Aspen police lineup changing
August 27, 2007
ASPEN ” The faces of the Aspen Police Department will look a lot different next year than they do now.
One-third of the force, which account for 133 years of experience, will have left the department by the end of the year. The APD already has hired six people who are either rookies or in a police academy to help in the transition.
With some officers retiring, some moving on to other career opportunities and some with classic Aspen issues such as housing problems, there’s no common thread to the reasons they’re leaving.
Those exiting are high in the command structure, such that many of the opening positions are for the more highly-trained.
The APD has 27 sworn officers, with a seven-person command of chief, two assistant chiefs and four sergeants. Already this year, one assistant chief and two sergeants have left, with another sergeant and one of two detectives leaving by the end of the year.
Sgt. Steve Smith has been working for the APD since the mid 1980s, and after 21 years as an officer, he decided to work at two businesses he and his wife bought this year.
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“I’ve been doing 80 hour weeks for the last six months,” Smith said. “I’ve been a police officer for 27 years. That’s more than half of my life. It’s been a good career and I’m ready for a change.”
He only had good things to say about the department and the people he has worked with during the last two decades.
Sgt. John Rushing said he feels torn about leaving, chiefly because other officers and members of the command structure were so flexible for him as he raised two children as a single father. Now that Rushing has married a mother of three, he said it’s difficult to imagine raising five kids in an affordable-housing apartment. So, he and his wife bought a house on the Front Range.
Smith and Rushing present typical stories for why people are leaving. Another example along those lines is the pending departure of Roderick O’Connor, who has worked on the APD for the last eight years. O’Connor, a Basalt resident, is leaving to become sergeant of operations with the Basalt Police Department, a spot vacated by Joe Chavira.
Though Smith, Rushing and O’Connor had good things to say about the APD, some officers question whether there are problems with leadership of the force.
However, it’s hard to know whether there is a leadership issue at the department because no one would speak publicly. The few who did speak, did so on condition of anonymity.
Police Chief Loren Ryerson rarely has spoken with the press since assigning Sgt. Bill Linn as the public information officer of the department. The chief has caught flak from the public in the last few years for a number of incidents that Linn has previously said led to an “adversarial” relationship with the media.
“I fully expect to learn something everyday,” Ryerson wrote in an e-mail response to questions about complaints or problems at the department.
“It’s just timing,” O’Connor said. “People are moving on for good reasons. It’s not like people are moving away for some reason, they’re all moving [toward] good things. This department is like a family. For me, it’s just moving forward in my career.”
One of the big challenges now facing the department, Ryerson said, is the six-month investment that every newly-minted police officer requires. That consists of three months at a police academy in Glenwood Springs, and three months in the Aspen Police Department’s field training and observation program, during which new officers are paired with experienced officers.
Former community safety officer and failed sheriff’s candidate Rick Magnuson completed police academy on Aug. 17. However, his training period with the police will be less difficult because he already knows the area well. With some new officers, everything is new.
“There’s a lot of experience going out the door and that will be one of the biggest challenges for the city,” Smith said on his last day.
A potential benefit from the exodus is the possibility that the APD will have reserve officers. Assistant Chief Richard Pryor said Smith originally came up with the idea to fill out the number of people on the ground when large numbers of people are in town, such as during the Winter X Games. Exiting officers Smith and detective Eric Ross both have expressed interest in becoming reserve officers to help out when needed.
Taxpayers pay roughly $2,500 to send a new officer to police academy, according to Pryor. And the city’s human resources department said a new officer starts at $45,000 a year.
The higher ranking patrol officers start at $50,000 a year, as do detectives, and have the ability to rise to just below $70,000 a year. An assistant chief starts at $70,000 a year and can top out at $100,000. The police chief starts at $85,000 and tops out at $118,000.
That pay is well above the national average, compared with numbers provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, which show the average American police chief tops out at $92,000 and the average policeman doesn’t make more than $51,000. Even with the higher pay, it’s no small feat finding people to fill the positions.
“We have been quite lucky in finding good candidates for hire and we have filled all of the current vacancies,” Ryerson wrote.
Both Town of Snowmass Village Police Chief Art Smythe and Basalt Chief Keith Ikeda agreed that housing can be a big problem for finding qualified people. Smythe said he tries hard to recruit from the community in large part because the housing question is already solved.
“We offer good money for the jobs,” said Mayor Mick Ireland. “People say, ‘Yeah, you’ll offer me $20 an hour but where am I going to live?”
Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org