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Carbondale: Searching for the right balance

Naomi Havlen

Carbondale’s finest are in a state of transition.It’s not a surprising place to be, given that Carbondale has nearly doubled in size over the last 15 years and has changed from a lily-white Western Slope town to a diverse community that’s one-third Latino. In addition to rapidly changing demographics, Carbondale is also surrounded by counties with vastly different ideas about police work.Oddly, however, the Town Council’s decision to re-evaluate its policing methods occurred this summer, in the wake of Carbondale’s favorite summer festival.

During Mountain Fair in July, police shut down a drum circle and fire dancers performing Saturday evening, inadvertently prompting a public outcry.”Why let the act begin and then barge in mid-song, if not to make a spectacle of it all?” asked Breccia and Dana Wilson in a letter to the editor of the Valley Journal. “Why punish the fair-goers who come from near and far and spend their hard-earned money at the fair?”To Carbondale Police Chief Gene Schilling, it wasn’t that simple. When the gathering went past 9 p.m., it violated the town noise ordinance. Neighbors complained to police, and the fire department was nervous about the fire dancing.”We asked them nicely to stop, and we were satisfied when they ended their performance,” Schilling said. “But when they started up again, we had to walk up to them and tell them to stop immediately.

“If we had let it go on, and someone caught on fire or another incident led to injury, people would be asking us why we didn’t shut it down. That’s the fine line we walk in deciding what to do and what not to do.”A fine line, indeed. Just how do police enforce the law fairly and equally in a town that has jumped in size from 3,000 in 1990 to some 5,700 today? Especially when some residents crave more police protection while others- many Latinos among them – consider the police a threat?Schilling feels caught in the middle of two different policing philosophies loosely characterized by liberal Pitkin County on one hand and conservative Garfield County on the other. When asked to describe the difference, Schilling treads carefully. He points to police uniforms as an example of how the distinction manifests itself.In Pitkin County, he noted, deputies regularly wear what he calls “soft uniforms” – blue jeans and polo shirts with Sheriff’s Office logos emblazoned on them. In Garfield County, deputies wear long-sleeved, button-down shirts more in keeping with a traditional police image. These might seem like mere style preferences, but ultimately they shape perceptions about police officers and set different tones.

“Some people prefer the soft uniforms, and feel that officers who wear them are more approachable than officers who wear traditional uniforms,” Schilling said. In Carbondale, police wear both traditional and soft uniforms. Carbondale cops are well-known for wearing tie-dyed shirts to Mountain Fair each July.”It’s a uniform that fits the event, and helps police fit into the crowd,” Schilling said. “It also lets people know that we aren’t taking ourselves so seriously, and I believe we get better cooperation most of the time when we’re wearing a uniform that’s in the spirit of the affair.”So it is ironic that complaints about Schilling’s department arose in reference to an event where police are known for “going with the flow.” Mayor Michael Hassig sympathizes with Schil-ling’s force.

“On one hand, police can be perceived as overly enthusiastic if they pull someone over for exceeding the speed limit, or rolling through a stop sign,” Hassig said. “But they’re just as likely to be criticized when people say ‘Why are people speeding down my street?’ With events in the park, participants want police to cut them a little slack, while neighbors come to the town and say ‘Why did things go later than you promised?'”These conflicts have sharpened because Carbondale is not the small, homogeneous town it used to be. The Latino population, for example, has gone from 7 percent during the 1990 census to 33 percent in 2000.”It’s an enormous rate of change,” Hassig said. “A lot of people have come to Carbondale with what I’ve termed a suburban set of expectations as to the role of town government and the level of services that they expect.”

When Hassig moved to Carbondale in 1991 the town didn’t offer round-the-clock police service. At nighttime, jurisdiction shifted to the Garfield County Sheriff’s Department. Schilling remembers when police could respond to an emergency at “the Harris residence,” for example, without needing an address.These days, many Carbondale residents want both a laid-back police department with a small-town feel, and a quick-response, professional force that provides high levels of security and protection. Is there such thing as both?A concept known as “community policing” may provide the answer. The goal of community policing is that police and the community don’t view each other with an “us versus them” mentality, but work together on more of an equal footing. The concept, at least, seems to match the police department’s written philosophy of “Providing the highest levels of public safety with fairness, consideration and cooperation with our community.”Said Schilling: “The community has to become involved and work with the police department, and police have to work with all facets of town government, like the community and businesses all in concert to solve problems.”

The town’s board of trustees gathered earlier this month to ask Schilling and Town Manager Tom Baker to look into the police department budget, and to consider creating a citizen board to review police training, policies and procedures regarding the use of force. Trustee Scott Chaplin urged the board to consider formally adopting the idea of community policing.”It’s kind of a new issue to me,” Chaplin said, “but in other parts of the country community policing has improved dialogue and trust between police and community.”Some sort of decision about the future of the Carbondale Police Department is on the horizon. It’s something the town government has been looking into for several months, Hassig said, although it might have been made more public by a “rather nasty Republican primary race for district attorney” and a couple of police-related incidents that occurred around Mountain Fair.”The police department is a big part of Carbondale’s budget – it’s 25 percent of the general fund, roughly, so we want to have time to really consider things,” Hassig said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily springing from all that many people complaining to us.”

Schilling said he’s not opposed to change, and that it’s the police department and the town’s job to find out how citizens want to be policed.”Community policing is not a one-way street, and I think we do a lot of that very well now,” he said. “My major goal is to get to where everyone feels happy and safe with the police department.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com


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