Optimism about the new top cop in Aspen
December 20, 2007
So, Aspen has a new police chief, and he’s a Limey, which is to say, a Brit by birth, a man of English extraction, an immigrant ” Richard Pryor (let’s quickly bypass the jokes about how he doesn’t look black, and he ain’t all that funny).
News stories about the selection made no mention of his immigration status, but I presume he’s a naturalized citizen or some such, so the racists and the jingoists won’t be jumping up and down with fascist outrage.
Of course, like me, he’s a Downvalley Dirtbag, meaning he lives in Missouri Heights, much of which shares a ZIP code and telephone exchanges with Carbondale in the middle Roaring Fork Valley, which makes us neighbors as well as Aspen expatriates.
I called to congratulate him as soon as I had cleared the morning fog from my brain Dec. 18, the morning the news hit the streets, and I meant it.
I may not always agree with the decisions of City Manager Steve Barwick, and I sometimes think he needs to be taken out to the figurative woodshed and have some sense flogged into him, but in this case I have to say he did the right thing. I believe Pryor has the confidence of his department, is an open and forthcoming kind of human being who won’t hide behind the badge and who will sincerely admit his mistakes, all of which will be good for the town.
You won’t often hear me waxing ebullient about the selection of a police chief, since their collective life mission and mine run along different tracks. I’m in the business of trying to act as a reliable conduit for information between government and the public, and cops are in the business of catching criminals, with all of its attendant and mysterious baggage. I fervently believe secrecy is at the root of all government goofiness and malfeasance, while many cops seems to view me and my kind as henchmen of The Enemy and do their damnedest to keep information from us as a matter of course.
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So we have this knee-jerk dance we do.
We of the Fourth Estate try to ferret out all the details we can about a crime or criminal, including information that might not be published, whether at the authorities’ request or simply because we deem it not worthy of publication. But that’s a distinction we prefer to make, rather than leaving it to a cop to decide what we can see or not see.
Many cops, on the other hand, seem to start from the premise that any request a reporter makes for information should be considered, from the get-go, as something that should be withheld. It’s an automatic reaction, akin to the human tendency to duck when someone makes as if to toss, say, a hatchet at your head.
It may be, after even minimal discussion, that the cop in question will release everything the reporter asks for, out of an understanding that we can work together to give the public information it is entitled to and wants, but not give away anything that might jeopardize an arrest or an investigation. Such agreements in principle have been reached by yours truly in some cases, and it has worked to everyone’s satisfaction.
I call this the anti-knee-jerk dance.
But the Aspen Police Department, over the course of the last decade and a half, has generally tended toward the more traditional cop philosophy, the knee-jerk dance. It seemed to be most prevalent among a certain segment of the rank and file, the officers of the line, as it were. Even as the chiefs pledged allegiance to the idea that openness and honesty were the best policies toward the press and, by extension, the public, the blue wall began closing on the dissemination of information.
The first Aspen chief I dealt with was Rich Rianoshek, a rather bizarre guy who seemed to spout all the right “community policing” kind of rhetoric, as opposed to the bullet-headed police style more common in big cities. But his own subordinates seemed to doubt his sanity, if not openly question his touchy-feely policies, and he didn’t last long.
In subsequent administrations, as mentioned, the tendency has been toward withholding information not absolutely identified by state law as being open to public inspection, and even some of that has been hard to get.
Our hope, down here in the sweatshop of working journalism, is that this will change, and that information will flow a bit more freely from the department, so that we all can more accurately judge its performance.