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A three-part examination of how policing has changed in Boulder as communities push for reform.

Amid Efforts To Change Policing, A Boulder Coalition Focuses On One Community With A History Of Crime And Distrust

Luz Galicia, a housing organizer for 9 to 5 Colorado, has been working with San Juan Del Centro residents to create a new residents' council and address safety concerns.
Scott Franz
Luz Galicia, a housing organizer for 9 to 5 Colorado, has been working with San Juan Del Centro residents to create a new residents' council and address safety concerns.

The fate of a Boulder apartment complex police once labeled as a “haven for criminal activity” could soon be altered by a police chief with more faith in data than patrols, a mother tired of living in fear when the sun goes down and a Hispanic officer who says his heritage is helping him gain the trust of residents.

The calls for reform at San Juan Del Centro, Boulder’s first low-income, subsidized apartment complex, started before thousands took to the streets in Colorado last year demanding major changes to policing. Police calls have nearly tripled here since 2017.

And the work has quietly and slowly continued behind the scenes as bigger protests and societal movements have grabbed the nation’s attention.

Built in 1971, the San Juan Del Centro apartments offer rentals based on income.
Scott Franz
Built in 1971, the San Juan Del Centro apartments offer rentals based on income.

Members of the coalition have the same goal, but they all differ somewhat in their strategies to make the apartments safer.

And each hopes their reform efforts will someday inspire other communities grappling with similar issues to make their homes more secure.

The chief

Boulder police chief Maris Herold thinks she has finally found a way to dramatically decrease the need for a police presence at the San Juan Del Centro apartments.

“I will guarantee you, by the time we’re done with our analysis, I’ll be able to pinpoint specific apartment units that are contributing to the overall problems in San Juan,” she says as she firmly taps her index finger on a large conference table to emphasize her confidence in the mission. “I don’t think we’ve ever looked at the data the way we’re looking at it.”

Her strategy has two parts, starting with a focus on crime science.

It’s essentially a deep dive into hundreds of call records to find out what is creating the environment where police are being summoned so often.

She says an early analysis is finding that only a small number of people are generating a large portion of the calls at the apartment complex.

Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold.
Courtesy City of Boulder
Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold.

That has her rethinking her predecessors’ strategies of sending more officers to patrol the area, a tactic that is becoming harder to maintain with tighter budgets and recruiting challenges.

“In your neighborhood, would you want the police there on the hour, every hour?” she asks. “It would be really weird, wouldn't it?”

Instead, Herold is focusing on finding the small group of people she says are generating emergency calls in the complex that houses hundreds, and figuring out which social service agencies can help them.

“It’s clear right now that we have a couple of families that are having issues and then repeatedly calling the police, and I’ll be able to focus on that,” she says. “And then it’s working on solving those problems. And then calls for service drop dramatically.”

The other part of the strategy is to work with property managers and residents to better police themselves.

"But that doesn't mean you abandon the community," she says. "It just means that you become an ambassador for the community and you continue to ensure the safety and people have the highest quality of life."

That work started before the pandemic when San Juan Del Centro created a new leadership council, or an informal HOA.

Residents have also sent a letter to their property manager in March with a long list of requests ranging from wanting management to spend more time at the property, to fixing broken locks.

Herold’s success at San Juan likely will depend on the work of a small group of people who are also on a mission to make the complex safer.

And no one has a bigger stake in the effort than Sonia Sarabia, a 14-year resident of the apartments who hopes she will no longer have to fear what happens in her community when the sun goes down.

The resident

Sarabia wants her neighborhood to become better known for its youths’ track record of securing lucrative college scholarships than its increasing 9-1-1 calls..

911 calls reported at the San Juan del Centro Apartments have been increasing since 2017.
Courtesy Boulder Police Department
911 calls reported at the San Juan del Centro Apartments have been increasing since 2017.

As she walks through the San Juan Del Centro apartments on a recent summer evening, children are laughing on the playground, and the oldest residents are crowded around a small table playing loteria, a Spanish card game similar to bingo.

“I like our people,” Sarabia says. “Those that you’ve known for years, you feel comfortable talking to them. Even an artist came over here and helped paint this mural {on the entrance road). So when we have an opportunity, we all stick together.”

In the sunlight, the apartment complex is bustling with activity.

Sarabia was drawn here as a teenager because it was an affordable place to live in a city known for its expensive housing.

But Sarabia says the area’s reputation as a dangerous place will be hard to overcome.

In the 1980s, Boulder police weren’t allowed to respond to calls at the complex alone, according to records documenting the history of violence in the area.

In 1994, a 16-year-old shot another 16-year old in the face with a handgun.

“A lot of people, they think that just because we live in San Juan, that we are drug dealers, that we have guns, that we beat up people,” Sarabia says. “It’s something that we got stereotyped because of what happened 20 years ago.”

Sarabia says she still doesn’t feel completely safe in her home despite years of new police programs aimed at making her community safer.

Police assigned a team of four officers to the area in 2018 after some residents created a checkpoint at the entrance of the neighborhood and started picking fights with some who tried to enter.

But the patrols have become less frequent recently due to staffing limitations.

“On a good day, living here is fun,” Sarabia says. “We help each other a lot. And even with our kids, if one of us has to run an errand, you can ask your neighbor to watch your kid for five minutes. The only cons are at night.”

That’s when she says the neighborhood is often plagued by thefts and other crimes.

Sarabia says someone recently stole a package that contained samples for her mother’s prosthetic following an amputation.

A month ago, someone else tried to steal her car.

“It’s frustrating,” she says. “It’s money you worked so hard to get.”

Despite some frustrations with how police have followed up on the incidents, Sarabia has now become a spokesperson for her community. She’s attended meetings with the Boulder police chief to discuss a path forward.

She’s also joined an ongoing master planning process for the police department.

Amidst some national calls for defunding police agencies, Sarabia is advocating for the opposite.

She feels more comfortable seeing police drive through her neighborhood.

A chart shows the most common kinds of emergency calls at the San Juan Del Centro apartments in Boulder. NOTE: Data for 2021 is ongoing and not based on a full year.
Courtesy Boulder Police Department
A chart shows the most common kinds of emergency calls at the San Juan Del Centro apartments in Boulder. NOTE: Data for 2021 is ongoing and not based on a full year.

“If the police were more aggressive, they wouldn’t be doing these things,” she says.

And she knows the officers by their first names.

The officer

Officer Raul Montano says he is able to connect more easily with San Juan del Centro residents because of his Mexican heritage.

“I feel like it’s easier for me to build rapport just going in there and speaking the language, speaking Spanish to them, and knowing where they came from and them knowing where I came from,” Montano says.

And that’s unique for the Boulder police, which had only seven percent of its officers identify as Hispanic last year.

In the short term, Montano’s goal is to build trust in the community.

He actually sees an increasing call volume this year as a sign of success.

“I believe that’s due to the trust people have in us now, and I believe they are calling more stuff in because they can trust us more,” he says.

But some residents do not see the rising call volume as a good thing. They want the trend reversed.

Montano wanted to become a police officer since he saw his relatives choose not to call police because of a fear it could lead to them being deported.

He says his family also questioned whether police would do anything about their complaints.

“I want to remove that stigma,” he says.

He has been assigned to a team that patrols the apartments since 2018. He says he visits the area almost every shift.

And his daily routine is somewhat different from other officers in Boulder. Montano says he finds time to play soccer with children at the apartment complex, and offers advice to parents.

“Whether it's legal questions or, you know, procedural questions about the criminal justice system, about what we do,” he says. “We try to provide support for families who need the support.”

But he says policing the San Juan del Centro apartments can be challenging at times.

“I’ve learned to be patient,” he says. “At first, when we were having a lot of issues, people were trying to push my buttons, calling me a race traitor. Because they think because we’re the same race and the same heritage, they’re going to get free passes.”

Montano is unsure how long his program will continue, and he acknowledges staffing limitations could soon take him away from his patrols at San Juan to join officers addressing issues in other parts of the city.

Community organizer Luz Galicia has been preparing for the possibility of a reduced police presence. Behind the scenes, she has been working to help residents be better ambassadors for themselves.

The housing organizer

When Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold finished touring the San Juan del Centro apartments earlier this year, Luz Galicia’s phone started ringing.

The housing organizer with 9 to 5 Colorado says residents in the complex have a history of not trusting the police. The top law enforcement officer’s presence in the community raised lots of questions.

Luz Galicia.
Scott Franz
Luz Galicia.

“Trust from the Hispanic community to the police, there is a big gap in between,” Galicia says. “There’s a misconception that I’m working very hard to try to change.”

Galicia reassured residents the visit was a good thing and the start of a stronger relationship with police.

“I think it creates a big step on trust,” she says.

Galicia has spent the last two years working directly with San Juan residents on a wide range of issues, from residents' economic security to securing facemasks to concerns that children are spending too much time on cell phones.

She also helped facilitate a new line of communication between San Juan residents, their property manager and the police.

“We have a responsibility as a community to work as a team,” she says. “Every single person in the community counts. Wake up. We’re here. We need leaders in the community to lead.”

Galicia helped the San Juan community create a leadership council, which she compares to a less formal homeowners’ association.

She said hundreds of people attended the early meetings, and security was their top concern. The complaints ranged from a lack of security cameras to alleged drug deals.

While large community meetings to talk about issues were interrupted by the pandemic, Galicia says new digital meetings have resumed to talk about solutions to the security issues.

“Chief Herold knows that there is a problem, but she doesn’t have magic,” Galicia says. “She has to work with us. This is a commitment that you, me, city councilors, chief of police, school districts and any other group of people who want to come together to provide a better life to San Juan del Centro, they’re welcome.”

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.
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