As laws and culture surrounding policing shift, Craig Police struggles to staff a full force
The future of policing in Craig has never felt more uncertain.
The Craig Police Department isn’t in bad shape, per se, at least not relative to some community police departments across the state. But it faces significant challenges, and the man in charge of fighting against that current doesn’t see a winning proposition staring him in the face.
“Ultimately, who’s paying the price?” asked interim Craig police chief Mike Cochran, before answering himself. “Our community is paying the price.”
Craig is budgeted to staff 22 sworn full-time police officers. To hear Cochran say it, that sounds like it would be about enough. But, after six officers — by Cochran’s count — left the force in the past couple years, the department, like practically every other police agency across the state, has struggled mightily to fill their positions.
“We’re down four right now, out of 22,” Cochran said. “And the thing is, we have patrol, we have school resource officers, we have investigations. If it was one officer from each, we’d be OK maybe. But it’s all patrol.”
That deficit isn’t inherently unsustainable, Cochran said. While it’s meant he and some of his detectives have suited up in their blues and gone out on patrol to fill gaps, Cochran isn’t in a position yet, like he says some of his Colorado colleagues are, where he’s limiting services or calls to which his officers can respond, or, much more drastic, looking at shutting down the department altogether.
But the trend is beyond concerning, he said.
“We’re in a very supportive community,” Cochran said. “Our community is vocal about supporting the police, and we appreciate that. But even here, young people who would’ve got into this field, like I did, right out of high school and then work in the field until their career is done, what you see now is young people who are in the field are exiting and going to other types of employment.”
A number of factors are leading to this new reality — a reality wherein, despite thousands spent advertising nationally for new officers to fill the open positions, the department has received exactly two applications since March, when Cochran took the interim chief position.
One is the cultural perception of police, Cochran says.
“In other employment, they don’t have to deal with the national pressure, with state legislation trying to run me out of this field,” he said. “You have a culture where all that they’ve heard is, ‘Police are bad. Police are racist. Police are bigots. They just want to kill you for no reason.’ You hear all that, and your mindset is, ‘Do I want to get into something where they’re known for this?’”
To that perception, Cochran acknowledges that some bad officers across the country have contributed to a negative feeling toward police as a whole.
But he contends, passionately and thoughtfully, that it’s just not a fair evaluation of his field.
“It’s only in this field that this happens,” he said. “Where one is bad or a few are bad and so they’re all bad. We have bad clergy, we don’t throw out all the clergy. We have a bad doctor, we don’t quite seeing doctors. As a police officer, not even a chief, I want the bad out too. But I can tell you, it’s not like it’s portrayed in the national media. They’re not all bad police officers.”
The culture itself, Cochran argues, isn’t bad either.
“I can tell you, as I look back through my experience and my post academy, I was never taught to shoot anybody,” he said. “I was never taught to have to kill somebody. That was the very last option. I can tell you, working with officers who were older than me, none of them taught me that. The biggest thing I was taught is treat people the way you want to be treated. I’ve always responded to calls with that philosophy.”
Despite Cochran’s thoughtful outlook, the result of the reaction to some bad policing politically is a significant disincentivization to get into or stay in the field.
That result, state-wide anyway, is primarily in the form of Senate Bill 217, a sweeping and revolutionary police reform bill passed by the Colorado Legislature in 2020.
Among other functions of the new law, which came in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other instances of police brutality, is a severe liability load placed on the shoulders of individual officers in the case of an incident that involves bodily harm or death.
That includes incidents like the one for which the Craig Police Department itself is presently being sued following a February, 2020, tasering of an individual. In that suit, the plaintiff is seeking $1 million.
After SB 217 passed, where officers were previously largely immune to personal liability due to most regular police actions that resulted in harm, now, individual officers are personally liable up to $25,000. But that’s not the biggest problem with the law, from Cochran’s perspective.
“You can be within policy, be within the law, and still be liable for anything that happens up to $25,000,” Cochran said. “But, realistically, people say, is that a lot of money? And we do carry liability insurance. But the more dangerous thing than any monetary amount is, if in a civil court a judgement is put against you, your certification is automatically revoked.
“You can be a 20-year officer, been within policy, did what you were taught, by the book, not break laws, but because the trial is in Denver, where the opinion of police is very low, you get judged to give them that money and then you’ve lost your 20-year career.”
And it might mean you’re done in police forever, Cochran said. Most states won’t certify a potential officer who was uncertified elsewhere, he said.
“You did what you thought you had to do to prevent yourself or someone else from dying,” Cochran said. “And now you can’t do your job anymore.”
The idea behind the law is to make officers think twice before executing lethal or serious force. Instead, Cochran said, it’s making officers think twice before they even put themselves in the position of having to make such a snap judgment.
Cochran believes challenges to the law will ascend to the U.S. Supreme Court, and that the court will reject the law as unconstitutional. But that takes time. In the meantime, he’s got a department to staff — and a city to protect.
In Cochran’s opinion, as the department and profession as a whole loses good officers left and right, with no one coming to fill the holes, the only place to start is with the youth.
“We have to get kids involved again,” he said. “If we don’t start teaching our youth this is a good field, a good way to make a difference in your community, make it safer, take care, give back, the future we’re looking at is zero law enforcement.”
Cochran isn’t ignorant to the reasons for laws like SB 217. He sympathizes with the desire to increase accountability and ensure bad cops don’t get in the position to hurt people.
But the consequences of the actual measure are rolling in a dangerous direction, he said.
“We have state representatives who are openly saying this is what they wanted,” Cochran said. “My question is, what’s going to take the place of police? Are you living in communities being lawless? Are you saying everything’s acceptable now?
“Our community is extremely supportive, and I don’t want anybody to think that officers are leaving because they’re dissatisfied with Craig or the community. They’re not. They’re dissatisfied with how our state and the laws they’re passing make it unattractive to be in law enforcement. That’s a huge shame.”
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