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The one law Chief Pazen blames for spiking auto theft

A very special Valentine’s Day with Police Chief Paul Pazen

Hey Denver, it’s Paul. And I wanna tell you how I spent Valentine’s Day this year.

Around 4:15 p.m., Bree and I met up in the lobby of the Denver Police Administration Building downtown. We were there for Bree to interview Chief Paul Pazen about the department’s latest efforts to stem what Pazen called a “dramatic increase” in violent crime. And I don’t normally like to admit this kind of thing, but I was nervous.

If you’ve never been inside that building, let me tell you, it’s imposing — a big, tan concrete compound surrounded by multiple layers of chain link fence left over from the BLM protests back in the summer of 2020. There’s metal detectors, armed guards behind bulletproof glass, and tons of historic photos of Denver cops through the years (that part was actually pretty cool).

I remember walking past the building on the way to a protest and seeing dozens of armed cops standing silently outside in formation. Presumably, they were preparing for the protest to take a violent turn, but I remember it as a seriously intimidating show of force. And now, we were going inside to talk to their boss!

Bree, of course, is unflappable. She pressed Pazen on the role of harm reduction at Union Station and the logic behind the department’s new “crime hot spot” strategy. And you should really go listen to today’s episode to hear what he said (and didn’t say).

But there was one moment in the interview that we weren’t expecting. And it made me feel a lot less nervous about being inside police HQ and a lot more nervous about my car parked down the street.

What’s to blame for Colorado’s spike in auto theft?

“I do talk about auto theft for a lot of reasons,” Pazen told us, unprompted, after listing the types of crimes that have gone up in Denver in recent years. “First and foremost, the state of Colorado is the worst state in the country with regards to auto theft. And it was only a few short years ago that that was not the case.”

I don’t know how this wasn’t on my radar, but it’s clearly a really big problem here. According to CBS4, there were 20,193 auto thefts in Colorado in 2019. That leapt up to 27,664 in 2020 and 26,783 between January and September of 2021, which was the most current data available when CBS4 published their reporting on the subject.

While that increase appears to coincide with the pandemic, the question of cause doesn’t have an easy answer.

“Well, when you’re looking for correlation on different things, you have to try to identify what is taking place, what is happening,” Pazen said. “We saw a dramatic increase starting in 2014. And that continued, and then it was only exceeded by an additional spike that started in 2019. And that continues today.

“Now what changed in 2014? Was it despair that led to this? We were coming out of the Great Recession, so that’s probably not it. And at the time, many of our crime numbers were actually going down. Were there changes in policing on a statewide level? No. Were there changes in an individual department? Well, that wouldn’t account for a statewide spike, so I don’t see that. Were there policy changes at the state level? Yeah, there were.”

Bree redirected the conversation back to the issues we were there to discuss, but that line stuck with me and I followed up with DPD’s press relations person the next morning. What policy change was he talking about?

He sent me a link to a specific law, titled “Value-based Crime Threshold Level Changes,” which I found entirely inscrutable, so I tracked down a couple of the original co-sponsors.

A second opinion

Linda Newell (Democrat – Arapahoe) served in the Colorado General Assembly from 2009 to 2017. She now works as a consultant, facilitator, writer, and adjunct professor at the Iliff School of Theology.

“This was a while ago, of course,” Newell wrote to me yesterday. “But as I remember, people were getting swept up into the criminal justice system with penalties that were outdated. Essentially, we needed to update the penalties with the newer economic times.”

Newell explained that the law downgraded charges for auto thefts, meaning convicted car thieves would receive smaller fines, shorter prison terms, etc. “But I guess I’d love to hear how a one-level downgrade of a felony/misdemeanor charge can cause skyrocketing car thefts?” she added. “That doesn’t make sense to me. Most, if not all, don’t even know this happened, probably.”

State Senator Bob Gardner (Republican – El Paso) was one of the main sponsors of the bill back in 2014, and he told me yesterday that the bill passed in both the Senate and the House without any opposition. “Whatever the issues are with vehicle theft, and there are many,” Gardner added, “I don’t think that [this law] is the problem.”

“I’m stumped by the Chief’s logic here, but willing to listen, of course,” Newell wrote.

I shared the lawmakers’ responses with DPD and asked for clarification from Chief Pazen, but didn’t receive a response in time to include here. I’ll let you all know if I hear back from them. But who knows, maybe this is a good excuse for another visit to DPD HQ.

— Paul Karolyi, City Cast Denver Producer

Paul Den


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