Where Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston stand on public safety, crime and Denver Police

Public safety is a top issue for voters this year. Here’s where the two candidates differ and agree on how to address rising crime.
8 min. read
A class of cadets graduate from the Denver Police Academy in Central Park. March 31, 2023.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

What's the state of public safety in Denver? More car thefts, more violence, more guns. Fewer cops.

In Denver, stolen car incidents have tripled. Reports of gunshots and fentanyl deaths doubled. School shootings in the city have grabbed national attention. And so it's not surprising that public safety has been a top concern for voters in the mayor's race. It's what we've heard from voters for months now.

Like many issues, there isn't much that separates Mike Johnston and Kelly Brough in the runoff election, and that shows in their public safety plans

We took a look at their plans, endorsements and what they've said about public safety. Here's what we learned:

Where the two agree

Johnston and Brough both want to hire more first responders.

Police departments, in particular, are facing extraordinary staffing shortages, and Denver Police Department is no different. The trend of fewer applicants to police academies started before the pandemic. But post-pandemic, there's been an increase in retirements from the departments, leaving critical positions unfilled.

Johnston wants to add "200 more first responders on the streets, including mental health professionals, EMTs and police officers," according to his public safety plan.

Though it's hard to hire these types of jobs, Johnston says the city can do a lot to communicate the value of these jobs to society. "If you feel like you're making an impact, you feel like you're all working from the same playbook and making a difference. People are drawn to it," Johnston said in an interview when he released his crime plan.

Johnston said big and small gestures would help: down payment assistance, free meals and sporting event tickets for first responders.

Brough wants to see highly trained police officers fill the large number of vacancies in the Denver Police Department, and all that hiring is an opportunity, Brough says, to strategically allocate staff where it's needed most.

Brough and Johnston both want to expand co-responder models, where officers are paired with civilians, usually behavioral health specialists. Both want to expand Denver's Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program, where civilian mental health professionals are called out to non-criminal situations where crisis support services are needed.

"All of our public safety responders are showing up probably on your worst day. And they're trying to figure out how to help you navigate that worst day to make it less worse," said Brough. "So sending the right responder, but also making sure our officers feel supported and trained, and even get the mental health breaks so that they're at their best when they're responding."

The candidates want to expand drug treatment in the jails, and diversionary courts, like drug court. Johnston, though, wants to focus on allowing low-level drug offenders the resources to expunge criminal records for completion of mental health or drug treatment programs.

Johnston also has specific plans on converting pods in the Denver jail to drug treatment, which Denver has already started doing. Brough emphasizes not just prevention to reduce demand, but also attacking the sale of fentanyl to reduce supply.

What are their differences?

While their differences on policy are few, they boil down to direct experience and endorsements.

Take drug courts for example, where Brough is credited as leading the creation of drug courts in Denver. And that is one of the reasons that former Denver District Attorney and former Gov. Bill Ritter supports her candidacy.

Brough has locked down an array of public safety endorsements: the Denver police and firefighters unions, former managers of safety, and former police chiefs.

All have cited her direct experience in city government. Brough rose through the ranks of city government to become chief of staff to then mayor John Hickenlooper from 2006 to 2009.

"She knows how to run this city," said Tyson Worrell, the president of the police union, during a press conference announcing the union's endorsement. "We believe that she has realistic solutions and can bring people together and we can really address these issues moving forward as crime is the number one issue. And our officers are the ones on the street every day that are dealing with these issues. So therefore, we are happy and couldn't be happier to endorse Kelly Brough for mayor."

In accepting the police and firefighter endorsements, it was noted that Brough was forced to win concessions on pay from both during the tough economic times in which she was chief of staff. Both unions said they didn't hold that against her and found her to be an honest broker.

Johnston has specific plans to create a dedicated auto theft unit within DPD. Car thefts are the leading crime in Denver, and when Johnston first brought up the idea in his crime plan in February DPD did not have a special car theft unit. But recently, DPD Chief Ron Thomas has said the department has created one.

What they've said about school safety 

During the mayoral campaign, two East High School students died -- one shot outside of the school, and another killed himself after shooting two East deans during a weapons search at the school.

The shootings have led to debate in the mayor's race about the role of guns in youth violence and whether cops should be brought back to schools.

Both candidates have said they would find a way to fund School Resource Officers, for the schools that want them, if the district can't pay for it themselves.

But Johnston's time as a school principal allowed him to speak from personal experience about the unique safety challenges in schools, like appropriately placing a troubled student in a school that matches their needs.

"There are schools that I ran, that are great fits for those kind of young people," said Johnston at an education-themed debate. He said some small schools have intense social supports for students that a large school can't replicate. "I think it is completely unfair to expect a teacher or a dean in a school of 3,000 students to have to be able to frisk kids on the way in the door who may or may not have access to a firearm."

He detailed his thinking on youth violence as prevention, intervention and security. He argues for expanding afterschool and summer programming to keep kids in positive peer groups; intensive services for kids that are displaying concerning behaviors; and providing security in and around schools.

What about all the guns in the city?

Since the pandemic started Coloradans have purchased about 1.4 million guns, according to CBI background check data, far above the usual rate of gun purchases in the state.

The number of incidents of unlawful discharge of a weapon in the city have more than doubled from 737 in 2018 to 1,823 in 2022. That's partly because more ShotSpotter microphones have been installed, but also because more people are firing guns in the city. It's not just for target practice. Felony menacing with a weapon incidents have also doubled in the city since 2018, according to data from Denver Police.

Johnston has specific gun policies in his crime plan, including enforcing Colorado's red flag law, background checks, secure storage, reporting of lost or stolen guns, and taking guns away from domestic violence offenders.

Johnston wants to expand the red flag law too, to allow District Attorneys to initiate a red flag order, essentially a legal request to remove guns from someone believed to be a danger to themselves or others.

He also wants to establish a 10-day waiting period on purchases. The state legislature passed a three-day waiting period on gun purchases in the last legislative session. Any effort by a Denver mayor to change that would be limited to gun purchases in the city. There are many gun stores around Denver, just across city limits, that would not be subject to that restriction.

Brough's crime plan didn't include detailed policies on guns, but a "Gun Violence in Schools" plan, added to her website at the end of March calls for a dedicated division in DPD to track and recover guns. Brough would also do more city-sponsored gun buy backs, which the city has done before in partnership with Aurora.

"Candidly, municipal level policies to restrict the sale of guns are not particularly effective," reads her plan. It goes on to say that she would work with the local and national mayors groups to push for changes to state and federal policy.

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