160%.
Employees leaving restaurants at night were often followed and threatened. Many started carrying weapons for self-defense. Others quit their jobs out of fear. Some stores were vandalized and robbed multiple times in the same month. Boarded windows became a common sight on Pearl Street.
Of course, the empty streets and lack of eyeballs downtown played a role in the crime surge but so did another COVID-era change. To limit the spread of the virus, the sheriff had to sharply reduce the number of inmates in the county jail. As a result, our police officers could not arrest offenders because they had nowhere to take them. Word spread and crime spiked further.
To complicate things even more, the George Floyd killing in May set off a national backlash against police and Boulder was no exception. As the first line of defense against the surge in crime, their jobs were already more dangerous than before. Then officers had to face the anger of many in the public who lumped all police in the same category with those four officers in Minnesota. Both Sheriff Joe Pelle and Police Chief Maris Herold reported record numbers of deputies and officers leaving their jobs.
And now there is Senate Bill 62, with the stated goal of depopulating Colorado jails permanently. Proponents argue that overall crime did not go up during the pandemic so we should put new limits on the ability of the police to arrest suspects and put them in jail.
But that is only half the story. Many crimes went down because most people were stuck at home. As a result, there were fewer crimes like DUI, car thefts, home burglaries and drug offenses.
So, of course, the overall crime rate may look stable but serious crimes in places like downtown Boulder went up during COVID and sharply. This is not the time to further handicap our police officers with new restrictions when they are already facing enormous challenges.
Make no mistake. The killing of George Floyd, Michael Brown and all victims of bad cops should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The men who committed those crimes belong behind bars and not hiding behind a badge.
But the vast majority of our police officers are not bad cops. As the whole world witnessed on March 22, they are heroes who risk their lives every day to protect us. Officer Eric Talley did not get home that night for dinner with his family and he never will again.
Before they pass a law that makes the work of our police even more difficult, I urge state lawmakers to listen to Herold on SB-62. “We do not know what’s happening because of a crazy year with this pandemic, so why in the world would we want to pass major legislation right now? It is not the right time.” Well said, Chief. I could not agree more.
Sean Maher is the CEO of RRC Associates in Boulder. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to blog