One constant in the annals of Aspen crime is the pull luxury goods for sale here in Fat City have on professional thieves.
Some prefer a simple smash-and-grab — like the three men who pried open a display case in the lobby of The Little Nell hotel in December 2018 and walked out with $400,000 in jewelry. Others choose less brazen techniques, like the crew of five who made off with $100,000 in jewelry after distracting a saleswoman, or the fur thief in 2016 who merely wadded up a $95,000 coat, stuffed it under his bulky clothing and walked out.
But whatever method they choose, one thing nearly all of them want to do once they’ve secured their ill-gotten gains is to get the heck out of Dodge ASAP. And because Aspen has only one exit in the winter and two in the summer, that instinct to flee, in theory, ought to get at least some of them identified after investigators simply check the camera on the Castle Creek Bridge.
If there was a camera on the Castle Creek Bridge, that is.
None of Aspen’s chokepoint exits are covered by cameras, in fact, and the Aspen Police Department has been historically hesitant to bring up installing them for fear of arousing privacy concerns among city residents.
Now, however, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office is taking the lead in trying to close that gaping hole in the investigation of crimes in the upper Roaring Fork Valley. As part of its 2022 budget, the agency is asking Pitkin County commissioners to approve $4,000 to buy two mobile license plate-reading cameras that can be placed at those chokepoints or at other locations throughout the county, said Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta.
“We want to make sure the data is being used appropriately because I think we are sensitive to privacy issues,” Burchetta said Thursday. “But the ability to have a leg up in solving crimes for our citizens makes this a no-brainer.”
Assistant Aspen Police Chief Bill Linn also said the license plate readers have the potential to solve some of the city’s major crimes like the ones that have gone unsolved in the past.
“I can think of a bunch of significant, high-profile crimes we’ve had over the years where a license plate reader would have been a game-changer,” he said.
The impetus for the license plate-reader proposal came up in discussions with technology vendors the sheriff’s office has been consulting in preparation to purchase and implement new equipment for deputies next year. That new technology will include body cameras for all deputies — which is newly required under state law — as well as in-vehicle cameras, mobile computers and an electronic ticketing system, Burchetta said.
License plate-reading cameras are not new. The Colorado Department of Transportation has installed them on highways and Interstate 70, and they are prominent in the Denver area as well, said Burchetta and Linn. Aspen’s parking enforcement vehicles have used license plate readers for years as well.
The cameras do not record images of drivers, Burchetta said. They only record a vehicle’s license plate, make, model and color, he said.
Because they are mobile, the sheriff’s office can position one on the west end of town at, say, Cemetery Lane or the Roundabout, and put the second one on the east end near Difficult Campground, for example. They can be placed on county roads as well, or they can be used as a traffic counter if local traffic data is needed, Burchetta said.
Mainly, though, they can provide a go-to resource for the investigation of crimes, he said.
“We view it as a huge, huge investigative tool,” Burchetta said. “They put us in a better position from an investigative standpoint.”
Linn said Aspen police have considered license plate readers numerous times over the years, but have not felt support for them from the community.
“It’s just been privacy concerns and people worrying about big brother,” he said.
Burchetta said the sheriff’s office is also concerned about privacy, which is why it is starting small with the mobile license plate readers. In addition, the agency is writing policies governing how the data will be used and shared.
“We’re not going to look at the movements of people throughout the county,” he said. “We want to be deliberate about the implementation of the technology.”
If the experiment works, the agency may move on to installing permanent license plate readers, which is much more expensive and likely would require participation from other area agencies, Burchetta said.
So far, Aspen police officials have had discussions with their counterparts at the sheriff’s office about the license plate readers and plan to reach out if the readers are placed in a spot to help them with a future investigation, Linn said.
“We expect to work with them on it, as it starts to grow out and see if it benefits us,” Linn said.
The latest major theft incident in Aspen occurred in June, when thieves cut a hole in the outside wall to the storeroom at Louis Vuitton in downtown Aspen, and stole $500,000 or so in merchandise. Surveillance video was able to record a man and a woman and two vehicles connected to the robbery, though no one has yet been arrested and the investigation remains on-going.
That theft, however, is the perfect example of a crime a license plate reader could easily and quickly have helped solve, said Aspen Police Det. Ritchie Zah.
Surveillance cameras are not designed to pick up a whole lot of detail, he said, especially at night when it can be difficult to pick out even the make and model, much less a license plate number. A license plate reader could have immediately identified the vehicles involved in the Louis Vuitton robbery and helped lead to the robbers, he said.
“It’s so helpful,” Zah said. “I’ve been a proponent for an LPR system for a long time.”
The system also could have helped identify the person or persons who sabotaged natural gas lines in the Aspen area between Christmas and New Year’s last year, causing thousands to go without heat for days, he said. The saboteurs almost certainly used vehicles to commit that crime — which cost Black Hills Energy $1.4 million — because of the distance between the three sabotaged areas and the fact that it was cold outside, Zah said.
“Aspen is such a transient community,” he said. “People rely on vehicles to get in and out of town. It’s one of the few ways to identify who it might be.”
Still, Zah said a license plate reader is not the end-all, be-all answer to solving crimes. He said he wants the community to feel comfortable with technology used by the police and encouraged a community conversation on the subject.
“I don’t want to scare people with big brother,” he said. “It’s just about trying to help out the community (and) give us a fighting chance to solve these cases.”