GREELEY, Colo. (CBS4) – The Chief of Police in Greeley believes COVID-19, and the impacts it has had on everyday life, plays a direct role in the recent uptick in violent crime. Chief Mark Jones told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas the pandemic is not solely to blame, but plays a significant role in the crime spike.

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“We’ve seen an increase in violence, especially in the past couple months here in Greeley,” Jones said. “I think it is a combination of the stress in our society right now, which is partially (due to) COVID. Obviously, with political unrest, and then you add the caveat of not putting as many people in jails and prisons.”

While statistics are not available, at this time, to support a direct link between the release of inmates and a spike in crime, Jones is correct that Colorado has been letting inmates out of incarceration earlier than normal during the pandemic. Gov. Jared Polis endorsed the release of some inmates to alleviate pressures on facilities, and to increase social distancing opportunities.

Weld County has one of several jails in the state that is limiting the number of inmates allowed in the facility. Recently two gunmen in Greeley were ticketed and released from custody after the county said the shooting they were involved in did not qualify for incarceration during the pandemic.

Jones said, among other things, the wearing of masks has also given criminals another shield from accountability.

“I think it has emboldened people to be even more active in criminal activity because they don’t fear about being identified either before, or after, the crime,” Jones said.

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Many Coloradans have reported an increase in stress levels during the pandemic. Jones said that, mixed with an increase in drug and alcohol usage, has attributed to a spike in crime.

Jones said gangs are capitalizing on the illegal drug market in Greeley, which is causing violent crimes.

“Three out of the four (of the last homicides in Greeley) involved gang members as suspects, or victims, that were from the Denver metro area,” Jones said.

Jones also said, in more than 34 years of service, he has never seen more firearms on the street. While he is not calling for more gun control laws, Jones said he is working with his department to further prevent firearms from landing in the hands of criminals.

“You throw that whole mix together, and it is part of the answer why we are seeing an increase in violence,” Jones said.

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The Chief’s full statement is below:

Several reasons behind recent increase in violent incidents.

Based on the number of violent incidents over the last couple of weeks in Greeley I feel that I owe the citizens my honest opinion of what I perceive is happening. I have read many of your comments on social media as well as other inquiries on the subject. We are all living in trying times and Law Enforcement is no exception. Let us start with COVID and its impact. According to a just released ACLU study, Colorado jail populations are down 46% since COVID began. Of course, you hear that these released prisoners are all non-violent in nature. I disagree based on what I have seen here in Greeley. The wearing of masks have emboldened lawbreakers, as they have less fear of identification during and after their crime. COVID along with America’s political unrest have placed a tremendous amount of stress on everyone. I have watched a number of Body Worn Camera videos where people simply lose their mind over a simple contact with the police. There has been an increase in the use of alcohol and drugs since COVID began, as people try to cope with their newfound problems. This substance abuse contributes to individuals’ lack of self-control and their inability to control anger and other emotions.

In the last four months, we have experienced a number of stabbings and shootings. That number includes four homicides that are all gang related in one form or another. Three of these homicides have involved gang members from the Denver area as either victims or suspects. GPD has seen an increase in drug activity involving these gang members as well. Back to my comments about Colorado’s, jail populations. The reductions in jail populations is not all about COVID. There is and continues to be a push from the state not to incarcerate people for drug convictions. I do agree that a user with a small quantity of illegal narcotics should not be taking up prison space, but this is not the real issue. The issue is the number of other crimes that people who use drugs are involved in, which can lead to more serious violent and non-violent crimes. As always, the victim is the one who loses each and every time. Additionally, the violent crimes involving weapons continue to place our officers in very difficult situations where there are no winners. There are more guns on the streets now than I have ever seen in my 34 years of law enforcement. With that said, I am not advocating more gun laws. I would ask why don’t we do something with the laws and sentencing guidelines we currently have. Currently there are laws on the books that require long prison time for crimes of violence with a firearm, to include convicted felons in possession. The problem is very few of these people complete their sentences and are being released with less and less time served. If we are serious about gun related violence and crime then let us use our newly found empty bed spaces for this purpose.

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Lastly as a society, we have emboldened the criminal with all of the defunding the police talk, reduction in sentences, not revoking parolees, and de-criminalizing or greatly reducing the levels of many crimes. I believe all of this plays a powerful role in criminal behavior and what seems to be an increased boldness and aggression toward the police and victims of crimes. I assure you the Greeley Police Department takes all crime seriously and we are doing our best to stay on top of this increased violence. In closing, I just want to say a big thank you to all our officers who come to work every day regardless of the circumstances to keep our city as safe as possible. To all the Greeley citizens who support us daily we are grateful.

Dillon Thomas