Chief: Undercover police would only be used to curtail public drug use |

Chief: Undercover police would only be used to curtail public drug use

John Colson

Aspen’s top cop says that when he talks about using undercover officers in local drug enforcement, he is referring strictly to “the use and sale of drugs in public places.”

That means local bars, restaurants, parks, the bus station and other locations where people gather, hang out and interact.

“This is not about what goes on in people’s homes,” Aspen Police Chief Joe Cortez said this week. “I would very, very much like to keep drugs out of public places.”

And, he said, so far he has only been talking about sending his officers into such places, in plain clothes, to simply watch what’s going on and make their presence known.

Cortez has been in the spotlight recently thanks to news stories about his interest in reviewing the city’s longstanding reluctance to sanction undercover police work as way to enforce drug laws.

Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards has been quoted as saying she is interested in talking about the issue, and council member Tony Hershey reportedly said at a recent City Council meeting that he supports the idea of undercover drug enforcement work in Aspen.

Referring to reactions by some to his views on the subject, Cortez said, “People are afraid there will be undercover cops on every corner. It ain’t the case. But, would people using or selling drugs in public places have more reason to be suspicious [that they were being watched]? I hope so.”

He said people have come up to him recently to talk about the matter and made it clear, “They don’t want a Gestapo police state … that’s not what I want either. What I want is reasonableness. I’m glad the subject’s coming up. What I would like to do is really clarify this issue,” said Cortez.

The “issue” is Aspen’s long-standing image as a party town, where the use of such drugs as marijuana and cocaine is widespread, and undercover police work has been frowned upon officially by City Hall and the top local law enforcement officers, and unofficially by the town’s citizenry in general.

Cortez said he’s been told there was a “policy” created by the Aspen City Council a decade and a half ago that prohibits local police from taking part in undercover drug enforcement work.

“That’s part of the problem,” he said, referring to the perception that most Aspenites oppose undercover work. “A lot of the partyers of 20 years ago have gotten married, had kids, and they don’t want their kids doing what they did.” Such people may favor a tighter rein on drug use in town, he believes.

And, Cortez declared, “Using our people for undercover work has never been part of the equation.” Rather, he said, he would prefer to use outside agencies or let outside agencies do their jobs on their own.

Detective Jim Crowley with Aspen police pointed out that it’s not as though undercover drug operations have never been used in Aspen. He noted that the 1994 bust of drug dealers at the Valley Hi apartment complex involved agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the multi-agency TRIDENT drug task force that operates out of Glenwood Springs. Local police officers provided backup support for the raid.

And, he said, Aspen contributed some money to TRIDENT operations for a while in the early 1990s, until disagreements about the Valley Hi raid chilled relations between Aspen and TRIDENT. But Aspen officers continue to send information to TRIDENT agents about upvalley drug dealing activities.

Such arrangements, Cortez said, should be maintained. And if that is all the city wants his department to do, “that would be fine with me. From my perspective, they operate very professionally.”

And, he said, “I think they [TRIDENT] would support us if we picked up the phone and asked them to lend a hand” with a particular drug dealing operation.

In general, he said, “We simply do not have the resources, nor do we have the need” to set up an Aspen-based “drug squad” of five or six officers.

But, he continued, “The worst message we would send, I think, is that no one’s going to do undercover work here,” which he said sends the wrong signals to the youth of the community.

“We need to teach kids consequences” that are attached to drug use, he said, and strict enforcement of drug laws is part of that.

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