Pitkin County’s Bob Braudis reflects on 24 years as sheriff
December 10, 2010
ASPEN – In 1987, Ronald Reagan was president, U2’s “Joshua Tree” album thrust the band into super-group status, Black Monday crippled the U.S. and global stock markets, and Andy Warhol died. And the January that kicked off that year saw Bob Braudis, an eight-year deputy at the time, sworn in as Pitkin County sheriff on the steps of the Main Street courthouse, with his predecessor and greatest professional influence, Dick Kienast, looking on. Suffice it to say, an end of a wildly popular, six-term era looms: The iconic sheriff, a towering figure at 6 feet 6 inches, will relinquish his post at high noon Jan. 11 – nearly eight months after he announced his retirement. He’ll be replaced by his undersheriff, Joseph DiSalvo, who won in a landslide election in November.Indisputably Pitkin County’s most influential and beloved elected official for more than two decades, Braudis’ outspokenness – from his positions against the war on drugs to his well-documented friendship with the late author Hunter S. Thompson – made him a giant among what he calls the “free thinkers” of Pitkin County.A former county commissioner and deputy, Braudis credits the late Kienast, the progressive sheriff who preceded him, for ushering in a law-enforcement style and philosophy that helped him claim the sheriff’s seat in November 1986. In November 2000, Pitkin County voters repealed term limits for the office (along with the assessor and clerk), so Braudis could remain their sheriff.His sheriff’s tag has been preceded with such adjectives as “celebrity” and “maverick,” catchy modifiers he dismisses as mere products of a nickname-happy media. In an hour-long interview in the sheriff’s office last week, Braudis said he won’t migrate to the warmer retirement havens of Arizona or Florida. Instead, he plans to retain Aspen as his home base, and travel the world at a leisurely clip. He has taken a liking to photography and has embraced the digital age and social media (he has more than 1,000 “friends” on Facebook). He reads novels and newspapers on his iPad, given to him by his girlfriend, DeDe Brinkman and a group of friends, for his 66th birthday, which he celebrated Nov. 28.”I’m going to die here with my friends and family if they’re alive. I’m going to travel and I really don’t want to move, but I can name 200 places I’d love to spent two months in,” he said.Hailing from south Boston and raised Catholic, Braudis, the son of a Texaco executive, came to the Rocky Mountains 40 years ago in search of the Aspen dream – “champagne powder and sunshine and blue skies,” as he calls it. He has hundreds of stories to tell. They range from his Catholic upbringing in Boston to his younger hippie days in Aspen, and much, much more. The following interview highlights last week’s question-and-answer session with Braudis. Whether you love him or hate him, Braudis is one of Pitkin County’s most colorful characters, with a penchant for delivering thoughtful commentary on just about any subject that crosses his busy mind – be it the troubles of Tiger Woods, the impact of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or back-room justice in Pitkin County.
Aspen Times Weekly: You had overwhelming support from county residents at the polls during your elections as sheriff. People appreciated your philosophy on law enforcement. Did Pitkin County mold Bob Braudis or did Bob Braudis help mold that Pitkin County philosophy?Bob Braudis: Considering I was raw clay when I arrived here, what happened outside of my involvement molded me. What I did get involved with, for the most part, was public safety and the peripheral universes that are affected by public safety. I think I molded a highly functioning group of men and women that have been delivering public-safety services for 24 years here. So I think I molded what I had some control over. No one has control over Pitkin County. This county is way too complex to be controlled by any one thought or any batch of Kool-Aid. Pitkin County is a free-thinking county. What I think I’ve done, if you ask me what my legacy should be, I think it is the team that I have created and maintained for 24 years. I’ll say it again: I think they’re the finest human beings and compose the finest public-safety team on the planet. ATW: What style of manager would you say you are? There are some who are hands-off, others who are micro-managers. Where do you fall?Braudis: I think I’m a very logical manager. If it makes sense, I do it. When I first was a sheriff, I responded to every call of any significance: bomb threats, domestic violence scenes, and some of my employees and supervisors said, “Hey, Bob, if you’re going to show up at everything, we don’t have to.” They were basically saying “go back to what you’re supposed to be doing: planning and managing and not responding.” Well, coming from the world of rescue-fantasy savior behavior, I had to rein myself in. So in 24 years, I went from a first responder to a last responder. ATW: Did you ever have to fire somebody you really liked?Braudis: Everyone I fired I liked. I liked them when I hired them. But I made a mistake when I hired them. Because in management, if you have to fire someone, you’ve made a mistake. You erred when you hired them. But I’ve only done that five or six times in 24 years.ATW: You had several incidents involving high-profile residents, like the shots fired at a helicopter circling over Don Johnson’s wedding at Little Woody Creek and the photo spread of Dewey Sukarno while in jail. What were your most memorable high-profile incidents and what did you learn from them?Braudis: Let’s talk on a more general level. There are celebrities that come and go here, there are celebrities that spend a lot of time here. As a group they haven’t caused me an awful lot of problems. And I’ve learned that celebrities, for the most part, are linked very closely to their money and money can buy excellent defense services. So you get into a realm where a certain class of people fills a dark back-room with lawyers from both sides and things are resolved extra-judicially and that’s a fact of life. So I’ve learned that you can never really predict what’s going to happen when you start throwing a dream team of attorneys into that dark back-room. What comes out of that room is a compromise; it usually benefits both sides. And whether you like it or not, get used to it. It’s the way things happen. That’s what I learned.ATW: Did anyone ever get special treatment, such as Hunter Thompson in his scrapes with neighbor Floyd Watkins?Braudis: Anyone who was a friend of this department got special treatment in the sense that they probably got more access, whether it was to a supervisor, to a command-staff member, or me. It’s a community; you don’t sever your friendships because of your job description, so special treatment usually is the result of access. And some people, the squeaky wheels, would get special treatment. Was that special treatment unethical? No. Was it painful? Sometimes. Was it also painful for the receiving end of special treatment? Sure. A lot of people don’t like to ask for special treatment, but I invited everyone – this whole county – to come in and talk to me about any issue at any time and those were the people who may have gotten special treatment, because they took the time to explain something to me. But I do believe everyone that works here feels the same way as I do. If a deputy is in charge of a case, an investigation, a mission, a search, and anyone wants to talk to them, I expect that deputy to be available and give access to anybody. So, to answer your question, I think special treatment is a part of life and when you know the doorman, maybe you don’t pay the cover charge, or when you know the doctor, and maybe he’s your friend, he doesn’t order all of those tests that cost thousands of bucks because he knows it’s a waste of your money. So special treatment comes by being special, I believe, and everyone in this county, in a non-derogatory sense, is special. Believe me, there are plenty of other people who consider themselves special … those are squeaky wheels. But they don’t get anything that you wouldn’t get if you outlined your situation and asked for something. ATW: Do you like being called a celebrity sheriff?Braudis: It’s not true. I don’t consider myself a rock star or a celebrity. If I did, I would have acted very weirdly. It’s not a part of my persona. ATW: Deputies were forced to kill an armed and dangerous man, Bud Wolcott, several years ago. You knew the man. How did that affect you and the department?Braudis: An officer-involved shooting, and that incident falls into that category. I was hoping I could retire without having one of those on my resume. But I couldn’t and didn’t. That day punctuates a fairly poignant memory bank that’s always at play in my head. We didn’t have to second-guess it too much. We trained for that incident. We had policies and procedures that governed that kind of incident and, as tragically as it turned out, my deputies did everything in the world not to kill that guy, who was trying to kill them. He opened up with an AK-47 and full-metal jacketed ammo, shooting through 6-inch logs in his house. The bullets were flying over my deputies’ heads by inches. When they flew him out in the helicopter, gravely wounded, my first reaction was I’m glad it’s him in that helicopter and not one of my guys. So, that incident, even though I knew Bud Wolcott, became a tragedy that was very well-handled by my staff and especially the three deputies that responded. ATW: What was your involvement in that?Braudis: I was 10 minutes away, loading my mountain bike, after a long ride on my bike, on my bike rack, when I heard some chatter on the radio that indicated something big had happened. I called dispatch; they said, “All we know now is someone is down. We don’t know if it’s a green shirt or not,” and I drove to the scene of the incident. And as I got there the ambulance was leaving with Bud Wolcott in it. ATW: When was the last time you got a rush from the work you do?Braudis: When I was a baby deputy, every call was a rush. It’s a new phenomenon; all of the sudden you’re doing stuff you’ve only seen on TV. That was a very rewarding two-year period, my first two years as a cop. A lot of rushes. As sheriff, the rushes become more subtle. The positive rushes are “whoa, we did a great job.” Maybe it was fighting a fire for a week, or coordinating a suppression effort, or it might have been a hostage situation, or it might have been a quick call with an armed person who was peacefully captured. Those rushes are secondary; if I’m getting a rush it’s because the way my team performed, as opposed to me being a lone ranger out there at four in the morning dealing with a man with a gun. ATW: Can rushes be dangerous?Braudis: I don’t think you can control them, so if there’s danger in them, you have to acknowledge that. You have to be aware of that. Can you get addicted to rushes? I don’t know. What is addiction? Addiction can be a very misapplied term. Is Tiger Woods really addicted to sex or did he just like sex? … Rushes shouldn’t ever be considered dangerous because they’re going to come at you whether you want them to or not. ATW: When was the last time you responded to an incident or arrested somebody?Braudis: I’ve responded either spiritually or physically to every major incident for 24 years. I haven’t made an arrest in a long time. I’ve had a couple of people surrender themselves to me with warrants right here, or I’ve called a few friends after obtaining knowledge that a judge signed a warrant for them and they’ve surrendered themselves to me. But as far as going out, finding an arrestee, hooking him up and booking him, it’s been years. ATW: Over the years you have had a few detractors, from campaign opponents to a few media types to the occasional letter writer. You haven’t acknowledged these people. Is there any part of you that would like to tell them how you really feel about what they’re saying?Braudis: I have to look at life as a comedy. And I have to look at people who resort to endless letters to the editor as very frustrated people. If I had a message I wanted to deliver to an elected official, I’d make an appointment [with him], even if he was an ogre, even if I considered him a monster. I’d want to come in his cave and tell him why I didn’t like his decisions.ATW: Did any of these people try to do that with you?Braudis: Not to my knowledge. I’ve never met Etna Tauscher, formally, or Kim Vieira. We’re talking about two letter writers. They’re frustrated people, and if I can help them eliminate their frustration, you know I would. If I couldn’t, I’d be glad to say why I can’t. They’re not curious enough to say, “Why did you do this, or how can you justify that?”ATW: Sounds like these people don’t keep you up at night.Braudis: I’m sensitive, but I’m not going to let letter writers keep me up. … I think it’s probably because of my Jesuit education, but I won’t put anybody in the back seat, and I won’t take a back seat to anybody. If you want to have an intelligent debate, if you want to go through the parliamentary process with me, I’d love it. I love nothing more than taking a position and defending it … I’m sensitive to criticism, but I’m pretty confident that most of our decisions have been right on. ATW: Do you think you’re a good role model for the kids of Pitkin County?Braudis: They think I am. One of the non-financial gratifications of this job is an awful lot of kids looking at me, going “you’re the sheriff, you rock.” Now, I am not a role model for this community because I said earlier this community’s way too complex to have one role model. I just try to do a damn good job as a sheriff, and some people don’t like it. You can’t please everybody. ATW: In Aspen, the biggest issue for a lot of people is, how much snow did we get the night before. How detached do you think this place is from the reality of the rest of the world?Braudis: It’s wonderful, it’s working. We are capable of tuning out the rest of the world.
ATW: Is that a good thing?Braudis: It’s quality of life, man. Do you want to live in a ghetto in Las Vegas? You can be there in 10 hours. You’d probably buy an apartment for 13 grand and watch a whole generation kill themselves with crack and crime and whatever else, speed. We don’t have it here, we don’t want it here, and we won’t allow it here. If the big financial apocalypse comes, there will be people fleeing here to weather it out. It will make it more exclusive here and they’ll want a very good sheriff. ATW: A lot of people seem to look at the ’70s with rose-colored glasses, and there’s constant griping about how great Aspen used to be and what it has become. Do you enjoy Aspen the way it is today?Braudis: Immensely. I think it’s done nothing but get better. You’re going to have change, so what we did was we channeled this change in a very intelligent manner. Yeah, we’ve got a few mistakes on our land use and environmental legislation, but for the most part we’ve tried to preserve what brought us here, which is a beautiful natural setting combined with an intellectual dynamo. Things like arts, music, the Aspen Institute, the high level of education that most of the people that live here possess. Good schools. All those things that people want, we have. Yes, a few mistakes, but what city doesn’t make mistakes? I think it’s just as exciting for the freshmen coming here as it was for me 40 years ago.ATW: Over the past few years you had some health issues. Did they affect your decision to retire?Braudis: No. Making the decision to retire was a lot harder than retiring, because once you make the decision, life gets easier. That decision was largely based on the reality that if I had run and won this I’d have been 70 towards the end of that term. And I know that I can’t do things at 70 that I did at 40. I can’t do things at 60 that I did at 40. So, I wanted to do something other than being the sheriff of Pitkin County. It’s been a great job, but it’s time; it’s time to hand the baton and everything was like one of those of harmonic convergences, a syzygy of the planetary alignments. Joe DiSalvo will be as good or better sheriff than I was. And he was ready, and he won, so it’s a perfect denouement to my career. I wouldn’t change anything.