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No meeting yet on undercover work

John Colson

There is as yet no meeting scheduled for the Aspen City Council to sit down and talk with Police Chief Joe Cortez about his feelings regarding the use of undercover or plainclothes officers for drug enforcement work in Aspen.

City Manager Steve Barwick said Thursday that he has not checked with all members of the City Council on the matter. Mayor Rachel Richards could not be reached.

Cortez has stirred feelings about the issue in recent weeks, telling local reporters that he feels the city needs to rethink its longstanding policy of discouraging undercover police work in Aspen.

The chief maintains that there is a sufficient volume of drug dealing and usage going on in “public places,” such as restaurants, bars and nightclubs, to warrant an examination of the policy.

Since the 1970s, most of Aspen’s and Pitkin County’s top law enforcement officials have held the opinion that undercover police work destroys a fragile sense of trust that should exist between the citizenry and its police forces.

There have been occasional instances of undercover work involving outside agencies, such as the TRIDENT Drug Task Force headquartered in Glenwood Springs and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, but for the most part the upper-valley police agencies have stayed out of undercover work.

But Cortez, who was involved in undercover work in prior jobs, said he thinks the citizens of Aspen might feel differently now about the issue, as opposed to the general public’s sentiments a couple of decades ago. And at least one City Council member, Tony Hershey, has been quoted as saying he agrees the policy needs to be re-examined.

“My inclination is, we’ll probably talk about it with the new City Council after the election,” Barwick said, referring to the May 8 municipal election in which two council seats and the mayor’s job are up for grabs.

He said it would not make much sense to talk about such a “significant policy change” with the current council, since there is no way of knowing whether at least three of the current members will still be in office in a couple of months.

He said that he might schedule a discussion about the topic at the new council’s first “retreat,” a meeting that typically happens soon after new council members are sworn into office. At the retreats, council members are briefed on how things are done at City Hall and can talk about pressing issues facing the council.

“They may not choose to make any changes at all,” Barwick noted, in which case public meetings on the subject would not be necessary. But, he said, if the council favors a change in police policy, or feels the issue needs broader discussion, a public hearing could be scheduled.

He said he intends to “poll” the council members in the near future to see what they want to do about the matter.

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