Englewood chief led with eye toward 'community policing' — an exit interview

John Collins departs after decades in service to city

Englewood Police Chief John Collins
Englewood Police Chief John Collins
Photo courtesy City of Englewood

Englewood Police Chief John Collins spent nearly all of his 45-year career in law enforcement in the city — and even when he left for another job, he couldn't stay away for long.

“I decided to leave and went to the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office” in 1988, said Collins, who promptly returned in January 1990 after working as an investigator for the DA's office. “Nothing against attorneys, but I was surrounded by them. And I really, truly missed being a cop, and so I reached back out to the city, and I was fortunate enough to be brought back.”

Collins, who spoke at length to Colorado Community Media, will close the door on his decades of service at the Englewood Police Department on Aug. 20, when Sam Watson, the department's deputy chief, takes over Collins' position.

Collins leaves behind a career that began in Yuma, Arizona, in 1976, after Collins — who grew up in New York City — moved to the Southwest with his wife and high-school sweetheart, Marion. But it wasn't long before Collins was looking for a change of scenery.

“We had traveled through Denver on our honeymoon, and once we got to Yuma, we realized how hot it was,” Collins laughed. “So we said, you know, we fell in love with the Denver area, so I sent a bunch of applications out, and lo and behold, this is where I landed.”

Collins applied to several police departments in Colorado, and when Englewood responded, he and his wife hopped in their car and traveled to metro Denver. He joined Englewood's police force in 1978.

Collins rose up the ladder in Englewood, moving up to the position of sergeant in 1996. He “was put on loan” to the South Metro Drug Task Force for about four years, he said. The task force, which was later dissolved, also included investigators from the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, Littleton, Greenwood Village, Sheridan and Parker, Collins said.

After it disbanded, Englewood police continued to work with other agencies, such as the Arapahoe County Narcotics Team, Collins said.

In 2001, Collins also attended the FBI National Academy, a 12-week leadership development course that is “held in pretty high regard for folks in law enforcement,” Collins said.

In the early 2000s, Collins was promoted to lieutenant in Englewood and then to commander a couple years later, landing an appointment to deputy chief under former Chief Tom Vandermee around 2007, Collins said. Collins was appointed chief in 2011.

'Philosophical change' in policing

Along the way, Collins said he became guided by a passion for “community policing,” a concept that came to prominence in the 1990s. Collins started what's called the Impact Team at the Englewood Police Department around 1996.

“Back in the day, the police department would decide if they solved your problem or not, but the biggest thing for the community is that we engage them in helping to solve the problem,” Collins said. “That brought us outside of the silo and into the community, where we would sit down with them, and they'd be part of the solution.”

A police department could say it solved the problem by arresting a certain number of people, but “that's really not the case,” Collins said.

“You may not have gotten to the root of the problem. You need to have that philosophical change of direction,” and Englewood police started to do that, Collins continued.

The best example of the Impact Team's method of solving problems may have been its policing of a house involved with drugs about five years ago, Collins said.

Stolen cars were showing up amid a lot of drug activity, and “the neighborhood knew it,” Collins said. A stolen car left one night and drove into a home, he added.

So the Impact Team — a “hand-selected” group of officers who go through rigorous testing — engaged the local fire department, Englewood code enforcement and the city's Building Division to address the problem, Collins said.

The different city offices all had something to offer to the situation, such as the fire marshal condemning the house, Collins said.

“And every year from that neighborhood, we get a thank-you card, which is special,” Collins said.

The Impact Team's influence goes beyond making arrests: If a couple neighbors can't get along, the team can also help to mediate the issue, Collins said.

Different approaches

Another effort that started under Collins is the police department's “co-responder” program, a collaboration with AllHealth Network, a behavioral-health service provider that has locations in Littleton and other south metro areas.

The co-responder program pairs Englewood police officers with personnel from AllHealth who are trained in responding to mental health crises or challenges. The idea came to Collins after spotting a story about a small town in Massachusetts starting such a program.

Collins' conversations with the local faith community — whose members play a large role in efforts to address homelessness in the Englewood-Littleton area — gave Englewood police the impetus to create the co-responder program, Collins said.

“(Englewood police Sgt.) Reid McGrath, who I'm very proud of, he helped organized this co-responder program to where I think it's one of the best in the state,” Collins added.

In June 2018, Englewood police added a mental health co-responder to the department. The program started off with a small number of hours per week, but now, it boasts two co-responders that each work 40 hours a week, along with a case manager who follows up on many cases, Collins said.

“It's a great complement to the community because we're able to provide that mental health service now and, in many cases, at no cost. I'm proud of that, but I'm proud of the folks that drove that,” Collins said.

The co-responder program is a key element of the police department's approach to people experiencing homelessness, who often are dealing with substance abuse or mental illness.

And the co-responder program is not just for people experiencing homelessness — it's for anybody who experiences a mental health crisis in the community, Collins said.

Collins thinks that ultimately, the solution to a lot of the problems surrounding homelessness is housing itself.

“Until the municipalities and the largest cities and communities in this state really commit to that, I don't think we'll really be truly successful in dealing with that,” Collins said.

He added: “I think we realized back in the day that this wasn't going to be dealt with in a couple of years, and the police aren't going to arrest their way out of this.”

Facing rising crime

Collins also led the department through nearly the first year and a half of the coronavirus pandemic, a time when concerns about crime have risen.

“I think anyone who reads the papers or watches the news at night (knows) crime across the country took off pretty badly in the pandemic, and it has not slowed down,” Collins said.

The biggest trend in crime that Englewood is dealing with is auto theft, Collins said. Pushing crime rates back down will take collaboration with the community, he said.

“That's where that community policing comes back full circle again. I don't think any police department without engaging the community as best they can is going to be successful in solving the crime issue,” Collins said.

The chief said that Englewood Police Department already had some strong tools in its belt, including the Impact Team.

“We didn't have to change much (during the pandemic) because we were doing a pretty decent job” with responding to crime in general, Collins said.

Grateful to city

One more highlight Collins is proud of when he looks back: his wife.

“Anybody who can survive someone for 45 years in the throes of law enforcement, I have to give her a lot of credit. It's tough,” Collins said. “That's what wives and significant others go through — the late nights, the crazy hours and just the violence you deal with at times.”

He wants to say to the Englewood community: “Thank you for having me, and I really mean that.

“When I left the DA's office back in '90, when I came back, people asked me why I came back here,” Collins said. He added: “The city and the community treated me very well. I was committed. There was no other choice for me … At the end of the day, you wish you could have done more as well, but I think I left us in a good place.”

John Collins, Englewood Colorado, police, chief, step down, Ellis Arnold


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