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Basalt: Chief charts a community course

Basalt had a typical small-town Colorado police force at the turn of the century: Most of the officers were white guys in their 30s or 40s; the only contact many of them had with the public, outside of arrests, was ordering lunch; tactics like speed traps and undercover investigations of small-time drug dealers were embraced.What a difference four years can make.Keith Ikeda was hired as police chief 3 1/2 years ago and has reshaped the department, in philosophy if not entirely in appearance.

Five of out eight sworn officers are new to the department. Two of the officers hired by Ikeda are women, as is the community safety officer. Three of the officers are something other than Anglo. Ikeda is third-generation Japanese-American, Officer Joe Chavira is Latino and Officer Tony Ortiz is of Puerto Rican descent.Chavira, who worked for the department prior to Ikeda’s arrival, was the only officer outside of the white-guy mold in the late 1990s.Ikeda believes it’s important to have a staff that more closely reflects the diversity of the community. Probably 20 percent of town residents are Spanish-speaking and 51 percent or more are female, he estimated. A department that closely reflects the makeup of a town stands a better chance of melding with a community and gaining residents’ trust, he said.

When hiring new officers, he looks first for someone who would be a good fit – a good citizen who happens to have good police skills or instincts. It’s a philosophy he inherited while working at the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office for the late Dick Kienast from 1977 to 1984. Kienast’s force was known as “Dick Dove and the Deputies of Love” for his philosophy of interaction between the community and police force. Kienast recruited deputies from within the community rather than hiring cops from outside the area who may or may not share his approach.”He thought it was a lot easier to train a good citizen to be a good cop,” said Ikeda.Ikeda said when he interviews candidates for an opening, he tries to make sure they want to work in Basalt, not a police department in Anywhere, USA. He also insisted that his hiring isn’t an example of affirmative action, at least not intentionally.”We didn’t go out saying, ‘We need a Latino’ or ‘We need a woman,'” Ikeda said. The women who were hired, Penny Paxton and Brooke Bishop, were the best candidates at the time they applied, according to Ikeda.

Paxton has the credentials to be hired anywhere, the chief said. She was the first female officer employed by Basalt.Bishop was the department’s office manager when Ikeda joined. He encouraged her to apply for a job and attend the police academy because she had a four-year college degree in criminal justice and was born and raised in Basalt. “It was very easy to promote her,” Ikeda said.From the start, Ikeda insisted that his officers interact to a greater degree with residents. He wanted officers regularly mingling downtown on foot. He purchased mountain bicycles for them to ride around town. He wanted them mingling with crowds at events, not lurking on the sidelines keeping eyes peeled for illegal activity.

“Some of the officers weren’t a good fit for the direction the department was going in,” Ikeda said. But he credits those who didn’t like the direction for reacting professionally.”I was pleasantly surprised that there wasn’t that much turmoil during that transition,” Ikeda said. Instead of resisting change and trying to undermine it, the officers who didn’t want to go in the new direction took jobs with other departments or got out of police work. Their departures were mutually beneficial, Ikeda said.Three officers hired by former police Chief Jim Stryker stuck with the new administration. Chavira and School Resource Officer Dean Everding already had roles that dovetailed nicely with Ikeda’s philosophy of “community policing.” Chavira was the department’s important first link to Spanish-speaking residents, and Everding spent the majority of his time working with students.

Officer Mark Langford was hired shortly before the change of police chiefs and has embraced the change in philosophy, according to Ikeda.The chief believes the changes in the department reflect changes that have occurred in the town and in its government. Even before Ikeda took the helm, the council was steering the department away from setting up speed traps on Highway 82 and participating in TRIDENT, a regional drug enforcement task force that uses undercover tactics.The town government made huge strides in the late 1990s in enlisting citizen participation to point the direction the town was going, a concept Ikeda called “civic engagement.”It would be inaccurate to say the old department was unpopular with everyone. Some of the officers were well-known and well-liked in the town. But there were also complaints of heavy-handed treatment and at least one formal complaint from a youth about police harassment.

Ikeda said when he was first hired there were concerns raised about the department at nearly every Town Council meeting. He received the backing of Tom Baker, then town manager, and Rick Stevens, then mayor, to implement the changes he planned. Ikeda said it’s been about 18 months since there have been any “outcries” about issues the police department deals with.Councilman Glenn Rappaport said he appreciates Ikeda’s background in the upper-valley law enforcement style and its application in Basalt. The department seems to be making an extra effort to interact with the community, he said.Basalt Town Manager Bill Efting credited Ikeda with putting together a diversified police force and one that he said uses “a lot of common sense” in its approach to issues.

Ikeda said he believes an amicable solution is easily within grasp between Carbondale and its police force (see related story). “I would just have the department [in Carbondale] listen to the community,” Ikeda said. “Realistically, they do have community support, whether or not they realize it,”What it might boil down to, he said, is adjusting the department’s approach to match the expectations of the community.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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