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The State of the Police

Article by Ray James

Local Law Enforcement – May 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Start talking these days with people in this region about cops and chances are good you’ll hear a “Used to be…,” such as, “Used to be you never heard sirens here, now ya hear them all the time.” or “Used to be the cops would take you home if you were too drunk to drive.” or “Used to be you’d never see a cop car on the street, now you see them all the time.”

All of those assessments are correct. “Used to be” represents a time in Central Colorado that is quickly passing, never to return. A world that used to be kept almost completely on the other side of our mountain walls has taken up residence and doesn’t intend to move. Just as we’ve been unsuccessful at slowing growth and high real-estate prices, we’ve let modern law enforcement entrench itself in our lives.

Central Colorado’s law officers don’t hesitate to say that “big-city crime” isn’t here yet, at least in any significant numbers, but they are taking preventive measures to try to see it doesn’t. Chaffee County Sheriff Ron Bergmann’s school resource officer; Salida Police Sgt. Mike Bowers’ Community Watch program; and Buena Vista Police Chief Dennis Upton’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on teen-age alcohol consumption and vandalism, are only three examples of how rural law officers are battling the feared spread of crime.

The school resource officer, now designated as Rob Martellaro, a former Salida Police Officer and a Class 1 peace officer, was approved by the Salida School Board with some changes from the original proposal asked for by the school principals. Buena Vista schools superintendent, Dennis Geise, said his system will also participate in the program (no official school board action to approve the action was taken). He added that the Chaffee County High School, an alternative high school program, will also participate but to a lesser extent.

Some citizens challenge the need for drastic measures to prevent a problem most people, even police, seem to agree the region doesn’t have. Others question local law enforcement tactics.

“This place is becoming nothing less than a police state,” said Chris Byars, a nationally known sculptor and Salida resident. Byars says he thinks people are becoming afraid to go out on the streets at night, not because they fear criminal attack but police harassment. “They seem to follow me every time I’m out driving late,” the bearded artist said. Byars and others question the need for the number of police officers (17) in Salida (not counting sheriff’s deputies and others) and the number of police vehicles (10: seven patrol cars, two code enforcement trucks and the DARE car).

“Harry Cable used to patrol this town with a few officers,” Byars asserts, “and I for one don’t see what has changed so much that we need so many more cops. The population hasn’t doubled, why has the number of cops?”

As are others interviewed for this series, Bob Rush, a Salida lawyer and former deputy district attorney, is less vitriolic than Byars but not less critical. Rush recalls the Harry Cable era, which ended in the `70s, as one of relative peace in Salida and notes that the legendary Salida police chief, kept that peace with far fewer officers, cars and a much smaller budget.

“We are going to enforce the law,” says current Salida Police Chief Darwin Hibbs, “and make no apology for that. But I think we are only doing what most of the citizens want us to do.

“In terms of social issues,” Hibbs said, “people are assaultive as much or more than they’ve ever been. Our society is violent. The citizenry seems more inclined to carry weapons and to use them.” While the chief makes it clear that his department intends to be aggressive in combating any increase in crime, “crimes against persons are always going to be our top priority — rape, robbery, burglary — crimes where people are at risk.”

Hibbs says that the department has been forced to increase manpower due to an increasing number of calls, and to handle the basics of scheduling, and to prevent urban crime from moving to Salida.

As the boss of the only 24-hour, year-round, always-on-patrol law enforcement agency in Chaffee County, Hibbs must not only meet the demands of the community but also schedule his officers so they can get time for training and time off. He also has to follow procedures that make police duty is as safe as possible. At the same time Hibbs has to work within a budget that limits overtime and a schedule that makes granting compensatory time for extra hours difficult to arrange. Other departments face similar constraints.

Hibbs says that since Salida is different these days, the police force must be different. “Our population is transient and we’re going to be dealing with people we don’t know a lot more than in the past. For the people to have a lack of fear is the main consideration,” Hibbs said.

Fear is the issue for those critical of the police and for those who unquestioningly support law enforcement. Some parents of teen-agers in Salida, Buena Vista and other towns in the region insist that the police are paying too much attention to teens, attention that has strayed into harassment. That harassment conveys sexual overtones for some parents but is simply bullyism for others. Meanwhile some of the area’s older citizens applaud the police’s efforts to prevent vandalism, underage drinking and other criminal activity.

Some business owners and some older residents, particularly those new to small towns, want to see more police presence in the downtown area and they’re likely to get it. This summer the Salida Police department will continue its two-year-old policy of a two-man foot patrol on downtown streets from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Although Chief Hibbs says he sees it as a step backward into police procedures of the past, he cites its popularity with visitors, businesses and those adults nervous around large gatherings of teen-agers, as reason enough to continue the patrols.

“People can talk to them more when they’re on foot,” he said.

The patrols, along with business checks – checks on front and back doors of businesses to make sure they are secured – are just some of the tenets of community policing that Hibbs sees as growing in favor with Salidans and across the country.

“We want to be a part of the community,” he said. “We don’t want to be in an adversarial role.”

Wanted or not, an increasing number of people say they see the police as adversaries in the fight to maintain constitutional freedom. Ed Quillen recently reported being asked for identification as he walked away after a late evening visit to the after-hours book depository at the Salida Public Library. His reply — “You can see my ID, when I see your KGB identification,” might seem amusing as an anecdote, but contains far more ominous overtones.

Some of the people interviewed for this story asked that their names not be used because they fear reprisals from the law enforcement agencies involved. The testimonies include:

A lifetime Salida resident and a successful businessman who admits he doubted his daughter’s story of being followed and harassed about alcohol and drugs by a sheriff’s deputy. His doubt ended one day when, as the daughter drove along U.S. 50, accompanied by her mother, she pointed out the deputy, who made a U-turn and followed the car around town but did not stop her. All the other stops by the deputy of the young woman were when she was alone. None has resulted in arrest or citation. She insists she is not involved in any illegal activity.

An attractive young wife who says she has been stopped by the same officer several times and asked about the state of her relationship with her husband and been offered the private telephone number of the officer if “she ever needs anything.” None of the stops has resulted in arrest or citation. She, too, insists she is not involved in any illegal activity.

An attractive teen-ager who says she has been stopped by the same officer at least four times for failure to come to a complete stop at a stop sign or yield sign. She has been questioned at length. None has resulted in arrest or citation. She insists she is not involved in any illegal activity.

Teen-agers and even sub-teens have been detained by law enforcement officers, questioned and even taken to the police station or sheriff’s office for misdemeanor offenses (those which can only result in a citation not arrest) without the parents being notified first.

Individuals who have parked near bars or taverns are being followed when they leave the parking places, in some cases so closely that less than a car length separates the “suspect” vehicle from the law officer’s vehicle.

Teens and young adults have been detained after a traffic stop until one of three drug recognition experts in the county could arrive on scene to examine the “suspect.” Salida Assistant Police Chief Mike Sanchez defends the DREs as having a 90 percent accuracy rate.

A lifelong Salida resident watched from his store window as the truck of a rafter dude was ticketed for overtime parking while the illegally parked car of one of the city’s more prominent citizens was studiously ignored, twice, by the same officer.

A Salida resident who monitors a police-emergency band scanner said that on one recent Thursday evening ten Salida officers and one sheriff’s deputy were on patrol despite what seemed to be a quiet evening, and five of the Salida officers backed up the deputy on a domestic call on Salida’s outskirts, while the others seemed to be roaming the streets.

When asked about some of these incidents, Sanchez said that the officers in the department are “above reproach” and without specific details (names, dates, incidents) and a complete investigation he could only assume the officers were doing their jobs properly. He says that he knew of no reports of incidents of impropriety by Salida Police officers.

“We are enforcing laws that have been neglected in past,” Sanchez said (such as the parking and pet restrictions handled by code enforcement officers) “and we understand it’s harder for the public to accept because we haven’t done it in the past.”

Sheriff Bergmann says he has not received any complaints from citizens about harassment and quickly adds that if a citizen feels harassed he or she should come to the sheriff to report the incident or incidents.

“I will not tolerate that kind of behavior from our deputies if someone can show me it exists,” he said. He added that he also will not allow “profiling” by his men.

Profiling is the practice of stopping a vehicle for a specific set of characteristics, such as Hispanic driver with San Luis Valley license plates. Bergmann said he has had to warn and discipline a deputy on road patrol who appeared to be using profiles to make otherwise unjustified traffic stops.

Parents who say they have complained to Salida Police Chief Hibbs about harassment of their daughters or sons, say that harassment has stopped but that they hear from other parents of new victims. Both Hibbs and Sanchez say that officers are not harassing teen-agers based on profiles or any other criteria, but simply doing their jobs enforcing the law.

Assistant Chief Sanchez said that if people want to see fewer officers then they could stop calling the police with petty complaints handled more easily neighbor to neighbor, but, he added the biggest source of problems for the police is caused by the abuse of alcohol.

“If people would stop drinking and driving, stop abusive behavior and stop breaking the law, they could put us out of business,” Sanchez said, “but I just don’t see that happening.”

On his recent visit to Denver, Vice President Al Gore gave the credit for the recent drop in some crime rates to the Clinton Administration’s Crime Bill. While both local and national crime rates in some categories are down and while it’s true that the crime legislation has provided money that helped Salida and Buena Vista and other cities and towns in the region hire more officers, the “help” may prove to have drawbacks.

One of those drawbacks may be summed up with a paraphrased slogan, “Quote nationally, act locally.” At a recent civic club meeting, law enforcement officers were explaining new programs designed to reduce crime. A Salida-based lawyer, Ernest Márquez, known for his work as a criminal defense attorney, challenged the cops on their use of crime statistics. He told the officers and his fellow club members that, based on his experience, an attorney wasn’t able to make a living in Salida if he or she relied on criminal defense work.

“There simply isn’t that much crime,” Márquez remembers saying.

“They (the law officers) are using national statistics and painting Salida as being under siege, crime-wise, from the Front Range,” Márquez explained later. “For example there have been no gang-related cases here. None. If they’re saying (that the crime rate statistics) are the norm in Salida, that’s not true.”

One of the crime numbers sometimes used in the discussion of the need for community-oriented policing programs – such as the Community Watch program recently brought to Salida — is that one in four homes will be burglarized this year. While that may be true if all the burglaries nationally are divided into the total number of homes, 1995’s crime statistics for Chaffee County paint a different picture. There were 90 burglaries of homes and businesses reported last year. Even if we take what is likely a low estimate of 2,500 homes and businesses in the county, that’s far from 1-in-4, much more like 1-in-250.

Sheriff Bergmann says he has a stack of letters from citizens who have real worries about crime. In one example a citizen who asked to remain anonymous wrote:

Police Head in charge:

Being a new resident, hearing and witnessing and reading the drug alcohol problem, until I find out the support in the community, it will be difficult to resolve this problem.

An issue or incident that disturbed self was when I was enrolling my student for high school registration. As I was leaving the meeting and walking outside and around the school parking lot, I observed it was break time between classes and there were not properly dressed students in the parking lot, resembling want-be gangbangers passing a joint. Cigarettes do not always cover up the smell. There was no official to observe or take action.

Other wrong such as, minors in bars, minors buying cigarettes in vending machines, stealing cigarettes at fast food stores, adults buying liquor for minors, minors stealing liquor at stores, drug activities in public parks have probably been brought to your attention. It seems being a small community, people are too set in their ways to clean up their neighbors’ act.

There have been confirmed reports that carloads of gang members from Denver, have come down and gone up the four-mile trail to party and shoot off their weapons.

Personally, I nor the community should tolerate this atmosphere for our children to grow up in. Again, until I test the community support, if none, there may be moral vigilantism.”

Sheriff Bergmann says this and other letters and calls indicate that the community does have some real fear over gangs and other illegal activity which helps to validate the increase in law enforcement’s presence in the Valley. He also cites the increase in calls over the last few years. By March 7, 1993, the dispatcher had received 982 calls. On the same date in 1994, 1,001; in 1995, 1,243; and in 1996, 1,484.

While hardly a criminal misrepresentation, the use of national figures as justification for increased budgets and new programs seems deceptive.

Yet, compelled to participate in the scramble for dollars, law enforcement agencies in Central Colorado have no choice but to produce results. For example, if the federal Department of Transportation threatens to withhold highway money unless drunk-driving arrests in Colorado go up, Salida, Buena Vista, Leadville and the county sheriffs must do their part. Right?

Unfortunately, it’s possible that the need for money may be overriding the need for public support.

In some cases, the nationalizing of support for law enforcement has created national standards for police performance and behavior. While a police officer can honestly say that proper procedure and the city’s liability insurance prohibit ferrying a drunk driver home instead of arresting him or her, it can also be honestly said that the DUI arrest, with a subsequent trial and conviction, will do more for the agency’s stat sheet and the court’s balance sheet than the old-fashioned stern warning and ride home. The question remains which is in the best interest of the people that the law officer has sworn to serve and protect.

Convictions look better than does a “no report” incident. But which will be more help to the young man or woman straying for the first time?

It used to be that a cop told a young man “I’m not going to arrest you this time, but if I ever catch you on the wrong side of the line again, you’re going to think you’re in hell.” Now it’s likely that one mistake, one misstep, can assure teens and young people of a branded life.

What’s ironic is that those doing the branding may have benefited from being given a second chance once.

The intrusion of new ways — surely they’re better ways — continues in Central Colorado. The police have dogs, bulletproof vests, and hostage-release and heavy-weapons training. We have more police cars, more officers, and more laws.

So certainly the people who live here have more freedom and more safety, at least as long as they stay home and stay quiet.

Ray James has edited newspapers all over Central Colorado, and says that rumors of his departure are greatly exaggerated.

Next month, Colorado Central will examine how state certification requirements for peace officers put a heavy burden on rural counties.