Summit County cops: Too many, too few – or just enough?
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SUMMIT COUNTY – The question of whether Summit County has too many police officers isn’t new, says Gary Lindstrom, a former sheriff’s deputy who also served several terms as a county commissioner.
“The common complaint is there are too many of them, looking for something to do,” Lindstrom said, adding that he took a personal interest in the issue during his time with local government. “At the same time, you’ll hear from law enforcement that the bad guys are starting to win.”
“I used to keep stats on this,” he said, adding that, during his time in county government, several reports issued by the U.S. Department of Justice showed that ratio of law enforcement officers to full-time residents was as high, or higher than, just about anywhere in the country.
But those stats don’t tell the whole story. Summit’s population swells to well above 100,000 people on busy holiday weekends. Lindstrom said the same federal reports suggested that number of law enforcement officers was just about right.
“We looked at ways of reducing police officers in the slow times,” Lindstrom said, explaining that Summit County officials scrutinized policing models from other communities, including Orlando, Fla., home of Disney World.
The goal was to maintain public safety while cutting costs. Lindstrom said some bigger jurisdictions have combined law enforcement agencies with good success, for example Miami and Dade County in Florida, which consolidated departments to form a metro police department that saved taxpayer dollars. In such a restructuring, the various departments become precincts, so there would no longer, in the case of Summit County, be any need for taxpayers to pay the salaries of four police chiefs, Lindstrom said.
More savings would come from having one centralized administration and support center and a centralized computer system, Lindstrom said. And a unified force might be able to provide better law enforcement coverage on unincorporated county territory by allowing any of the officers to respond to calls outside the towns, he added.
But residents of the towns can be skeptical of such consolidation.
“When I was a commissioner and this came up, people in Silverthorne would say, ‘When I call the cops, I want it to be the Silverthorne cops that show up,'” Lindstrom said.
For Breckenridge attorney and former town council member J.B. Katz, it’s a question of timing. In the slow season, there are so many extra police officers that it sometimes seems like they’re just looking for something to do, she said – acknowledging that, when it’s busy, local law enforcement agencies have their hands full.
“I sometimes feel like the priorities of the police don’t mesh with the priorities of the public. There’s this out-of-stepness in the shoulder seasons,” Katz said. “We locals ought to be able to feel like the brunt of the police force is not bearing down on us. What everybody would like is, they should be giving out warnings and developing relationships with locals.”
Although that’s what local chiefs say they’re doing anyway, Breckenridge Town Councilmember Jeffrey Bergeron had a similar take.
“I don’t think the problem is too many policemen. It’s getting them to be more community minded,” Bergeron said.
As a council member, Bergeron said he’s heard a few reports of what appeared to be legitimate heavy handedness, or acting punitively on the part of law enforcement officers. The solution is to work with police chiefs to make sure their officers understand what the priorities are, Bergeron said. That means, for example, focusing on drunk drivers, and not on writing tickets for people who roll through a stop sign when there’s nobody else around.
But Bergeron said he doesn’t have any serious gripes with local police, and that law enforcement officers have a battle on their hands during the busy ski season.
“Go on a ride-along sometime in mid-winter. It’s another world out there. There’s another element you’re not acquainted with when you go to bed at 9 p.m.,” Bergeron said, referring to the violence that plagues some of his town’s late-hour night spots
Bergeron said the town has made efforts to address the problem.
“When Ernie Blake was mayor, he and I went to all the big bars to try and find a voluntary way to stem the rising tide of bar violence,” he said, explaining that the level of aggression feels similar to what one might find in a big city.
The Colorado State Patrol had more troopers stationed in this area back in the 1980s than it does now, said Capt. Ron Prater, commander of Troop 6B, covering Summit and Clear Creek counties.
Prater said when he was a civilian, commuting in the Denver area, he used to count police cars. He said he shared the perception that there were too many officers, all just looking to write tickets and make money for their jurisdictions.
But after many years with the state patrol, he doesn’t see it that way anymore. Speaking only for his bailiwick – not for local towns – Prater said he could use more troopers for a number of reasons.
For one thing, he’s concerned about his officers working alone in dangerous situations. But most of all, Prater said he could make the highways safer for the public with more staff. He said he can statistically show a reduction in accident rates in areas the state patrol has targeted for enforcement, especially in the dangerous grades leading to and from the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel.
And with a focus on I-70, other areas don’t have enough coverage.
“Accident statistics are creeping up on other roads,” he said, including Highway 91 over Fremont Pass. “And we get calls all the time for more enforcement on Highway 9.”
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