9-1-1: What’s your emergency (or non-emergency)?

Joel Stonington
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times Weekly
ALL | The Aspen Times

If Aspen cops had to round up the usual suspects, where would they turn? Where are the city’s “high crime” areas? And how does crime affect property values?Though Aspen police officers and Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies rarely deal with big-city crime, it does occur now and then. And law-enforcement officials do spend more time in certain areas of the city than others.A recently installed computer system breaks down the four square miles that Aspen police cover and the 1,000 square miles that Pitco deputies patrol into 22 beats each, making it easy to see where law-enforcement agencies respond.

The highest crime zone is, without doubt, Aspen’s downtown core. If Aspen was a larger city, the core would be its slum – at least crimewise. The period from July 30 to Oct. 24 saw 247 calls for service from the commercial core, in addition to 530 calls on Highway 82 as it passes through town. In fact, Aspen police officer Jeff Fain testified in a recent court hearing that the downtown core is “a location associated with criminal activity” and that core “restaurants and bars [are] locations of cocaine activity.”That may be an overstatement. This year, the Aspen Police Department has made only three arrests for cocaine-related activity. And since January 2003, the APD has made 54 cocaine-related arrests, the majority of which were for user activity.In the ‘hoodThe 24 disturbance calls and 29 theft calls in the downtown core from July 30 to Oct. 24 is a lot by Aspen standards, and real-estate agents say such situations can affect a property buyer’s decision to purchase. “As I call it, drunk and stupid,” said Aspen police Sgt. Brian Nichols, describing police work in the core at night. “We get more calls where there is a concentration of humanity … in town, at the bars, at Truscott or Harmony Place or Hunter Creek. When you get to those places, you get noise complaints up the wazoo.” Some of the concentrations of people that Nichols mentioned are also the town’s affordable housing enclaves.

Local real-estate brokers say that things like noise or proximity to affordable housing can have a significant effect on the sale of, say, a $15 million house. “A number of buyers coming into Aspen don’t want to be in the Smuggler area because it’s mixed use, with apartment buildings, condos, affordable housing,” said Tim Estin, a broker associate with Mason and Morse Real Estate. “Even if you say Smuggler is an area in transition, there are people who just don’t want anything to do with it. It doesn’t have the status of what they’re looking for in Aspen, because it’s associated with the employees and the affordable housing in town.”Though the Smuggler neighborhood has a trailer park, many of the trailers are valued at more than $1 million. To those unfamiliar with Aspen, the idea that an area with million-dollar homes could be less desirable or even least desirable is laughable. Further, the lack of interest can’t really have anything to do with crime, considering the Smuggler area saw no theft calls and no burglary calls from July 30 to Oct. 24. The calls reported included nine car accidents, 19 alarms, 44 bear calls, eight code violations and 15 noise complaintsAnd though nearly the same number of calls were received from the Shadow Mountain area at the base of Aspen Mountain, Estin said that area retains high status because of its proximity to the mountain and because it is undergoing redevelopment. Calls for helpFrom July 30 to Oct. 24, the Aspen Police Department and Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office received 2,655 calls for service, which breaks down to 31 per day for the APD and 23 per day for the sheriff’s office.

As with all statistics, the numbers are sometimes misleading. For example, the sheriff’s office only responds to certain alarms, such as carbon monoxide, but not to burglar alarms. Still, 137 alarm calls were recorded by dispatch, even though few led to actual responses.”We can’t provide a free service to an alarm company,” said patrol director Tom Grady. “Once a person tells us it’s a problem, then we go.”Aspen police, however, try to respond to every alarm call. From July 30 to Oct. 24, that added up to 218 responses, very few of which turned out to be anything more than a malfunction. (Acting Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor said the city has earned about $90,000 so far this year in alarm-permitting fees and another $30,000 in penalties from false alarms.) Other calls that often turn out to be nothing include 911 hang-ups; from July 30 to Oct. 24, there were 211 between the two agencies and officers responded to every single one. “Ninety-nine percent of the 911 calls are bogus,” Grady said. “We do our best to verify that those are not real 911 calls.”Bad boys, bad bearsstatistics from the law-enforcement records department prove that being a cop in Aspen or Pitkin County is far from the excitement of TV car chases. Oftentimes, it’s closer to being a public relations person.

The most calls for service from July 30 to Oct. 24 were bear calls: 341 for Aspen and 96 for the county. Officers dealt with more bears than they care to remember.”The bear calls have taken up … a lot of our time,” said Pryor. “Often, there’s just not a lot someone can do about a bear.”But when bears trash houses, police often clean up the mess. When a bear entered Judy Garrison’s Aspen home Oct. 17 and slashed her the face, officers cleaned up much of the mess.For Aspen cops, public relations is just part of the job. The same is true in the sheriff’s office, where patrol director Tom Grady estimated that two or three calls out of every 100 are for a real criminal event.Recently, the sheriff’s office responded to an elderly woman in Woody Creek with a flooded basement.”So we go,” Grady said. “That’s a very real call.”Grady said his officers called in firefighters, who pumped out the basement in about 10 minutes.

“Most of what we do is not cops and robbers,” Grady said. “There’s this image that the public gets, but they don’t really know.”But sometimes, Grady noted, the cops-and-robbers image is correct, such as during the unusual violence of 2001, with a suicide on the force, a plane crash that killed 18, a shooting death in Meredith, the drowning of a baby and numerous other incidents. Going homeTalk to an Aspen cop and you’ll find that a big part of their job is giving directions. Chatting with tourists and business owners – maintaining good community relations – can be just as important as making a traffic stop.”When people are here, they don’t expect a city experience,” said Estin. “The core is charming, quiet and low-crime, simply because it’s Aspen.”The same expectations hold true for locals, many of whom do not lock the doors to their apartments or cars and expect a certain amount of quiet. Sarah Laverty, a city employee who lives in Centennial in the Smuggler neighborhood, said she doesn’t lock anything and is happy living where she does. Ada Christensen, who also lives in Centennial, said she is occasionally annoyed by drunk people out late making noise.

“The walls are very thin,” she commented, but continued to say she enjoys living at Centennial. Christensen and Laverty like living in the affordable housing complex in part because of the vitality and the close proximity of neighbors. “To people who want to have neighbors, what makes up a neighborhood and what makes up a community really matters,” said Piper Foster, who lives in a row house at the Aspen Business Center. “I enjoy knowing that my neighbors notice if I’m in my parking space or comment on the light I installed.”Foster works for the Sopris Foundation, a nonprofit organization that recently commissioned a study on second-home ownership in the valley. Their conclusion was that 58 percent of residential units are second homes. “If you do a six-minute drive through the West End, it will be vacant,” Foster said. “If that pulse is missing, yes, there are lower crime rates but … there’s no vitality in that part of town.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is