At a PLAN-Boulder County forum on the evening of Monday, March 16, 2015, Longmont community activist Dan Benavidez (who is also a PLAN-Boulder board member) and Longmont public safety director Mike Butler described a program they have created in Longmont to try to bind Latinos and other potentially marginalized populations closer to the community.
Benavidez asserted that about one-third of Longmont’s 90-100,000 citizens are Latinos, 85 percent of whom were born in Mexico. He observed that Latinos tend to not participate in formal, public meetings “because they don’t have confidence in the system” due to experiences in their native countries. Consequently, last July Benavidez and Butler, who are long-standing friends, started walking various Longmont neighborhoods together, meeting informally with residents outside their houses, and trying to establish a relationship between these people and the Longmont city government. Benavidez has named this program “The Belonging Revolution.” He said that the impression it seeks to leave with each Latino citizen is: “I belong to this community, and this community belongs to me.”
The two estimated that they had conducted walks in 14 or 15 neighborhoods so far. They said that the subjects of their conversations with residents tended to be about their personal lives and often focused on their families. Benavidez and Butler, however, have always been ready and willing to discuss public issues and questions or complaints about local government. Interestingly enough, Benavidez and Butler reported that during their walks almost no one has claimed to have been discriminated against by the police, nor by others.
Butler also said that as part of this effort, Longmont police officers are being encouraged and required to walk around the neighborhoods they have been assigned to patrol and develop familiarity with individual residents. Lengthy periods during their work days have been reserved for this activity and cleared of other, competing demands, such as completing paperwork. He said that he had been delighted to learn that one of his officers, while on patrol, had been playing baseball on the street with the locals and that others had attended community picnics. He said he seeks friendly interactions between the police and the citizens as a way to build trust and cooperation in reducing crime and mitigating common problems.
Butler also claimed that Longmont has been very careful in its decisions about hiring new police officers. He said that the primary qualities it seeks are the abilities to communicate effectively and to form relationships. He declared it rejects applicants who have shown a propensity for violence in their pasts. He said the average age of new officers is 32 and most have college degrees. About 30 percent of Longmont’s police force lives in the city, he said.
At the forum Benavidez and Butler also outlined Longmont’s restorative justice program, which Benavidez regards as part of “The Belonging Revolution.” The program was instituted in 1997 as a result of a grant in which Erie, Lafayette, the University of Colorado, and the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department also participated. It initially included only people who had been charged with misdemeanors, and were first-time offenders and over age 18. It was subsequently expanded to cover people charged with felonies, except for Class I felonies, and who were repeat offenders and under age 18. It has handled between 3,500 and 4,000 offenders and is managed by a non-profit organization called Longmont Community Justice Partnership on an annual budget of about $450,000.
Butler said that that a study by the Boulder-based National Research Center has shown the “victim satisfaction rate” in Longmont’s restorative justice program to be 95 percent or higher, and the recidivism rate to be about 10 percent. He said that nationally the recidivism rate is about 70 percent.
The main principles of restorative justice, Benavidez and Butler said, are:
- try to repair the relationship between the victim and the offender
- lead the offender to accept responsibility for the full consequences of his or her offense
- lead the offender to sign a contract to provide restitution to the victim
- establish respect among the participants in the restorative justice group, which usually consists of the offender, the victim, two facilitators, and one or more members of the general public.
Partly as a result of its restorative justice program, Butler said that Longmont has attained a very low crime rate during the last decade and last year was deemed to be the second safest city in Colorado. He also said it has been lauded for its fresh approach to law enforcement by various criminal justice and good government organizations and has been studied by police departments from other cities.