‘Interesting’ times for Ryerson | AspenTimes.com

‘Interesting’ times for Ryerson

Chad Abraham

Loren Ryerson says the past eight months have likely been the most “interesting” time of his tenure as Aspen police chief. A December drug bust at two longtime restaurants during après-ski hours netted several men on cocaine possession, distribution and conspiracy charges. But the manner in which it was carried out, without the knowledge of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and with help from numerous state and federal officers, was too heavy-handed for many Aspenites. More recently, when former Police Officer Melinda Calvano used a Taser to subdue a 63-year-old homeless woman, the spotlight on Ryerson grew more intense.He agreed to sit down with The Aspen Times to talk about his history in law enforcement and the recent controversies, with a couple of ground rules. He would only discuss the situation with Calvano, who was fired by City Manager Steve Barwick, in generalities, as she is expected to sue the city of Aspen. He also would not comment on the upcoming election for Pitkin County sheriff, in which one of Ryerson’s community safety officers, Rick Magnuson, is challenging longtime incumbent Bob Braudis.But Ryerson did discuss how his past – everything from being in the crowd during the violent 1968 riots in Chicago to carrying bombs at the Snowmass Ski Area during a fatal avalanche – contributes to his outlook, a perspective that he says many locals have misunderstood. Art and law enforcement sit side by side on a coffee table in Loren Ryerson’s office.An art piece involving a Vincent van Gogh book, a present from community safety officer Rick Magnuson, is next to several copies of Police Chief magazine. On the wall is a picture of Aspen’s police force from the era of former chief Joe Cortez.Ryerson looks unwaveringly into your eyes and blinks infrequently. Gesturing often, his delivery is concise and his manner relaxed as he leans back in his chair.Aspen Times: You were a ski patroller at Snowmass, is that right?Ryerson: Yep.AT: How long did you do that for?R: My professional skiing career started when I worked for Gretl’s [a longtime on-mountain restaurant; it’s now Bonnie’s]. I was an EMT and interested in skiing. We got to do quite a bit of skiing when I worked up at Gretl’s restaurant. I was the salad guy and ran the quick-food line.She [restaurateur Gretl Uhl] was absolutely a great influence in my life. She was an incredible person, one of the hardest-working bosses I’ve ever worked for in my life. She ran a great operation up there. She was fair to us and let us ski.Eventually I decided I’d better try out for the ski patrol. The first year I tried out I had a really bad bicycle wreck, and that kind of stymied my chances with patrol. (Laughs) Eventually I wore them down, and they hired me with three other people.My first year I was there [in the early 1980s] we had a major avalanche, and one of the persons on the avalanche team I was on – actually two of them – got swept off a cliff. And Roberto Gasperal died in that avalanche. … That had a big impact upon my career as a ski patroller.AT: It must have brought the reality home of how dangerous the job could be.R: It was interesting – my brother was in insurance. When I eventually became a police officer, he goes, “Oh great, now we can reduce your life insurance premiums,” because it’s not as dangerous as what I had been doing on ski patrol.I was just floored. I knew it was dangerous, and obviously I had been through that experience. Going into police work I felt would be at least as dangerous.AT: Do you use anything from your experience as a patroller in your current job?R: Every day. The ski patrol isn’t just about packaging up injured people. It’s about the P.R. and the interaction with skiers, helping people be safe upfront. That’s what we do every day. The education part of it is huge.AT: What kindled your interest in law enforcement?R: I never in my life had really ever considered being a police officer. As a kid I suppose I was interested in the fast cars and the lights and stuff, but that was as a very young kind. Growing up, I had the same amount of skepticism about the law-enforcement profession that many of us did growing up at that time.I went to a lot of the demonstrations in Chicago and saw a variety of things happening there that made me uncomfortable, as it probably did the rest of the nation.AT: Police brutality …R: I don’t know if it was brutality. There was a lot of aggression both ways. Being in the crowd that was being very aggressive was very concerning. Seeing the reaction to that aggression was very, very concerning. It was clearly some place I didn’t want to be as a teenager.As a kid I used to go into Chicago all the time and was very comfortable in that atmosphere. From the suburbs of Chicago, I used to go to the Art Institute every Saturday, took art classes. So I wasn’t really terribly concerned by going down to these demonstrations. It had an impact.AT: What jobs have you held in law enforcement?R: I started off as a peace officer in 1984, went to the academy. Couple of years later became a supervisor. I was a sergeant for 13 years. Got promoted to assistant chief under [former police chief] Tom Stephenson and held that position through Joe Cortez. Then I was promoted to chief three years ago.AT: Speaking of former police chiefs, how would you characterize your law-enforcement philosophy, your department’s policies, in relation to Tom Stephenson, John Goodwin, Rich Rianoshek?R: The Aspen Police Department’s had a long, long history of being very involved in the community in various ways, and that’s a tradition we absolutely keep up.From a philosophical standpoint, the police are the public and the public are the police. Sir Robert Peal, talking about police back in the 1800s, put forth a variety of principles that talked about how things should work in the modern world, as it evolves out of common law. The police are just the people who take time to do it. We’re all responsible for safety in our community, and that’s the philosophy that we work with. But without you and I working together to solve problems, we’re not going to be able to do so.AT: Since Dec. 2, has this been your toughest stretch in your tenure as chief?R: It has been an interesting time frame. I don’t think at any time in my career have I ever felt quite so targeted for what people think my ideas are and what they think my policies are. It’s been interesting to see.Some people have labeled me as a raging conservative. I’ve never been a conservative. (laughs) However in matters of budget and hiring, I try to be careful, considerate; conservative in that oither sense of the word. But when you talk about politics, I’m not a conservative.People have these assumptions without ever having to ask. They say, “Oh, Aspen’s so liberal, you’re so conservative.” Sure Aspen’s liberal. But have you ever asked me what my thoughts are on any particular subject?There’re a lot of people who assume I’m willing to trample all over the Constitution, and that’s just not the case. That’s one of our greatest mandates and one that we take extremely seriously. For example, there are precepts of the Patriot Act that make me nervous, as I believe they should make every American nervous. It intrudes upon the Fourth Amendment. The requirement that we get probable cause and have court review for search warrants, I think that’s extremely important. Wars have been fought protecting those rights, and to abandon them without extreme cause is wrong. Just flat-out wrong.Any American, conservative or liberal, ought to be concerned about that.AT: Can you describe your relationship with the Klanderud/Barwick administration?R: It’s been one that’s very, very productive. In a lot of ways, it’s been a great growing experience for me. I’ve enjoyed the tutelage and instruction and support that I’ve gotten from both of them. The challenging, the questioning, the concern. I think our relationship has been very good on a variety of things.Are there things that I’d like to change and like to improve upon? Always. But that’s how I look at how we operate our business as well. There’s always opportunity for us to examine what were doing, how we’re doing it, and it’s one of our common practices to constantly question ourselves in how we’re doing.AT: More specifically, how are things with City Manager Steve Barwick since he overruled you on the Calvano situation?R: I’d really like to stay away from specifics. I think Steve and I have a productive relationship. I think in many circumstances there’s opportunity for improving communication.AT: With Barwick, is your relationship good, tense, professional?R: I think it’s good and friendly and cooperative.AT: How about your individual relationship with the police department?R: This is probably best characterized by how little turnover we’ve had. Before the recent departure [Calvano], we hadn’t had any turnover in two years. I think that kind of speaks for itself. In 21 years of my career, we’ve never not had a vacancy. We’ve had three to five officers leaving a year.It’s been very destabilizing when you have to continually train people. You get people trained, they just get productive, and they move on.So in the two years, of course I’d like to take credit for that, but I think it’s a gradual buildup. Good policies, good relationships, good training.AT: Is there a certain way Aspen police officers are trained that would be different from a big-city police officer?R: Well, we kind of face the same concerns. How we approach things is different. Some of the biggest cities in the world don’t train as much as we do. But they offer a variety of different opportunities that we may never offer, in some cases, hopefully, ever offer.I always say to young candidates when we go to academies and talk to people, if their greatest desire is to become a homicide detective they’re not going to be happy in Aspen. We haven’t had a murder in the city in over 13 years, and prior to that it had been 20.We spend a lot of time dealing with customer-service issues, developing relationships, community policing concepts. Clearly there’s going to be some segments of the community that aren’t going to be happy with what we do. That really became apparent with the drug stuff; people were really uncomfortable with that.But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had as many phone calls, if not more, in support of us addressing the criminality of the drug business.AT: In light of the Calvano situation, have you reconsidered how the police department should use force?R: First of all, we have an incredible history of using absolutely minimal force. It is absolutely the directive of this department, and always has been, to use the minimal amount of force. And I think our statistics support that in a dramatic way.The use of force is a very serious issue, and it’s always been our custom to take as much time as necessary to peacefully resolve any incident. Some of my finest moments as a peace officer have been working with extremely agitated people all night in order to peacefully resolve the circumstance.AT: As far as police training, what role does patience play?R: A huge amount. Patience, sympathy, compassion. If it was just black-and-white, there would be no such thing as discretion. Within certain parameters, we have leeway to make those decisions.AT: Is retreating, at times, part of police training?R: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s always part of the scenario training where we try to have a multdisciplinary approach to circumstances. … I don’t think any of us really get paid enough to get hurt, to unwittingly and unnecessarily put yourself in danger. We’re all willing to do our job, having said that.AT: Have you made changes in the department’s command structure in reaction to either the Dec. 2 drug bust or the Calvano situation?R: No. I have made changes in the command structure, but they were a part of my plan from the beginning of my tenure as chief. [Assistant police chiefs] Glenn Schaffer and Richard Pryor have changed roles. Glenn Schaffer is now in charge of the administrative aspect of the department, and Richard is in charge of the operations.It is my expectation and always has been that either one of them can work in either of those roles when necessary.AT: Have there been any policy changes in your department’s approach to enforcement of drug laws, undercover work or use of outside agencies?R: No. We had a long discussion with council and a number of options that we presented, and they decided that, besides a few changes in our policy, we keep it the same.What I’ve always asked the officers to do is to take criminal cases to a logical conclusion. That may include an arrest, it may not. But there’s no shortcut anywhere along the process just because it’s a certain class of crime.AT: Could you describe your relationship with the sheriff’s office?R: We’ve had a great working relationship with the sheriff’s office. Bob is a very intelligent, articulate individual. I’ve enjoyed his counsel, his criticism, his concern and his friendship for many years.The fact that we may disagree on operational things from time to time I think is a healthy interaction and has never been a detriment to our daily operation. Person to person, patrol officer to sheriff’s deputy, the relationships are strong. We have mutual respect and dignity and cooperation.From time to time, circumstances test all of those things, just like in any relationship. But I believe that through all that, the relationships get stronger.AT: Do you foresee relocation or retirement anytime soon?R: I’ve lived here for over 30 years. My wife and I, when we’re able to take vacations and explore different opportunities just for the sake of doing it, we’ve never found any place we’d rather be.I’ve got an 11-year-old son, so I’ll be working for another 20 years. And I’d love for it to be here. I have no plans on retiring anytime in the near future.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com