COLORADO SPRINGS — “2020 was pretty much a perfect storm,” Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski said from his seat, at the head of a long conference table, in the Police Operations Center downtown.
Niski sat down with FOX21 Digital NOW to look back at a year rife with challenges, divisiveness, and opportunities to improve, as we move, wearily for some, into 2021.
The year started off smoothly, Niski recalls. Then the deadly coronavirus pandemic swept through the U.S., closing schools and businesses, unnerving public health agencies, and upending the lives of people across the globe.
“COVID hit. COVID had an impact. And that’s the thing, I think, COVID had an impact not just on us, it had an impact on the world,” Niski said.
“Everybody changed the way they were doing business. You had to, otherwise you couldn’t survive,” he said.
And it wasn’t just that. Businesses were required to change their prior practices and comply with state and local restrictions, which flucuated along with the numbers of positive cases in El Paso County.
Restaurants were twice-closed to indoor dining and locally-owned businesses struggled to keep revenue up as occupancy limits dwindled.
“Then, obviously, George Floyd and a couple other instances throughout the country took place,” Niski explained. “We saw a lot of social unrest across the world again. We saw a significant amount here in the Springs.”
Niski paused to think, tapping his fingers against the glass-topped table as he did so.
“I just gotta say, you know, the first night of violent protests was probably the worst I’ve ever seen in my career,” he continued.
“We were confident we’d get through it, but there was a sense of concern that, if this continued every night – how we would handle it as a community, not just as a police department.”
That community impact was carefully considered by Mayor John Suthers.
“I thought the police department did a good job of allowing a lawful exercise of first amendment rights, but not letting it get out of hand and devolve into destruction and things like that,” Suthers said. “I thought, you know, we got some criticisms that we didn’t jump on some of the people in the streets fast enough, but those things arise really quickly and you do it the best you can.”
Of course Niski, who watched from his office as protestors stormed the grounds at the POC, throwing rocks and smashing lights, has a different perspective.
“We were prepared for protests,” Niski explained. “We weren’t prepared for the significant amount of violence and destruction that took place that first night. Luckily, we only had four nights of that and it kind of subsided.”
Still, protests carried on in downtown Colorado Springs for several weeks, as different groups clamored for change, demanding action from Chief Niski and other city leaders.
And that push for change has made a difference in Southern Colorado.
The Law Enforcement Transparency and Accountability Commission was formed and is now able to make recommendations to Colorado Springs City Council regarding citizen and police officer concerns; to make police recommendations; and to help with budget and resource allocations and more.
In the past, Chief Niski said the formation of the commission was one he did not support.
“They want civilian oversight,” Chief Niski acknowledged in September, when the department offered a look at its use of force in 2019. “I’ve said it and I’ll say it again – I’m not in favor of that.”
Niski said then that there is no statistical data that shows civilian oversight of a police department changes anything, still, he said it could work under the right circumstances.
“If you can get… enough neutral people to sit on there, that will legitimately evaluate CSPD as compared to other agencies, I have no concerns over that whatsoever. None,” he said in the fall.
The Mayor is more optimistic about the commission.
“Hopefully we’ll get some good recommendations from LETAC, about how greater community action can take place,” Suthers said, mentioning that his office has been putting in work, to that end, all along.
“We brought in about 12 to 16 young people and sat down at the table and said, ‘What’s your concerns, what do you want to have happen?’ And they wanted to know more. There were some young people that were incredibly impressive,” he said. “They just wanted to know who trains the officers, who decides what training they get – and it was just legitimate kind of questioning, I was just very impressed by that.”
Some of those people, Suthers said, now sit on LETAC, which is gearing up for a round of “Learning and Listening” initiatives.
The group is looking for more transparency.
And that fits into Chief Niski’s hope – to rebuild trust and improve community relations.
To that end, the department has published a new, online data hub, which shares much of the information the community has been asking to see.
“It took us a while to get there, but we’re getting there,” Niski said.
“We’re starting to think about those things that are maybe more important to the community than we thought about in the past,” Niski said. “And [asking], ‘how do we educate the community about what we do?’ I’m not naive enough to think everybody here is going to go look at it, but what we’re providing is the opportunity – that if somebody wants to learn, it’s there. You’ll be able to go find it.”
“2021 could be a really good year,” Suthers said, looking ahead. “The key to it is the pace of vaccinations. We’ll just see whether the rollout is as smooth as it could be. Here so far, the appearance to me is that the health department has left it in the hands of the hospital systems and the large clinics, to begin the rollout.”
If vaccinations are done efficiently, Suthers said, he thinks tourism – which took a 40% hit in 2020, will rebound with fervor.
“I just think there’s incredible pent up energy and demand for tourism out there,” Suthers said. “I’m just hoping about May they start thinking, you know, ‘Let’s drive up to Colorado Springs and see that new olympic museum.’ Or, ‘I understand they have a new summit house on Pikes Peak.’ Stuff like that.”
“If we could get COVID behind us, by May, first of June – it could be a really good year.”
And the Chief agress with that sentiment.
“I’m a firm believer what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So, I think 2020 will make us as a community – and probably us as a country – stronger in 2021 than people expect,” Niski said.