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Communities turn to design — not cops — to improve public safety

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DELTA, Colo. — Mike Burns bought a home right on the river near Delta, Colorado, with plans to spend the summers fishing outdoors with his grandkids. But those kinds of excursions haven’t always felt safe, since the family learned more about what had been happening in their new neighborhood.

“Crime, drugs, theft, things like that,” he said. “Because of the things that are going on, it's created some anxiety in us.”

It turns out the Burns family had moved to a 2000-foot stretch of dirt road that is at the epicenter of roughly 10 percent of every call the small local sheriff’s office receives. The sheriff sent more deputies to patrol the area but that has left some neighbors even more unnerved.

“You’ve got four or five sheriff’s vehicles parked next to your yard,” neighbor Steve Martinez said. “What are people going to think about what kind of neighborhood it is that you’re living in?”

But there’s a new sense of hope on this rural Delta County road these days, thanks to an infusion of state dollars set aside to prevent crime — not with more police officers — but with environmental improvements.

The Crime Prevention Through Safer Streets grant program is providing communities with millions of dollars funds for projects like installing new lighting and fences, removing overgrown vegetation in high-crime areas, and building sidewalks and trails. It’s one piece of a package of public safety legislation rolled out in the 2022 Colorado legislative session aimed at reducing crime.

Colorado Voices

Using environmental design as crime prevention

“Those improvements alone cannot make a safer community. But those improvements are an indicator that a community is involved in its own well-being,” explained architect Ignacio Correa-Ortiz, an urban planner who helped choose projects for the state to fund.

Twenty-three communities large and small across the state have until the end of June to complete more than $6.2 million in grant-funded projects that authorities say are part of a shift in the mindset around law enforcement and crime prevention.

“We’re really good at responding and arresting somebody for drugs or assaults or thefts or burglaries, but of course they get out of jail and recidivism happens,” said Delta County Sheriff Mark Taylor. “We think that through this process we'll be able to prevent crimes rather than just responding to crimes.”

The program’s funding could not be used to hire more officers, or for projects that are typically used to investigate or solve crimes once they have happened, such as facial recognition programs or license plate reader cameras.

“In my opinion, the future of law enforcement is all in crime prevention,” said Delta county code enforcement officer Everett Neil. “The best way to handle an issue properly is to keep it from happening in the first place.”

Neil helped to dream up his county’s grant-funded project after neighbors got together and asked the sheriff and county commissioners to help them reduce the crime in their community.

He said he suggested the county fund removal of an abandoned mobile home in the neighborhood that had become a draw for criminal activity and drug use. Neil said he also came to believe the remote wilderness near the river drew criminals who believed it was a good place to hide. When he learned the state was funding environmental improvements to reduce crime, his wheels began to turn.

“That's when I realized, well, if we're getting rid of the mobile home, you know what? Let's do some fencing. You know what, if we're gonna do fencing, shoot, let's do some lighting,” Neil said. “Let's do a bus stop too, for the kids. And so we started brainstorming.”

Before applying for the funds, Neil and the county’s grant writer visited the neighborhood to make sure the community would support the improvements, most of which would occur on private property.

“The grant writer and I went down to the neighborhood. We knocked on every door. We talked to every resident, and we wanted to know if they would be willing to participate in this kind of a program, because there is some cost,” he said, noting that residents may see slightly higher electric bills due to the new lighting. “We were met with 100% buy-in.”

“I can't tell you how many times [Neil] has been to my door saying, ‘This is what's going on. This is where we're at in the process. What do you think about this? I need your input,’” Burns said. “It’s a rare thing, honestly, to feel that the county is being this responsive.”

Neil said he anticipates the changes will make the neighborhood safer, and he made a bold prediction.

“I fully predict that we'll be able to reduce the crime in this area through this initiative, at least by 50%,” Neil said.

“It’s something that’s exciting to see and start from the ground up,” Sheriff Taylor said. “I hope it works. I hope it’s something that we can use in the future.”

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