Homicides, homelessness, fentanyl use hot topics at southeast Colorado Springs public safety forum – Colorado Springs Gazette

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Colorado Springs police to a domestic violence call and barricade situation Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. 

Colorado Springs police to a domestic violence call and barricade situation Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. 
In a public safety forum Thursday outgoing Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski, 4th Judicial District Attorney Michael Allen and other prominent Colorado Springs officials weighed in on public safety issues affecting the southeast portion of the city and the United States overall. 
Homicide rates, homelessness and illegal drugs were some of the issues on the minds of those who attended the event, which was held at the Valley Hi Pub and Grill. In addition to the chief of police and the district attorney, El Paso County Undersheriff Joe Roybal, Colorado Springs City Council President Tom Strand and El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly made up the five-person panel at the event.
Rachel Stovall, a Republican candidate for Colorado House District 17 in southeast Colorado Springs, was spurred to create the event because of stories she heard from friends about crime and danger in the southeast. Hearing about incidents of indecent exposure, broken street lamps, and shots being fired at a party, Stovall wanted to connect concerned people in the community with those making the decisions. 
“I just thought we all should be able to have access to the people we’re told serve us in these areas but we know the average person doesn’t have access,” Stovall said. “I wanted to have an event like this to create that access.” 
At the event, people wrote questions on index cards and handed them to a team of moderators who then selected questions to ask the panel. 
On the subject of the perception that southeast Colorado Springs is the most dangerous area, Chief Niski offered a rebuttal. The city is divided into four divisions by the Colorado Springs Police Department: northwest, northeast, southwest and southeast.
While the southern divisions do see more calls for service , Niski said it’s actually the southwest that sees the highest. He later pointed to homicide rates in which four such crimes occurred in the southeast last year whereas 31 were committed in the southwest, part of a record-setting 44 for the city in 2021. 
Niski attributed the high number of homicides in the city to a lack of respect for life and for each other, stressing the need for people to recognize that families on both sides are affected by the crime. What’s often forgotten is that the perpetrator’s family loses a loved one to prison. 
“Two lives are lost. Not just one,” he said.  
According to Kelly, the top underlying issue in homicides is domestic violence. Allen added that the lethality of domestic violence has increased, likely due in part to the added stress on families brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 
Homelessness was another issue brought to the panel. Strand, citing the city’s Homelessness Prevention and Response Coordinator Andrew Phelps, said that in a 2020 count, the number of people experiencing homelessness was down and named the fire department’s homeless outreach program as a great resource for helping the homeless access services and housing. 
Despite that, enforcement and cleanups continue to increase annually, Strand said. 
In the past year, Strand said that the city neighborhood and service’s division has cleaned up more than a million pounds of trash for illegal homeless camps.  
Niski said that as the years have gone by and the number of organizations promoting homeless outreach have increased, the police department has shifted its focus to enforcement of certain actions. 
“Homelessness is not a law enforcement issue, it isn’t. It’s just been handed to us to deal with,” Niski said. “Homelessness is a community issue.”
Members of the panel were asked about the decriminalizing of illegal fentanyl possession by the Colorado legislature in 2019. House bill 1263 made it so that possession of 4 grams or less of schedule 1 or 2 drugs is a misdemeanor as opposed to a felony. Schedule 1 drugs include heroin, LSD and psilocybin while fentanyl is a schedule 2 drug. 
Kelly said that he began monitoring fentanyl deaths in the county after he saw a rise in deaths related to the substance on the East Coast. The county went from four in 2017 to more than 100 in 2021 with the full tally incomplete. He added that the age range of those who have died has widened to include teenagers. 
Allen emphasized how dangerous the drug can be, given that just two milligrams of fentanyl can prove fatal. 
“The maximum punishment that somebody could go to jail for on a possession of fentanyl is 364 days starting March 1st of this year,” he said. “And when we’re talking about a deadly killer drug like fentanyl it’s way too low, it incentivizes cartel activity bringing in these counterfeit pills and it’s putting all of our community at risk.”
With all these issues arising, a point of concern for the community was the lack of people willing to work in law enforcement at such a seemingly perilous time. 
For Niski, the answer is finding proactive ways to impact crime. That means patrolling high areas of crime, going after prolific offenders and the use of police forces and partnering with crime analysts who can tell police what crimes they should focus on, and on who and where to focus. 
Roybal said the sheriff’s office is taking a multi-agency approach to dealing with shortages by providing reinforcements to Monument and Fountain police departments when necessary. 
Retiring Colorado Springs Chief of Police Vince Niski and El Paso County Sheriff’s Office Undersheriff Joseph Roybal discussed recruitment and…
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