Chief Ikeda hangs up his badge on Saturday

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

BASALT – Starting Sunday, Keith Ikeda won’t leap out of bed at 3 a.m. to turn on his police radio or scramble to his patrol car when he hears sirens. After 30 years as a lawman – most recently as Basalt police chief – he’s turning in his badge.

Ikeda is retiring Saturday, Sept. 11. He didn’t intend any special significance by picking that date. It’s the end of a pay period.

Basalt Sgt. Roderick O’Connor was selected as his successor.

Stepping down will be a bit bittersweet, Ikeda said, because he enjoys working as a cop and feels like he has a lot of support in Basalt, both inside and outside the department.

Nevertheless, “it’s just the right time now,” he said. “It’s time for a break. Time for a change.

“Every time I hear a siren or a phone rings in the middle of the night, I worry,” he said.

That’s added up to a lot of worrying over the years for the 55-year-old. He started his career with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office in 1977, then served stints with the Aspen Police Department and back with the sheriff’s office through 1986. He worked in law enforcement in Kirkland, Wash., between 1989 and 1994, then returned to the Aspen Police Department as assistant chief of operations under then-chief Tom Stephenson. He stayed in Aspen until June 2001, when Tom Baker, then the town manager in Basalt, recruited him to the midvalley town. He’s been in the top cop post in Basalt for just over nine years.

“This has been the best job that I’ve ever had,” Ikeda said. He cited the close character of the town and its residents, and a common goal to work for the collective good.

Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis said he and Ikeda started as “baby deputies” together in Sheriff Dick Kienast’s administration. He described Ikeda as highly intelligent, attuned to his community and successful in having a positive effect on the agencies he worked with.

“Keith has had a fairly controversy-free run,” Braudis said, and avoiding controversy means he learned the art of leadership.

It hasn’t always been easy. Basalt has experienced some high-profile crimes and bizarre incidents during Ikeda’s watch. Critics used some of the incidents to paint a picture of an inept department or one where officers had run amuck. Ikeda said the incidents show the department’s investigative prowess and its ability to adapt.

Probably the highest profile incident was the drive-by shooting of the 7-Eleven Store in Basalt in June 2007. Former clerk Bruno Kirchenwitz was the likely target, though he wasn’t in the store at the time. Kirchenwitz would wear a U.S. Border Patrol baseball hat to and from work, although not on the job. A suspected Latino gunman took aim at the store late one night and pumped five bullets through the plate glass front window. No one was hurt.

Ikeda said the department acted quickly to identify the gunman, build a case against him, secure an arrest warrant and begin its search. The suspect, believed to have slipped out of the country, wasn’t caught.

Kirchenwitz likened Ikeda to Barney Fife and called the department useless. Ikeda got skewered by a conservative radio talk show host in Denver who tried to use the incident as an example of inadequate enforcement against illegal immigrants.

But Ikeda said in a recent interview the investigation was fast and thorough. There are some interesting tactics police used to try to bring in the suspect that federal officials won’t allow him to discuss, he said.

Ikeda also noted Kirchenwitz failed to tell officers that the suspect had used a credit card for payment in the store during a verbal confrontation earlier on the evening of the shooting. If that information had surfaced earlier, Ikeda said, officers might have identified the suspect sooner and nabbed him before he fled.

Ikeda pointed to two armed robberies in December 2009 and January as other examples of his department’s effectiveness. Both suspects were arrested and sentenced to jail terms.

Ikeda also said the department has used a confrontation between three officers and bar patrons as a learning experience. A Basalt man filed a lawsuit in July against the officers for allegedly violating his constitutional rights when they dragged him out of a bar after he yelled at them the prior summer. The man was never arrested, and the district attorney declined to charge him.

The plaintiff claimed the officers used unreasonable force and improperly interfered with his right to free speech.

After the incident occurred in summer 2009, Ikeda fielded a complaint about his officers’ conduct from the man and assigned one of his sergeants to conduct an internal investigation. The officers were cleared. Ikeda maintained last week his officers didn’t do anything wrong, but the department reviewed the incident and determined it wouldn’t react to the situation the same way – they would avoid a confrontation with an unruly crowd.

The officers were walking through a bar at the time as part of their community policing philosophy of being visible and interacting with residents. Ikeda defended the practice last week, saying community policing is essential – even if some residents don’t appreciate it some of the time. The goal isn’t to trawl the bar for drunks to arrest, he insisted.

“You can have the firehouse syndrome and just wait for the calls to come to you,” Ikeda said. He preferred making officers visible, building trust with residents and business owners, and nipping crime in the bud. Officers are regularly at special events, school activities, riding bikes through neighborhoods, at the parks and walking through bars.

“The police department’s fundamental role is building public trust,” he said. Without it, policing would be impossible in his view.

Ikeda prides himself for not being a police chief who sat in an office and fell out of touch with residents and the job his officers are asked to do. He went through all the same training and sought all the certifications. He responded to accidents, took incident reports, wrote warrants and went on regular patrols.

“I think that’s leading by example,” he said.

He’s proud of transforming an underpaid staff with poor equipment and leaving it in significantly better shape. He recalled that officers didn’t have voice mail when he took the reins in 2001. He was assigned a Ford Taurus patrol car that had a blown engine. It remained in the parking lot because the department’s budget was too tight to get it towed.

The department is moving into a new office this fall after buying space in a commercial building at the entrance to Elk Run. It will be the department’s home for the foreseeable future, a sort of legacy Ikeda helped create.

He said he will remain in Basalt, where he owns a home. He has a handful of consulting contracts with law enforcement and other governmental agencies. He’s also got a full ski pass. Expect to see him bombing down the slopes of Aspen Mountain often, ignoring the sirens.


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