Enforcing laws in Summit County: A community effort
and CAITLIN ROW
summit daily news
SUMMIT COUNTY – Local law enforcers face a changing set of challenges ranging from population fluctuations to partying vacationers and community needs.
“It’s not the same Summit County anymore,” said Summit County Sheriff John Minor, who’s served in local law enforcement since 1990. “We’re essentially becoming a suburb of Denver, whether we like it or not.”
He said the nature of local crimes is similar to those committed in the Denver-metro area – except for homicide, an offense records show hasn’t occurred in Summit County since 2000.
“A lot of people come up here just to have a good time,” Minor said. “Some get themselves into trouble.”
Silverthorne Police Chief Mark Hanschmidt said the area’s vacation vibe lends itself to many alcohol-related crimes, but that the tourism-based nature of the economy calls for a “lighter touch” in dealing with people.
“We try to be effective at what we’re doing – but also somewhat understanding,” he said. “There’s that balance that’s so important.”
Local police officers do try to be more friendly than those one may encounter in a large city.
“If you treat everyone like a criminal, they’ll act like a criminal,” said Silverthorne police officer Therese Barger.
Minor said the necessity of locking vehicles at homes has been a challenging message to emphasize to local residents. At nearby ski areas, hundreds of skis, snowboards and related items are stolen every year.
Domestic violence and disorderly conduct have been on the rise in Summit, as well.
“It may be a result of the economy, stress on family life,” Minor said.
For Breckenridge Police Department, disorderly conduct tickets have increased considerably, from 27 in 2008 to about 84 in the first three quarters of 2009.
Breckenridge Police Chief Rick Holman said efforts such as the Breckenridge Safe Bar Campaign – a program designed to target the troublemakers rather than the bars – are intended as a means for best serving the community.
“We’re trying to get the bar owners to trust us,” he said.
Holman said the issue is not so much one of over-serving, because people frequently drink at home before they hit the bars. And if bar owners “are doing their best to follow the laws” by having enough staff and cooperating, the police will work to help them avoid penalties.
With an average of 400-500 fight calls per year, Breckenridge police are aiming to deter troublemakers with fines of more than $400 for disorderly conduct as awareness of the campaign spreads.
“They’re the ones using poor judgment and causing all the problems,” he said. “Hopefully word will get out that you don’t want to be an idiot.”
Holman said sometimes problems may be solved through working with the community, and officers are trained to cultivate relationships with the people they serve, actively solve problems and, when necessary, use enforcement.
Breckenridge PD issues about three times as many warnings as tickets each year.
Hanschmidt said warnings and tickets becomes more frequent as visitors enter the county because people don’t know where they’re going and are paying attention to the scenery rather than speed limits – and they’re blowing through stop signs.
With regard to transportation issues, traffic enforcement is highly dependent on community feedback.
“I want traffic enforcement to be purposeful,” Holman said. “We want to be strategic about where we focus our attention.”
He said the level of enforcement to be used is probably “one of the toughest parts of this job.”
“If you don’t ever see cops in an area, you’re going to speed,” he said.
Parking enforcement by far generates the most tickets in Breckenridge, with about 8,000 tickets written this year, Holman said.
Minor said Sheriff’s deputies aim to curb crime by creating a “neighborhood presence.” Keystone Ski Resort’s employee housing, for example, has had considerably less crime since a deputy began living there.
The Sheriff’s Office citizen advisory committee of more than 20 members meets monthly with Minor to discuss recent incidents and issues affecting the community.
Committee member Tom Zebarth said last year’s fatal boating accident on Dillon Reservoir and the case of the man who died near the ice arena in Breckenridge are among incidents Minor has addressed at the meetings. Zebarth said the strategies are explained and the committee gives feedback.
He said there seems to be an impact of deputies knowing the committee will be asking “hard questions after the fact,” and that it likely “has caused them to second-guess themselves before they do things.”
Alan Wickert, who also serves on the committee, said Minor sometimes has committee members sit on selection boards when analyzing candidates for “internal selection or major promotion.”
“We don’t make the decision, but we tell them what we think,” Wickert said.
In performing their duties, deputies also save about one life per year.
“So that’s the rewarding side,” Minor said. “The frustrating side is we never have the resources to do what we want to do.”
The Sheriff’s Office has several entities under its umbrella including the animal shelter, rescue groups, courthouse security, special operations and the jail.
The office has just less than 80 employees (56 sworn deputies) and about 100 volunteers.
“The demands are growing more complex,” Minor said. “Our response times are abysmal.”
He said that with only one U.S. Forest Service officer for Summit and Eagle counties, patrolling all of Summit’s forests can be a challenge.
And once Front Range communities begin to recover from the national economic recession, more pressure will be placed on the Sheriff’s Office.
“We’ll see an exodus here in the next couple years,” Minor said,
The cost of living in Summit can make it tough to retain qualified people, and Front Range communities can also offer more benefits and opportunities.
“It’s the most frustrating and rewarding job I’ve ever had,” Minor said.
Dillon Police Chief Joe Wray said the trafficking of drugs and illegal immigrants are major problems affecting local communities.
“Officers have been attacked,” he said. “Someone was bitten. Officers get attacked and have to defend themselves at a moment’s notice.”
Minor said one or two sheriff’s deputies are assaulted every year.
He said he strives to be open with the community and welcomes residents’ phone calls.
“If you want to know about us, come do a ride-along,” Minor said. “Come on out, and you can see the madness firsthand.”
The SCSO may be contacted at (970) 453-2232.
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