Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott has spent his career in law enforcement, but he could add “unofficial fireman” to his resume.
Knott walked into a firestorm when Basalt hired him as interim police chief in January 2013. The department found itself under scrutiny the prior fall when details emerged about internal fighting between former Chief Roderick O’Connor and some of his officers, which led to O’Connor’s departure. A fair-sized and vocal contingent of the community was upset with the Town Council for letting O’Connor go and with the performance of some remaining officers. Low pay and limited training opportunities contributed to instability and turnover among the ranks.
Knott was well aware of those challenges as a police sergeant just down the road in Carbondale. He applied for the interim post anyway and made it clear he wanted the permanent position. Knott had spent nearly 20 years with the Carbondale Police Department and saw Basalt’s opening as an opportunity to become chief.
Knott doused the flames from the start. He provided a stabilizing influence by being in the office every day and establishing an open-door policy with both officers and residents. He is careful to avoid making any comparisons between himself and O’Connor or other preceding police chiefs at Basalt. He’s focused on what’s next for the department.
“Putting behind the past was an important thing that needed to be done,” Knott said.
Town Manager Mike Scanlon and a citizens’ selection committee favored Knott for the permanent position. The Town Council endorsed the recommendation, and Knott was sworn in nearly one year ago, on May 31.
Scanlon said that author Jim Collins wrote in his book “Good to Great” that successful organizations get the right people on the bus and in the right seat.
“Greg was the right person,” Scanlon said. “We hit a home run when we got him. I just hope we in Town Hall can live up to the standards he sets for himself and his officers.”
Once in the permanent position, Knott confronted one of the top perception problems facing the department rather than shying away from it. Some officers within the department had gained a reputation for allegedly staking out bars and restaurants for potential DUI targets. Some business owners felt that drove customers away.
Poor relations bottomed out in summer 2009 when there was a confrontation between Basalt police officers and patrons of a downtown bar. The perspectives of the officers and patrons differed over the cause of the confrontation. The Eagle County District Attorney’s Office filed charges against two men, but they were later dropped. One of the men filed a complaint about the department, but an internal investigation cleared the officers of wrongdoing. One of the men filed a civil lawsuit against the town of Basalt for false arrest. It was settled out of court in March 2011, and the terms were never made public.
Even though the incident was 3½ years old when Knott became interim chief, it still dictated the mood between the department and some town residents.
Knott said he quickly became aware of the “lack of relations” — as he delicately put it — between liquor-license holders and the Police Department. He changed some policies to try to ease those relations. Officers are available, when time permits, to offer a ride home for bar patrons who feel they drank too much. In addition, officers try to avoid traffic stops right in front of establishments. Officers are encouraged to be available as a resource to help bars and restaurants and to solve any problems that arise, according to Knott.
He said it would take time for the department to build trust.
“I still get some of that,” he said, referring to the suspicions leveled at the department. The perception will change, he said, through the consistent approach of the department’s new policies.
Knott recently sent a survey to operators of bars and restaurants to ask about the issues they are facing and how the department can better serve them. He is just starting to get replies but hasn’t received enough to make any conclusions yet.
Kelley Burke is among Basalt residents who have voiced concerns about some Police Department issues in the past. She was upset over the town’s parting of ways with O’Connor and was critical of some officers’ tendency to hover around bars and restaurants. Nobody wants drunken drivers on the streets, she said, but it got to the point where people didn’t want to go out for a cocktail and appetizer after work for fear they would be targeted for a traffic stop by Basalt police.
“It scared away so many people from Aspen” who used to dine in Basalt, Burke said. “It really made a dent in the restaurant businesses.”
Scanlon enlisted Burke on the police chief selection committee last year because she had been vocal with her concerns. Burke said Knott stood out from a field of more than 60 candidates. While some other candidates had impressive resumes with lots of big-city experience, Knott appeared to be a better fit.
“After what we went through, I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. We need him,’” Burke said. “He gets the small community idea.”
A year later, she stands by the committee’s recommendation. Burke now serves on a citizens’ advisory panel that meets quarterly with Knott to provide feedback from the community and to offer advice on ideas he bounces off them.
Burke said tension has eased between bar owners and the Police Department. Knott realizes that community events such as street parties and festivals in the parks are important to the town, and he’s helping to seek ways to make them fun but also safe, she said.
Burke also credited Knott for bringing in some “fresh faces.” The new police officers have introduced themselves and blended well with the community, she said.
Everything she has seen so far, she said, is “positive.”
Scanlon said he was impressed that Knott “hung in there” despite getting run through the paces as interim police chief with no guarantee he would win the full-time position.
Knott was asked while he was interim chief to study the Basalt Police Department’s staffing level and pay. He concluded that the staffing level was inadequate with eight officers, one code enforcement officer and one administrative staff member for a town of 3,800. There was an officer-safety issue because there was often only one cop on duty. Basalt’s odd geographic issues also make it difficult for a small force to cover the town, he said. Willits Town Center and downtown Basalt are about three miles apart.
Knott’s study also found in spring 2013 that officers felt they were the lowest-paid law enforcement agency in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The town administration responded to his report by hiring an outside party to make an analysis of the Basalt Police Department’s wages compared to similar mountain-resort departments. The study confirmed that Basalt cops were underpaid compared with similar agencies. The public-safety budget for wages was increased by $58,629. That is critical for attracting and retaining employees, Knott said.
The town also acted on Knott’s finding that the department was understaffed.
“We had eight officers. We were granted the authority to add two more,” Knott said.
There are now nine police officers available for patrol, covering 24 hours per day. Prior staffing left no patrol officer on duty between 3 and 7 a.m.
Knott said he is pleased with the direction the department is headed. He credits the team rather than himself. A big difference, he said, is “giving them the freedom to go out there and do their jobs.”
He believes that one recent incident shows the community appreciates the officers. Basalt experienced a rash of entries into and thefts from unlocked vehicles. Knott directed his officers to knock on doors in the affected neighborhoods and warn people to lock their vehicle doors. Several officers were apprehensive because they felt they wouldn’t be welcomed, according to Knott. Instead, they were greeted warmly and sometimes invited into homes for a cup of coffee, he said.
“I just herd (the department),” Knott said. “They get all the credit. They’re the ones that went through a difficult time.”
“Putting behind the past was an important thing that needed to be done.
Basalt Police Chief