DiSalvo, Chi outline platforms for Pitkin County sheriff
The race for Pitkin County sheriff this November pits two longtime local law enforcement officers against each other. Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, who has been with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office for more than 30 years, is running for his third four-year term as sheriff. Officer Walter Chi, who’s been an Aspen police officer for 26 years, is DiSalvo’s challenger.
The Aspen Times asked each candidate six questions about themselves and their plans for the future of the sheriff’s office.
Aspen Times: Name, age, marital status, children, years in Aspen, years in law enforcement. Why are you running for sheriff?
My name is Joe DiSalvo, I am 57 years old and have been married to Marcy DiSalvo for 17 years and we have no children. I started my career in Pitkin County law enforcement in 1985. I’ve been a peace officer in Pitkin County for 32 years, and sheriff for the last eight years. I have an understanding of what this community wants from its public safety officers. I never forget that I am elected to serve each resident and visitor to Pitkin County. One of the most gratifying parts of my work is leading the incredibly dedicated and professional men and women that represent me and work hard for you every day. In short, I still love working for you and the people I work beside and want to continue to work as your sheriff.
Walter Chi, 55 years young, divorced father of two. I’ve lived in the city of Aspen for 23 years and the Roaring Fork Valley for almost 28 years. I have been with the Aspen Police Department for 26 years. I’m running for sheriff because I see a need for change. My experience in law enforcement as well as being a parent, community member and participant in what Pitkin County has to offer tells me that the people of the county are shifting away from the way the Sheriff’s Office has been run. I will make the necessary changes to steer the department to a new position, more aligned with the current needs of the community. I am a legitimate challenger to the out-of-date old guard. I’m experienced in law enforcement in this valley. I come from a background of technical and customer service. I am one of the “working people” of Pitkin County, I live in employee (APCHA) housing and work two jobs (I also work for the airline that services the Pitkin County airport, and have since moving to the valley). I think my desire to be sheriff started when Sheriff DiSalvo decided to separate the law enforcement office of the police and sheriffs. He could not see the value in the cooperation and trust between agencies. I believe we need to work together in government to provide the people with the best services we can. DiSalvo’s laissez-faire, laid-back approach on drug enforcement, which directly and negatively affects the safety of the children in our community (vaping, drugs, alcohol and suicide), drives me to do a better job!
Aspen Times: How would you rate the current state of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and why?
Walter Chi: I’m concerned about the number of experienced people that the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office has lost. There seems to be an issue keeping deputies, detention officers and dispatchers. The turnover rate has been concerning as of late. Working for the sheriff’s department should be a coveted job (and it used to be!), one that pays accordingly (2017 budget shows the median wage of a patrol deputy is around $75,000). The current staff needs to be treated with respect and dignity. Under Sheriff DiSalvo’s leadership, he has lost (quit, resigned or fired, because of his lack of respect/support) most of his female deputies. Out of his 22 deputies, only two are female. This accounts for less than 10 percent of his staff. In addition, he has also lost experienced male officers. I will institute programs to make female hires a focus of the department, providing a supportive and positive work environment.
Joe DiSalvo: It’s an exciting time at the Sheriff’s Office. There is a good mix of veteran deputies and new blood. The newer jail and patrol deputies and 911 emergency dispatchers bring an enthusiasm that energizes the veterans and me. We are still able to recruit smart, compassionate people who will grow to be future leaders of this organization. Each person has a clear understanding of this organization’s unique history. However, we also know we need to keep growing and improving our service to this community. This organization is healthy and we are recognized statewide for our accomplishments and our response to major incidents. In a community of this size, no one agency can operate alone in a crisis. I depend heavily on my strong relationships with the Aspen, Snowmass and Basalt police departments. We have strong mutual-aid agreements and we depend heavily on each other when needed. As a board member of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, I’ve developed strong relationships statewide with other sheriffs. Through these relationships, I’m able to reach out to large sheriff’s offices who have access to resources, staff and equipment I don’t have. These sheriffs will be there for us in case of an emergency in Pitkin County.
Aspen Times: What are the biggest issues facing the Sheriff’s Office? What are your priorities if elected?
Joe DiSalvo: My biggest issues and priorities are basically one and the same. How do we manage, treat and, when necessary, incarcerate people with mental illness? We often house our mentally ill population in jail because there are no other adequate options. This is a nationwide problem and not unique to Pitkin County. However, there are options that we can explore. There is an opportunity to redesign the 33-year-old jail using space that has been vacated when our dispatch center moved to the North Forty. With a jail redesign, we could separate the vulnerable mental-health population from the rest of the inmates. We then may be able to get these people the mental-health treatment they need in a healing environment. Another aspect of the redesign could be to create a divided space for men and women. Currently men and women share the same common space and take shifts using that space for meals and socializing. This is not sustainable as our jail population grows. My intention is to ask the BOCC for funding to address this issue in the next four years.
Walter Chi: Recently, the sheriff’s department is dealing with multiple investigations, which I understand may take time to sort through. These investigations aren’t just coming together now, but are coming from what I believe is Sheriff DiSalvo’s lack of dealing with the younger population’s issues (drugs and sex). I believe that ongoing participation in a “drug abuse resistance education” or DARE-type preventative education-based programs, within the schools or outside, for youth and parents. Offering solutions and knowledge will be crucial to not have this sort of thing rise to such a head again. In addition, I’m for working along with the schools in having more of a presence of law enforcement on site. This coincides with a goal of getting up to staff and may require assistance from the other jurisdictions within the county (Snowmass, Aspen and Basalt) as well as mental-health agencies and advocacy groups in the valley. I also plan on participating in the Aspen airport’s development group. Though an environmental impact study was completed, I believe that a “safety/emergency services study” also needs to be completed. We already have an extremely busy fire and ambulance group. As sheriff, I want to make sure that we are prepared to deal with any emergency that could occur due to the potential aircraft that will use the new facility.
Aspen Times: What is your policy on drug enforcement?
Walter Chi: My stand on drug enforcement is proactive, not an old guard approach. In our community both our children and adults are at risk. I want to stop the needless suffering mentally, physically or emotionally caused by drug abuse. Addiction is a major problem in the valley. The current sheriff’s policies are clearly and grossly inadequate. I don’t believe having the laid-back approach to drug enforcement is working. Drugs aren’t cool anymore. They’re killing people. There is a reason why our suicide rate is so high. Sharing and abusing opioids or other prescription medicines needs to be talked about openly to educate and bring awareness to this problem. When drug tips are provided to the sheriff’s department, they need to be investigated, not ignored. Marijuana is legal in Colorado but that doesn’t mean that the sheriff’s department leadership should help legitimize it. Instead it should regulate it. Enforcement should include keeping it away from children and shutting down underground distributors. I also believe that the sheriff and his deputies, who are on call to protect the county and its residents, should not be partaking, even though marijuana is legal.
Joe DiSalvo: My opinion on drug use is twofold. First, when it comes to the developing brains of children and people under the age of 21, drugs and alcohol can do real damage. Currently, there are three school resource officers and the school has its own drug awareness program. Parents are on the front lines and need to learn and pass on accurate information to their children about the consequences of drug use. I often see parents who are not informed and not involved and leave education and discipline up to teachers and police officers. Parents are in the best position to guide their own children through these issues. Too often I see parents who are not present and not involved in their children’s lives. It is their children who are most at risk. Second, for adults marijuana is now legal in Colorado. If adults use drugs privately in a safe environment and put nobody else in danger I believe this decision becomes an adult lifestyle choice. The choices adults make are their own even if it damages their own health, just like smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol or unhealthy eating. These are all lifestyle choices and not matters for government. I don’t think that prosecution is the fix to this problem. Our jails are full of low-level drug offenders and there are still no solutions. It is the policy of my office to investigate all credible drug and alcohol-related reports. However, to make progress with this issue we need to be willing to commit resources to programs that make a real impact on adult drug and alcohol addiction. As of January 2019, we will begin the co-responder program. It is a program that partners mental-health clinicians with law enforcement on the road to proactively provide early intervention for those suffering from mental-health and substance-abuse issues.
Aspen Times: What is your policy on undocumented immigrants? Would you cooperate with/assist federal authorities in detaining illegal immigrants in Pitkin County?
Joe DiSalvo: I am the grandson of four Italian immigrants. Growing up, I heard stories of how they crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the early 1920s, headed for a melting pot called Brooklyn, New York. It couldn’t have been easy, they spoke no English and their foods and customs were different from non-Italians. They worked in factories making shoes and dresses for very little pay. Somehow they made it work and now their grandson is your sheriff. The immigrant population in Pitkin County is overwhelmingly like my grandparents: honest, hardworking people who want their children and grandchildren to succeed and have better lives. Some of these immigrants escaped oppression in their home countries and felt those places were no longer safe place for them or their children. That’s why I was proud to join our Board of County Commissioners and county manager to make Pitkin County a welcoming sanctuary county. This community depends on people like my grandparents who take any job to stay here for a better and safer life. I will not hold any person in my jail on a federal administrative warrant that has had no judicial review or judge’s signature. Most sheriffs recognize these warrants as insufficient documentation to hold a person in jail. Being in this country illegally is a federal civil matter and violates no Colorado state law. If immigration officials come to Pitkin County to execute warrants that have had judicial review, then my office will assist in any way possible to keep agents and the public safe.
Walter Chi: First and foremost, I believe in the equal treatment of people (no matter their origin).
I come from a mixed background, South Korean and Norwegian heritage, and am very proud of this. Under my leadership, the Pitkin County Jail will not be used as a detention facility for ICE. I believe the jail is to be used at the discretion of the county and district courts for sentencing and holding those charged with crimes awaiting court appearance after being supported with the appropriate judicial review. I believe that ICE has a difficult but certainly important duty. However, under my administration, the safety of the people residing in and visiting Pitkin County will be my utmost priority. Lastly, I do believe that anyone who comes to this country and commits a crime of violence should be prosecuted and deported using the criminal justice system and proper channels for prosecution and deportation.
Aspen Times: Have you ever been arrested and, if so, why?
Walter Chi: I have received two criminal summons to court in my life. In the early 1990s as the result of an accident I was involved in on a snowy commute on Highway 82. I was charged with careless driving.
The other was on a hunting trip to North Dakota, where I parked on the side of the road waiting for some hunting partners where there was tall grass and the county I had just crossed into had instituted a parking ban for risk of fire. It was unknown to me that I had crossed county lines or the specifics of the local ordinance. Never have I been arrested for commission of a violent crime.
Joe DiSalvo: No secret or news flash here. I was arrested about 10 years ago for assaulting a man in a local restaurant. I paid the man for his injuries and received a deferred prosecution in Aspen Municipal Court. After one year my record was expunged. I currently have no criminal record or driving-related offenses. The man involved in the altercation and I now have a friendly relationship and there is no lingering animosity.
Eagle County Detention Facility can house Pitkin County inmates on a temporary basis, but a long-term arrangement is doubtful, Sheriff James van Beek said Friday.