Signs that Pueblo Police Officers are Taking it Upon Themselves to Move Towards the Community Policing Model Proven Nationally to Work Despite the Military Style Management of their Chief of Police Luis Velez Who Just Received a 95% Vote of No Confidence from Union Officers
By Jenny Paulson / Publisher
com·mu·ni·ty po·lic·ing noun – the system of allocating police officers to particular areas so that they become familiar with the local inhabitants.
“Community policing is a philosophy of full service personalized policing, where the same officer patrols and works in the same area on a permanent basis, from a decentralized place, working in a proactive partnership with citizens to identify and solve problems.” —Bertus Ferreira
Police officers in Pueblo seem to be talking more about what we are talking about here in the social media, about how the Pueblo Police Department might move to the model of community policing. In fact it looks like they are already trying it on for size lately, being more present in our community in ways we haven’t seen like this before. Those who frequent Union Avenue told me recently they have seen changes that what I have seen driving around, that there are more police officers walking to lunch from the Department, wives sometimes in hand, looking to fit into our community more as officers and citizens, stopping to chat with locals. On the East side, police officers are riding bicycles at the new skate park, interacting with kids there. We’ve seen a lot of coverage in the media too, showcasing officers giving back to our community, especially at Christmas time. One of our favorite posts was of a cop giving children toys after theirs were stolen.
A local businessman on Union that I stopped to visit with yesterday said that it is time for Pueblo police officers to move away from running the department as their historic “private fiefdom” towards actual responsibility to the community. “They can’t have their own little kingdom in Pueblo anymore. It is the end of an era. I’m trying to be nice to cops, to work with them and it’s great to see them being friendlier to us downtown, walking around and stopping to chat with us.” He said it’s only recently that he has seen more and more officers interacting as such with the locals who hang out on Union and it’s a huge step towards healing the wounds of the past and moving our community forward. “We need more officers on the streets and more detectives so they can slow down. They need to go back to neighborhood beats and reopen the substations too. We have had enough of the gestapo image of cops in our town and we like the changes we are seeing in their attitudes.”
I ran into a police officer at the court house recently and waved him down to chat. I said we are promoting legislation that includes some elements of community policing and wondered what he thought. The cop said that cops are talking more about what community policing is. He said “It’s simple, it just means talking to people in our community more. But we are so busy and lack police officers so it’s hard to slow down.” I responded that by his talking to me we just did an act of community policing, that just greeting citizens in a friendly manner while out and about is a first step, that we locals want to see, and that the group Pueblo Reform, that I am a member of is working to promote more officers too. The local Pueblo Police Benevolent Association aka the Police Union says that the Department is still short about 50 officers despite recent hirings and that seven more officers were put into the budget for 2016. The Union wants to bring the numbers to the average in the state of Colorado. Pueblo has 1.7 officers per 1,000 residents and the state has 2.4. They say they are especially behind on cases of petty theft, robberies and burglaries, that some detectives have a stack of at least 50 cases to attempt to resolve at any given time.
A 20 year veteran officer I met about a month ago showed me by example what local officers mean by being so behind on calls that they can’t take much time to chat let alone examine a case, when I woke up to a stolen smashed car in front of my house. As he pulled items out of the car for evidence he showed me some gang symbols and said they were most likely on a joy ride. He said they hit a truck just down the road and then abandoned the stolen car with stolen plates after it quit running in front of my house in the middle of the night. As he showed me his duties dispatch officers were already calling him telling him his time was up, that he had two other calls to go to. “See how behind we are?” he told me kindly sharing with me what he could before he rushed off. He swabbed the steering wheel and wished me well, saying it was “honorable” of our group to be fighting for more police officers on the streets in Pueblo and mentioned that with his body cam on that I might not have given so many details about the disfavored Chief Velez, which in uniform he couldn’t discuss.
Such positive interactions by police officers despite their lack of manpower are showing us that employees of the Police Department too want change how they do their police work in our community but that they simply need more manpower to help turnaround their image. One officer told me several months ago “I always tell people there is more we can do to better serve our community.” Especially the younger cops say they want to move towards a new era of community style policing. Everyone wants to fit in and belong in our community, even cops. They want to be more liked by citizens, who often have a chip on their shoulder. Especially the younger cops in the past three years during Pueblo Reform’s research project have expressed to me in off the record interviews that they are disgruntled at the “culture” of some of the older officers and have told me that they are just relieved when after training with some of them, and dealing with negative community input, to finally move from the night shift to the day shift. While Chief Velez may have “inherited” a certain culture when he took the reins over four years ago, his changes to the department have been more controversial than not.
The Union heads and police officers have increasingly criticized the means by which he has taken credit for the so called turning around of the Police Department and many beg to differ with him at altogether saying that instead he has moved the department back in time, making changes to the opposite. The very community policing in fashion throughout the country, applauded by President Obama and national experts, proving to work involves more neighborhood beats, more street cops and police officers more specifically trained to deal with drugs and gangs. Velez instead of following the trends, shut down Pueblo’s substations despite voter’s wishes, he cut narcs down to one, he completely shut down the gang unit and as a friend of cops on FB posted on their behalf, “they feel like they are in a poker match without any cards.” Police officers have thus become increasingly disgruntled, they are especially upset that the Chief cut their traditional six neighborhood beats down to two. Now officers instead of getting to know specific parts of Pueblo are running all over the City, exhausted, understaffed, over worked and met sometimes with hostility by locals who too seem to be in agreement. Pueblo needs more cops.
Velez has recently put out another “gag order” that officers aren’t to be vocal about their dissatisfaction with the way things are being managed in Pueblo. But one officer told me that he was grateful that our group was determined to get input from police officers on local reform issues. “We all watch Facebook and read and forward your posts and can talk to you when we see you around. We also have our friends and wives who can talk on our behalf.” Channel 13 reported that they, like me, had to talk to cops off the record as they feared for their jobs. However the Union survey results make it clear, that police officers are 95% unhappy with their Chief and 98% unhappy with City Manager Azad. The City says that they have lacked funding for public safety but according to our initial research the City hasn’t been as broke as they have let on and we have found that leaders have moved funds around against the mandates in our Charter, have used emergency funds for non-emergency items and have created loan accounts which appear strange according to a forensic accountant. The Union believes the City has always had money available but that they have failed to make the police a top priority. At a recent candidates forum, the issue of public safety and the need for police officers was a top issue, and all candidates agreed that somehow the City needs to find the funding to get more officers on the streets.
Ken Rhoads, president of the Union 17 years running said the worse example that Velez has contributed to the mass all time low morale of his officers is that he completely humiliated them in the media. Velez was quoted in the Pueblo Chieftain early last year taking credit for “improving the department,” saying that he fired “double digit” police officers were fired during his four years in Pueblo. The Union says he completely lied and that Union members intend to meet the Chief in court over this severe blunder. Rhoads considers his words a complete attack against the about 170 officers who pay union dues to be represented fairly by the popular union. The real facts, that are common knowledge to officers, are that only two officers were fired and both because of the union and court process were offered their jobs back. The rest of the officers retired. Officers say they feel that the Chief’s worst trait is his arrogance and failure to communicate well. “His ego is so big we just can’t talk to him about anything,” one officer told me off the record. “You can see what we meant by how he treated the Kelsie Schelling case.” Indeed we on Facebook blasted the Chief back in September after I confronted him at a local restaurant where I ran into him shortly after beginning to research the case as a journalist, finding mass mistakes in the media about the case. The Chief blatantly said he would not call the mother of the missing 21-year-old from February of 2013 and that there were “bigger cases.” I threatened him with a cover story exposing the false reporting that hampered the case and within two days the Chief went to Channels 5 and 13, passing the buck on to head investigator Mclaughlan saying the misreports were his fault but the buck stops with him. Facebook blasted back saying the “buck should have stopped with him” and the Chief was caught with an extreme example of his lack of empathy. Officers say that his living out of town exasperates the situation more. He doesn’t live here and should turn the reins over to someone who wants to be a part of our community and have a stake in what is going on here, officers commonly say and proposed legislation if passed, would mandate.
Union members have been fighting for years for more officers on the streets, and in the fall of 2015, under the pressure of us in the social media advocating more cops and threatening to go to the ballot with mandates for more coupled with a report by James Jarman, head newscaster for Channel 13, City Manager Sam Azad at the suggestion of Council finally approved seven more officers for 2016, pulling money from emergency funds. Chief Luis Velez in response to the recently released official union survey however is trying to take credit for the hiring of the new cops, in the light of his 95% vote of no confidence from police officers who participated in the survey. Jarman and the former president of City Council was right, that officers are blaming the Chief and City Manager, Sam Azad for mismanaging the city and not prioritizing public safety. They say they feel unsafe on the streets because of the lack of officers, that sometimes their response time is four hours after calls come in. In 2014 the police and fire unions together asked voters for an increase in taxes for Public Safety but was turned down, in part because of the biased reporting from the Chieftain which in part completely misrepresented the issues.
Chief Velez was told by Council at their first meeting in January of 2016 that he would be required to attend the next general meeting on January 25th to respond publicly to the Union survey released earlier in the month. Chief Velez refused to interview with the media on the subject but issued an online report saying that many things led up to this. City Manager Azad said the survey results came as no surprise and admitted that the City has had increasing complaints recently but offered no solution. The Union is planning a press conference to discuss the issues further and Council members said they want to know more about what is going on and one said there is “more to this then we thought.” The City Attorney Dan Kogosvek reportedly told Council members behind closed doors that the Union was acting as “big babies” according to a Councilwoman Lori Winner because they didn’t win an arbitration but Council members are being alerted to additional factors involved. Social media has been exposing for months now the huge disapproval of Chief Velez estimated his rating to be below 90%, exposing his history in Colorado Springs, that Pueblo cops have called up lately finding out that the chief was so “hated” there because he was reportedly caught with a stolen gun at his home removed from evidence and thus hundreds gave him a vote of no confidence in just days, after which he resigned amidst the fear of publicity to what really happened. There he was sued by the Department of Justice for looking over some good officers, as they say he has done in Pueblo. He was also involved in the misfiling of thousands of items of evidence there and in the labeling and targeting of activists, some of whom in Pueblo have come out vocally after getting ticketed by his Sgt Howard Jackson for peacefully protesting within the laws. Janet Wilson of the Pueblo House’s attorney managed to get five “trumped up” charges dropped and the last dismissed after a public battle with the Chief and is talking to the media more this week.
We stand with the Union in agreement that the City of Pueblo is mismanaged and has been for years an that the top officials neglected Public Safety for too long. We agree with the no confidence vote in Police Chief Luis Velez, City Manager Sam Azad but also include our vote of no confidence in the City Attorney Dan Kogosvek who has showed a complete lack of good faith in the process of meeting at the table with the Union or Pueblo Reform activists trying to get positive community policing items to the voters. We think City Council should put both the Chief and the City Manager on paid leave pending an additional survey of employees at the entire City to see if results match the atrocious survey the Union released in early January 2016. In addition we feel the media has neglected to cover this issue, thus failing to be watch dogs for our community, bringing attention to issues when attention is more than due. Channel 13 has failed to cover the Union survey, the Chieftain placed it as a side note when it should have been a front page headline covered for weeks and only Channel 11 and especially Channel 5 covered the issue for the public’s right to know. Southern Colorado Independent is a new alternative online magazine run by Jenny Paulson, who owned a monthly alternative magazine in Northwest Colorado for ten years. She has lived in Pueblo for ten years and has garnered 4,000 members on Facebook at Jenny Paulson and Southern Colorado Independent in just four months. She was a journalist and editor for over 15 years and worked for the governor’s office, for a top lobbyist and in Washington DC before that.