FitzSimons, appointed Summit County sheriff in May, hopes to extend tenure
October 10, 2016
Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons is an early riser. He wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. to a strong cup of black coffee and reads emails before working out. Although he's a long way away from the bullet-ridden streets of Los Angeles, where he first earned his stripes as a patrol officer and then detective, he still says that starting the day physically and mentally sharp means survival.
"I can't even count on two hands and two feet the number of times my life has been threatened," he said, with a large Smith & Wesson .45 holstered next to his sheriff's star.
FitzSimons, who joined the Summit County Sheriff's Office 12 years ago, was unanimously appointed sheriff by county commissioners in May. He succeeded former Sheriff John Minor who stepped down to head up the Silverthorne Police Department.
FitzSimons joined the LAPD at 26 on the advice of a family friend, who tipped him off that the department was about to conduct a mass hiring. He drew a tough beat working a low-income neighborhood, but he was paired with a black officer who had grown up in the projects and helped him adjust to the new setting.
““I took the ‘deep breath’ approach,” FitzSimons said. “I absorbed my surroundings and tried to see how my years of experience in LA could be applied over here. It takes a certain finesse to respond to calls in this area because you take calls from people you run into at the grocery store.”Jaime FitzSimonsSheriff
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"He helped me understand inner-city life, and we kind of played off each other," FitzSimons recalled. "He also helped me navigate the barriers a white officer faced in some areas."
He worked his way up the department and eventually rose to detective, investigating homicides and drug cases. His focus, he said, was always on trying to bring communities together, whether that meant playing football with the neighborhood kids or nabbing murder suspects.
"It was an extremely violent time in LA," he recalled. "If you really want to truly impact a family, go arrest someone who killed their family member."
While he was in LA, FitzSimons met director and writer David Ayer, known for his gritty police dramas like "Training Day" and "Sabotage."
"It started out as a just a conversation—like, 'Hey can you take a look at the script and make sure it's realistic?'"
That was the start of his part-time gig as a Hollywood consultant, checking scripts for accuracy and even working on set to nail down on all the fine details. In 2009, Ayer used FitzSimons' stories from the streets to write "End of Watch," a thriller about young LA cops that run afoul of a powerful drug cartel.
"It was pretty fascinating—being on set," recalled FitzSimons. "There's about 200 people there all doing different stuff and it's pretty amazing that someone keeps all those parts moving."
He's racked up a long Hollywood resume, and his office is lined with framed posters from movies he's worked on. Dystopian super villain movie "Suicide Squad" was the latest addition, and he's currently advising on "Bright," a supernatural cop thriller starring Will Smith.
FitzSimons' time in LA had a dark spot, one beyond the crack dens and gang shootings he confronted in the line of duty. In 1998, he was engaged in an extra-marital affair with a fellow officer, who committed suicide after FitzSimons ended it, according to 2002 court documents. The woman's widow sued him, but the case was dismissed. FitzSimons said both the police department and courts exonerated him, adding that the tragedy was a lesson in humility and empathy.
A "deep breath" of mountain air
Eventually, spending his days busting up drug rings and hunting down killers brought an edge into FitzSimons' home life, where he had all the windows and doors rigged with alarms and guns hidden—just in case.
"We asked ourselves, is this really the environment we want to raise our kids in?" he recalled.
In 2004, he moved his wife and kids to the High Country and took a job with dispatch before becoming a Summit County Sheriff's deputy and climbing the ranks.
It was a big change, to say the least.
"I took the 'deep breath' approach," FitzSimons said. "I absorbed my surroundings and tried to see how my years of experience in LA could be applied over here. It takes a certain finesse to respond to calls in this area because you take calls from people you run into at the grocery store."
FitzSimons said his years in LA hardened him, making him ready to take on any situation. He gets a sharp gleam in his eyes when talking about "critical scenarios," or potentially dangerous situations. He's a common fixture at the scenes of wildfires, buzzing around amid the smattering of agencies—fire, police, Forest Service — there to get the blaze under control.
"I love being there because I have the pulse on the community and the situation," he said.
It's an approach he takes to other public issues, namely mental health and substance abuse: talking to all the key players and building relationships between different groups.
"I've had a seat at the table but now, being, sheriff, that changes the power of my position," he said. "It brings another level of influence. Now, I'm a leader and have the ability to direct people. I'm able to drive the bus."
"I think some of our biggest challenges right now are the mental health issue, substance abuse and suicide in the community," he said. "Patrol responds to these things every day. Almost every call has to do with one of those three."
FitzSimons said he's providing all of his deputies with crisis intervention training, a 40-hour class that includes working with crisis actors who mix up their behavior based on how trainees respond to a particular scenario.
His goal is to get to zero retention of people in jail with non-criminal mental health problems who often end up in a protective custody because of lack of psychiatric or detox facilities.
It's all kept him very busy, leaving less time for his hobbies, like mountain biking and hiking. In his office sits a bike he's been working on sporadically, but it has fallen out of use since FitzSimons moved it into his new office.
"It's sort of become a decorative art piece."