Sep 15, 2022 - News

American Rescue Plan is rescuing police agencies in Colorado

Illustration of a police officer standing on the highest pile of coins in a row.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Colorado is directing tens of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money toward law enforcement — a shift from initial pledges to address affordability and health care in the wake of the pandemic.

Driving the news: The spending ranges from big to small — $30 million for jail staffing in El Paso County to $732 for new two-way radios in Sedgwick County — according to a first-of-its-kind investigation of the American Rescue Plan Act spending in Colorado conducted by Axios Denver in collaboration with the nonprofit Marshall Project.

  • Gov. Jared Polis' administration set aside $1.3 million for private prison operator CoreCivic to give employees up to $3,000 in retention bonuses.
  • Denver gave $1.5 million in federal money to outside entities to address crime hot spots, including Union Station, where nearly 1,500 arrests recently took place.
  • The city of Thornton allocated $1 million to a police training and shooting range facility, set to open in late September.
  • Elbert County used $5.2 million designed to restore government services to cover the sheriff's department budget for two years.

The big picture: Colorado's spending is part of billions earmarked nationwide by state and local governments for law enforcement, prisons and courts by the first quarter of 2022.

  • About half of the $52.6 billion that the federal spending bill set aside for "revenue replacement" to local governments went to the criminal justice system.
  • Roughly 10% went to "public health" projects, according to the analysis of U.S. Treasury data.

What they're saying: At the national level, President Biden is embracing the law enforcement spending and using it as evidence that Democrats don't want to defund the police.

Zoom in: Polis initially outlined key priorities for the $3.8 billion Colorado received, but law enforcement was not listed, documents show. That changed this year when public safety and prisons were added to the spending list.

  • "Hiring and retaining staff has been a challenge for correctional institutions across the country for state, federal and private facilities," Annie Skinner, a spokesperson at the state prisons agency tells us, explaining the private prisons bonuses.

Context: Congress put few limitations on how state and local governments could allocate the money, and the Biden administration's lax reporting requirements make it difficult to track exactly how much is spent and where it goes

  • The project list provided by the Treasury Department compiled in the analysis includes about 630 grants totaling $1.5 billion — less than half the amount the state of Colorado is expected to receive.
  • Often, the entities that received federal dollars exert the most political power, such as police and prisons, rather than programs that address public health or economic concerns.

Between the lines: Many of the spending reports submitted to the federal government strained to make a connection to the pandemic, except to say they would have had more tax revenue if the crisis hadn't occurred.

  • Sedgwick County's sheriff said its two-way radios were needed to "eliminate face-to-face contact" during the pandemic.
  • Logan County bought new Tasers for its officers for an undisclosed cost.
  • Phillips County and the city of Northglenn purchased new police cars.

The other side: Others offered direct justification for the criminal justice spending. Pueblo and Fort Collins used part of their allotment to boost the co-responder model that links police officers with mental health clinicians.

  • Larimer County said it needed $72,000 for its GPS monitoring program because it saw a 400% increase in the number of high-risk defendants released from jail early.

The bottom line: Expect to see more law enforcement spending in coming months. Millions more in ARPA dollars will be budgeted ahead of the 2024 deadline to allocate the money.

Go deeper with our partners at The Marshall Project


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