Michael Rutherford’s forearm tattoo reads “Family.”
“It’s the family you hope for, not the family you were born with,” he said.
He found that family in Colorado. He’s a successful chef working full-time while going to school to earn a degree in human services, concentrating in addiction and a secondary in trauma.
The degree feels very personal to him. He wants to work with people through counseling to help them with their drug problems.
Not that long ago, he was on the other side, caught by the police and charged with the theft of a motor vehicle — just one part of the rising wave of crime in the state.
As in Rutherford’s case, motor vehicle theft is often paired with other underlying problems and situations.
For the most part, motor vehicle thefts are a result of housing and drug addiction, according to Lisa Pasko, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Denver.
“We see people stealing cars in order to get money, but also stealing cars to live in for some time,” she said. “We will also see a correlation with methamphetamine abuse in the winter months.”
A common situation
The Common Sense Institute, a Greenwood Village-based non-profit focused on economic research, found Colorado to be the top state in America for auto thefts in a study published Sept. 8, and four Colorado cities rank in the top ten in the United States. Those cities are Denver, Aurora, Westminster and Pueblo.
Motor vehicle thefts are on track to be 48,000 for this year — reaching an all-time high.
In 2021, there were 4,002 arrests for the crime. In 2022, Colorado is on pace for 4,538 this year.
That’s parallel with Adams County who experienced a staggering 200% increase in the past decade, according to statistics from the Adams County Sheriff’s office.
Motor vehicle thefts were 422 in 2012. In 2021, there were 1,268. This year doesn’t look to be much different. Through July 2022, motor vehicle thefts stood at 816.
Escaping to Colorado
Rutherford left Boston after a car accident. He received a settlement check and left Massachusetts to visit a friend in Colorado.
“I drove out here for a vacation and just decided to stay, hoping to escape from previous problems,” he said. “Obviously, that didn’t work out that well.”
Rutherford had used heroin and meth from ages 16 to 26. Now he’s 30 and doesn’t use, but at age 24, his addiction started to interfere with the rest of his life.
To fund his drugs, he began stealing from stores and selling those items at half the price. Customers would give him Christmas lists and he would provide those wishes for cheap.
Sometimes he didn’t need the cash, but the fear of withdrawal made him steal.
At the time, he worked for a company going to different fast-food restaurant locations to train their managers. He did that for two years until he lost his job due to his drug use, which led to more problems.
His car broke down, so he stole a car and was ultimately caught by the police and charged with motor vehicle theft.
Former Adams County Sheriff Michael McIntosh, said motor vehicle thefts often involve other crimes, like drugs or stealing merchandise. McIntosh, who is now working as chief deputy for Douglas County, is running to reclaim the Adams County Sheriff’s position.
Pasko, who has also been studying Adams County’s drug court for the past four years, sees that connection as well. She said paraphernalia and other forms of drug use are recovered from many cars.
With the winter months coming, she noted a correlation between the cold weather and drug use, specifically with methamphetamine. The drug keeps the user warm and keeps the user awake during the night, which is when a person experiencing homelessness is most likely to be harassed or attacked.
Most of the cars recovered are not chopped up and they have evidence — fast food bags and clothing — of people living in the vehicle for a while. Meaning, many of the stolen cars are used for a moment in time as a place to live or use drugs.
“When we had a 100% increase during the pandemic of people who were first-time homeless, you can imagine that these cars that are easy to break into are going to be used for those reasons,” she said.
Pair that with an increase in drug use in Colorado, and those underlying reasons create a perfect storm for stolen cars.
Other factors are contributing to that storm. Used cars are a hot commodity and Pasko said organized crews are streamlining the thefts of catalytic converters along the Interstate 70 and Interstate 25 corridors. Those converters contain rare, highly precious metals that are expensive. Inflation and supply chain issues are only fueling the demand for those metals.
“We've seen evidence of these increases happening. We just are getting hit more because we have the intersection of these two major highways,” Pasko said.
Hundreds of unfilled police jobs across the metro area also contributes to the problem, but even filling those jobs won’t solve the issue
Pasko said cities must address the way policing is done.
Community trusted policing
Pasko pitches the idea of problem-oriented policing, and points to San Diego.
“San Diego is one of those models where you can have really conservative politics mixed with progressive policing to produce really bipartisan, good results,” she said.
One tactic, called problem-oriented policing, puts the community first, she said. That strategy involves the community informing the police and having input on how they do their job. It also allows the community to hold the police accountable for what they do. This in turn aims to create a mutual relationship where the community can trust the police and the police can serve appropriately.
As an example, Pasko pointed to the contrast between stop and frisk in New York City and hot spots in San Diego in the 1990s.
New York City took the approach of mass patrolling and policing low-level offenses. San Diego looked at hot spots and worked with the community on how to address the root problem.
Pasko said San Diego’s approach kept the homicide rate below three homicides per 100,000 residents. It was successful and San Diego didn’t see as many protests against policing in 2020 and the city didn’t see a spike in crimes like the rest of the country. San Diego’s homicide rate did creep up, just not as much as the rest of the country, she said.
“(Those neighborhoods) felt that the police listened to them, made their community safer, and they were more likely to collaborate with the police,” she said.
Problem-oriented policing does call for more patrolling of neighborhoods to drive potential thieves inside, which can lower the opportunities for crime, such as motor vehicle theft. With people inside, that can even lead to harm reduction for drug use: inside is the safest and most personal place for using.
“The cost-benefit analysis that we know in studying offenders for the last 100 years in my field is that it's not whether or not the sentence is tough, it’s ‘is there a chance I get caught?’” she said.
District Attorneys unite
All of Colorado’s District Attorneys have unanimously supported amending the state law regarding auto theft. As it stands, stealing a car that’s not valuable is a misdemeanor and stealing a car with a higher value is a felony.
“A brand new $40,000 car, that's going to get charged as a high-level felony whereas if somebody steals a 1995 Honda Accord, that's going to be a misdemeanor. The reason for that is because the BMW is worth $40,000 and the 1995 Honda Accord is worth 500 bucks,” said Brian Mason, the district attorney for the 17th judicial district. That district includes Adams and Broomfield counties.
Mason sees it as unfair and said someone with a cheaper car most likely has less of a means to replace it than someone with an expensive car.
“(The law) unfairly discriminates against those who own cheaper cars, which means they discriminate against people who are poor,” he said.
He sees changing the law as helping to hold those accountable for the crime and address the problem.
Pasko doesn’t see it that way.
“Even if we increase the penalties, that's not going to matter if we don't arrest them first,” she said. “We can't keep people indefinitely on a low-level offense (in prison.) It's not going to be a deterrent and it's also not going to produce better investigative powers.”
The two contenders for the Adams County Sheriff explained their points of view when it comes to solving crime.
McIntosh said collaboration must exist between the district attorney’s office, law enforcement and judges. He said prosecuting auto thefts as misdemeanors makes it harder to put people in jail. As well, it’s important for police and sheriffs to put together worthy cases.
“If I'm doing my job well, and I continue to take stuff to the district attorney's office, and they decide that they're going to do nothing with it, there are consequences to that. Especially when you're an elected official,” he said.
He pointed to efforts in Douglas County that he believes are working. Camera systems read license plates and alert dispatch centers that a stolen vehicle is driving wherever it was detected.
Though, laws make it difficult.
“Just because I caught you in a stolen car, believe it or not, it's an extremely hard case to win,” he said. “I have no way of demonstrating that you stole that.”
However, more evidence of possession through the cameras makes the case easier to prove. He said auto thieves usually pair motor vehicle thefts with other crimes like drugs or stealing merchandise.
Preventing crime starts before the crime even occurs. McIntosh said community trust in the police is critical.
“When you can get a community to trust the police to start informing us of what's going on in the community and be present in the community, that's when you start preventing,” he said.
Community members also need to reduce the opportunity for crime, which can look like locking car doors, neighbors looking after neighbors, security lights and more.
Gene Claps, the Democratic candidate for Adams County Sheriff, sees five key solutions to lower crime: collaboration, accountability, recruiting and maintaining staff, data and community based policing.
He too said it’s important to have collaboration with district attorneys, municipal police chiefs, and other members of the criminal justice system. He sees recent moves to decriminalize certain violations as a player in rising crime.
“We can't keep slapping people on their wrists and expect them to change their habits. There has to be something held or error held in front of them to say I'm going to follow through,” he said.
Going to crime areas before violations occur can also help reduce the rising numbers. Using data to see where resources need to be can prevent crime from happening in the first place, he said.
Solutions that work
Pasko points to Longmont’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, saying it has proven to address crime and its root causes.
According to their website, officers use their discretion to direct those suspected of substance use to case management services instead of jail.
“Instead of defaulting to the justice system, this alternative uses a harm-reduction approach along with community-based support services and coordinated care. Longmont LEAD participants experienced a 59 percent decrease in all legal incidents and a 50 percent reduction in arrests,” their website reads.
From an interim evaluation, the program resulted in a 50% reduction in rearrests for the LEAD participants and a 25% reduction in summonses after referral to LEAD.
That’s exactly what Rutherford needed. As a drug user, he needed help to get free of the substance. He didn’t experience LEAD, but he experienced other programs to attempt to help him transition out of jail.
Jefferson County Drug Court is what proved the most helpful because it addressed his needs, such as housing and money. Housing proved to be the most difficult for him.
“That’s what (drug users) need. They have to work on trauma, they have to work on underlying problems so they don’t repeat the same cycle,” he said.
That program gave him housing, therapy seven days a week and structure.
Participants gradually become integrated back into society and slowly begin to take on more responsibilities, like starting a job, paying rent, buying food and finding stability.
Rutherford mentioned people use drugs to fill a void.
“The questions they ask you in the recovery court are, do you have stable housing? Do you have a family? Do you have a support system?” he said. “It’s just something you hope to create for yourself.”