NEDERLAND, Colo. — Small towns have their own way of doing things. Between the conservation-minded community and yearly Frozen Dead Guy festival, Nederland is more unique than most mountain communities.
“Nederland has always been really special,” said local businessowner Claudia Schauffler. “Some people don't like to be called quirky, but I totally embrace it.”
Small towns usually mean small police departments, but to call Nederland’s police department small would be generous.
The town is supposed to have about six police officer to be considered fully staffed. That hasn’t been the case for years, though. Marshal Jennifer Fine-Loven is now the only full-time officer on staff.
Last month, J.P. Niehaus resigned from the department after serving his hometown as a police officer for nearly two years. He has a background in nonprofit work and had worked as a police officer for other agencies in the past when he decided to sign on with his hometown’s department.
“I loved being a cop up there,” Niehaus said. “I was drawn to my hometown because I knew it very well, because I knew that it was somewhere I could grow.”
Niehaus knew signing up with a smaller police department would mean lower pay and a lack of benefits. What he didn’t know was that none of the police cruisers had computers in them, so everything would need to be done over the radio, or that there are times when the cars won’t start or the sirens don’t work.
He also didn’t know that it would eventually mean working 14-hour rotating shifts when his colleague left. By that time, the staff was down to Niehaus and Fine-Loven.
“It was just one cop alone, and that gets to be very dangerous,” he said. “It got to the point where it wasn't sustainable for me anymore.”
The low employment rate wasn’t for a lack of trying. The town’s acting mayor says they tried doubling the hourly rate but couldn’t get anyone to accept the position.
Low pay and a lack of resources are major factors, however. Nederland police officers are only paid about $50,000 a year as new recruits.
To make things work, Niehaus lived an hour away from town because he couldn't afford to live in Boulder County.
“For us to sacrifice our physical and mental health to work extra days, to work extra shifts, and it got to the point where, you know, I had to say enough was enough,” Niehaus said. “There's a tremendous amount of guilt, I think, that comes with leaving my hometown. But at some point, you go, "I can't choose my hometown over my family and my own safety."”
Now, with only Fine-Loven left full time, Nederland needs to make a difficult decision about the future of its police department.
The town board of trustees is debating between three options. The first is to pay the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office to extend its contract with the town and cover the gaps in shifts.
The town already relies on Boulder County to fill the overnight shift and cover the weekends. However, the deputies get paid double-time for working in Nederland, which is expensive for the town.
“We've had our costs go from $580,000 in 2018 to, we will clock $1.2 million this year. We're looking at least $1.5 million next year, and our whole budget is $4 million,” Mayor Pro Tem Tom Mahowald said.
The second solution is to put a question on the November ballot and ask voters to raise more funds so that the department can attract new talent with better pay and update their equipment. However, that would require the town’s voters to sign on to some sort of a tax increase at a time when inflation is high and the economy could be headed toward a recession.
The third option is to dissolve the town’s police department altogether and let the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office take over, which would be cheaper since they aren’t supplementing services so there wouldn’t be double-pay.
“A county solution if we, if the committee, is up for it is closer to $500,000 to $700,000 with services we don't have right now — animal control, detective, school officers, things like that. So from a dollars and cents perspective, I think even the chief agreed long term, that's probably what we're looking at,” Mahowald said.
However even that would take time to implement, and Nederland residents aren’t happy with the idea of allowing Boulder County to take over.
“We lose community policing altogether, first and foremost. But I very seriously doubt, having been in management, the Boulder County police is ready to just jump in and take over up here. I mean, why would they be? They, that's not their job to anticipate our needs,” said Schauffler.
Schauffler owns The Shop, a clothing store located right next to the police department in a strip mall in the town. She like the current police chief and thinks Fine-Loven’s loss would be detrimental to the community. She also doesn’t think any of the proposed solutions include short-term, immediate solutions to the town’s problems.
“This isn't a personnel issue. This is a crisis,” Schauffler said. “I mean, we're losing faith in how our town is handling this.”
She wants more transparency from the board, and she doesn’t understand why the town took so long to address this when the department has been understaffed for years.
“The community doesn't have a sense of what's going on. That's what's concerning me is there's not transparency,” Schauffler said.
Mahowald insists that the town is seriously searching for solutions, but says Nederland is not the only rural community in Colorado facing staffing challenges with their police departments. The board of trustees is meeting Thursday night to discuss next steps.
As for Niehaus, he’s looking for work back in the nonprofit sector and says he hopes Nederland can find both a short and long-term solution to the town’s policing challenges. He’s hoping the town, county or even state lawmakers will step up with funding help for rural areas.
“If you want to have good public institutions, you have to invest in them,” Niehaus said.
He hopes that if a ballot question is raised in November, residents will vote yes for the sake of community safety. For now, though, he’s trying to raise awareness about the dire needs of areas like Nederland and the lack of policing resources.