The number of Colorado Bureau of Investigation agents would more than double in the coming years under a major staffing increase being advanced by state lawmakers.
The plan, contained in the state budget, is a significant component of Gov. Jared Polis’ crime-fighting package at the Capitol as he pushes back against Republicans’ election-year blaming of Democrats for rising crime rates.
In addition to 48 more investigative agents, CBI, which provides on-request law enforcement assistance to police departments and sheriff’s offices across Colorado, would also get more forensic scientists and lab technicians.
In total, CBI would add 107 more full-time employees over three years to its existing staff of about 300 under the plan, which would come at an annual cost of more than $15 million. The growth would allow the bureau to station more agents across the state and, for the first time, have a dedicated cold case unit.
CBI serves as a critical partner to small law enforcement agencies who may lack the staff — let alone any detectives — or expertise to investigate serious crimes, like homicides and kidnapping. The agency recently helped investigate the disappearance and murder of Kelsey Berreth in Woodland Park and the murder of Shanann Watts and her two children in Firestone.
The agency also leads or assists in investigations when law enforcement officers shoot or otherwise seriously injure or kill a civilian. In 2014, CBI played a big role in the investigation into a Rocky Ford police officer who fatally shot an unarmed man in his mother’s home. The officer, James Ashby, was convicted of murder and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
“It’s always good to be able to call CBI and get that kind of expertise right at my fingertips,” Clear Creek County Undersheriff Bruce Snelling said.
The bureau also has the state’s main crime lab. While some larger law enforcement agencies, like the Denver Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, have their own labs, many agencies send evidence to CBI to be analyzed.
John Camper, who leads CBI, said the agency completed a study showing that similar law enforcement entities in other states have far more staffing per capita than his. In fact, among 21 states analyzed by CBI the bureau has the fewest agents per million people, at 7.8.
Excluding Colorado, the average number of agents for a statewide agency whose purpose is to support local law enforcement is 47.7 agents per million, and the median is 46.5 per million.
“It just became obvious that they were doing things with a whole lot more people,” Camper said. “Even with this plus-up, which is impressive and we’d be very grateful for it, investigations-wise it would still put us at about fourth from the bottom.”
Currently, CBI has just 45 agents to serve the entire state. Subtract the agents who are dedicated to investigating human trafficking, illicit marijuana and cyber crimes, and that number shrinks to 18.
CBI actually has fewer sworn officers than the Wheat Ridge Police Department, which serves a population of about 30,000.
The low staffing levels means CBI sometimes has to decline requests for help.
“If you’ve got a homicide, you have an officer-involved shooting — you have one of those major, major crimes — we’ll figure it out. We never have and never will turn down those,” said Chris Schaefer, CBI’s deputy director. “But it’s some of these other crimes — you may have serial burglaries, you may have an organized crime auto theft team — we do have to turn down (assistance requests), unfortunately.”
Sometimes, Camper said, local law enforcement agencies won’t even summon CBI because they think the agency won’t respond to far-flung parts of the state. CBI has offices in Lakewood, Pueblo and Grand Junction, meaning it can take hours for its agents to reach some counties and towns.
“We’ve heard, anecdotally, from some of our partner agencies, sheriffs in particular, that ‘we didn’t call because we knew it was way out of the way for you guys,’” he said.
The CBI is preliminarily planning to spend its increased budget to hire, on top of the new agents, 18 more forensic scientists, 11 more forensic analysts, nine more crime scene investigators and eight additional evidence technicians.
Local law enforcement agencies, who don’t have to reimburse CBI for their services, are excited about the likely agency expansion, according to CBI.
“I think it’s a good idea for CBI and the state of Colorado,” said Snelling, the Clear Creek County undersheriff.
CBI has never rejected a request by Snelling for help, but he said the agency has sometimes been slow to respond to because of its limited resources.
The last time the CBI had a staff expansion was in 2018, but it was far less significant than the one being debated at the legislature.
The proposed CBI staffing increase, which has bipartisan support, comes as Republicans have sought to link a crime spike to reforms championed by Colorado Democrats in recent years, including a measure that cut penalties for drug-possession offenses. The bureau’s expansion would likely be one of the most tangible ways state lawmakers this year are seeking to slow the crime wave and help the governor achieve his goal of making Colorado one of the nation’s 10 safest states in the coming years.
State Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican and a former Weld County sheriff, thinks the budget boost is to a degree window dressing, but he does think it will help reduce crime.
“I think it can have a tangible effect,” he said, “especially for rural Colorado.”
The legislature’s Joint Budget Committee has already signed off on the staffing increase, a sign that it’s likely to pass. The proposal still needs the approval of the full General Assembly when the state budget is debated on the House and Senate floors in the coming weeks.
“This was a critical investment that needed to happen for years,” said Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat who is chair of the JBC. “This was one of those decisions that I think all of us realized now is the moment we need to do this.”