As health orders evolve, Aspen-area law enforcement prefers light touch

The Aspen Police and Pitkin County Sheriff's Office.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times file photo

In normal times, cops in Aspen and Pitkin County generally are not the types to push people around and enforce order with a heavy hand.

During abnormal times, like a global pandemic, when enforcement of public health orders becomes part of job, the same philosophy applies.

“This is not plainly, on the face of it, a police matter,” Aspen Assistant Chief Bill Linn said. “We are doing community policing in this situation like every other situation. We’re just not going to suddenly turn in to the strong arm of the law.”

Alex Burchetta, director of operations at the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, agreed, saying his agency’s philosophy of first engaging and educating the public hasn’t changed in the age of COVID-19.

“It’s like anything else, right?” he said. “We get tremendous success with compliance when we educate them about why (they’re being contacted by deputies).

“Often times people are confused. There are many moving parts to (the public health orders).”

Those long-standing policing philosophies, however, do not mean that local officers and deputies haven’t been urged by members of the public since the beginning of the epidemic to take stronger action against those perceived to be violating public health orders, which will change again Wednesday.

From the last week of April through the end of last week, Aspen police received 144 calls from people reporting perceived violations, according to department statistics. Sheriff’s Office numbers go back a month further — to the end of March through end of last week, when the department handled 76 calls for possible coronavirus-related code violations.

“They’re seeing everything,” Linn said of Aspen police officers. “Somebody passed by too close on the trail with no face mask. A lot of groups that are too large, usually including kids. People not social distancing.”

Most of those 144 APD calls, however, have not involved wanton belligerence, and are usually solved amicably, Linn said. Others involve situations that police are not going to wade into and make heavy-handed choices, he said.

Officers might encounter a situation, for example, where social distancing is not occurring in one of the city’s parks, Linn said.

“We know that’s technically a violation,” he said. “But can we, in good conscience, chase them out of there?

“We’re all in a situation where life is hard and we’re all limited with regulations. It’s too much (sometimes), so we don’t.”

Aspen Officer Kirk Wheatley agreed with his boss.

“I don’t think any law enforcement officer feels like this is a law enforcement situation to go out and enforce,” Wheatley said. “We just try to go out and educate.”

That is not to say that local law enforcement won’t uphold public order, Linn and Burchetta said.

Aspen police have made five arrests since the beginning of the epidemic for public health order violations.

One involved a man in mid-March near the base of Aspen Mountain spitting on railings and yelling at people that he had COVID-19; the same man was later forcefully arrested at Carl’s Pharmacy after spitting on an officer. Another man, fed up with virus-related “paranoia,” coughed in a woman’s face on a local trail in late March after she asked him to give her more space as they passed one another, according to the police report.

The other three were minor, alcohol-involved arrests — two were the same person — that would have been made whether the pandemic was occurring or not but also included breaking the health order, Linn said.

“We’re here to support the public health order,” Linn said. “(In any situation) we will weigh the public health interests, the context of the law and also the kind of community we are and the kind of police force we are.

“What we’re hoping for and what we are encouraging (the county Public Health Department) to do is make regulations as reasonable as possible to accomplish their goals.”

County deputies have been busy with similar, though fewer, face mask and social distancing complaints, Burchetta said. Early on, several people also called to report out-of-state license plates in connection with possible short-term rental violations. The agency continues to have problems with people violating the closure order at Penny Hot Springs on Highway 133 outside Carbondale, he said.

Deputies also repeatedly have been called to Mollie Gibson Park at the base of Smuggler Mountain, which is located in Pitkin County, about people not observing social-distancing rules and parking complaints, Burchetta said. The park frequently has been full of people as the days have grown warmer.

“It’s largely an education campaign,” he said.

Pitkin County deputies have not written one ticket for public health order violations, Burchetta said.

That hasn’t stopped the calls for heavier enforcement, however.

At Thursday’s Board of Health meeting, Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman wondered what good public health orders are if no one is going to enforce them.

“Enforcement is a huge issue,” he said. “We need law enforcement and others perhaps to do more to enforce these rules.”

Fellow Board of Health member Tom Kurt bemoaned the lack of mask-wearing by “20- and 30-year-olds” and announced that he wanted to report groups of said offenders regularly gathering at the John Denver Sanctuary.

“As a senior citizen, I’m offended about 20- and 30-year-olds not wearing masks,” Kent said.

Board of Health Chairwoman Markey Butler — who also serves as mayor of Snowmass Village — neatly summed up the issue of enforcement while objecting Thursday to proposed lodging rules she said punished her town.

“How are you gonna enforce daily (lodging caps)?” Butler asked. “Who’s gonna be out patrolling daily lodging?

“It’s not gonna be our police department.”

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said the county is in the midst of building a staff who will serve as compliance officers and offer guidance to various sectors, such as restaurants and lodging, on coronavirus-related rules as public health orders evolve.

On Wednesday, phase 2 of the county’s “Roadmap to Reopening” begins with lodging allowed to open at 50% capacity with a COVID-19 safety plan in place. Restaurants can open but indoor seating capacity should be limited by physical distancing requirements or 50% of facility capacity, whichever is more restrictive.

“Voluntary compliance and education is better,” Peacock said. “It’s really about all of us working together to prevent the spread of the virus.”

Still, fines and jail can be imposed in extreme cases, he said.

And while he noted that the county’s compliance officers will need the help of police and deputies to help enforce future health orders, it’s really up to the public to practice social distancing and hygiene, wear a mask in public where social distancing is not possible and isolate and get tested if COVID-19 symptoms become apparent, he said.

If a Pitkin County or Aspen resident or visitor with symptoms doesn’t have a primary physician who can order a COVID-19 test, they can call Aspen Valley Hospital at 970-279-4111 to get one. Tests are being paid through insurance, though if a resident or visitor cannot pay, the test will be free, Peacock said.

“We need the community to help us police this,” he said. “We need to hold each other accountable as a community, and we need to hold ourselves accountable.”

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