Sheriff pushes ‘community policing’ | AspenTimes.com

Sheriff pushes ‘community policing’

Chad Abraham

Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis said the Dec. 2 raids at downtown restaurants have reinvigorated his interest in community policing.

Loren Ryerson, Aspen’s police chief, likewise said community policing is the mainstay of how his department operates. He maintained the arrests earlier this month were in line with that policy.

The public outcry over the arrests is multifaceted. It perhaps begins with the controversial presence of undercover federal drug and immigration agents. Local law enforcement hasn’t had the best relations with the feds. That and the manner in which witnesses said the operation was carried out, including with guns drawn near customers, and the fact that no one in the sheriff’s office was told beforehand, all led city officials to schedule a community meeting Jan. 17.

Former Pitkin County Sheriff Dick Kienast invented community policing, in Braudis’ eyes. Braudis worked under him for nearly nine years before Braudis was elected a county commissioner in 1984. Two years later, Kienast told him he was retiring and that he wanted Braudis to run to replace him.

Community policing was a “radical departure” from previous methods of law enforcement, Braudis said. It involves hiring residents who have no police experience and training them in law enforcement.

Kienast “believed in what we call a citizen militia,” he said.

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The former sheriff’s idea was that residents would serve their county as deputy sheriffs for two or three years and then move on to a different profession. Of course, plans change.

“We all made a two-year commitment, and a lot of us are still here,” he said.

Every deputy under Braudis has laid down a “track record” in Aspen in another profession, he said. “I’ve never imported another police officer from out of state.”

Braudis said he doesn’t know the people the police department has hired or what their backgrounds are, but he said teaching an Aspenite how to be a deputy here is easier than teaching a New York City cop how to adapt to Aspen.

Or an officer from Detroit, for that matter. In the early 1970s, an undercover cop from the Motor City relocated to Aspen. He held several nonpolice jobs, bought drugs and had affairs with dealers’ girlfriends, Braudis said. Then he crafted warrants.

The arrests outraged residents, and the officer “was for the most part ostracized by the community,” Braudis said. “It was the deceptive nature of an Aspen police officer purporting to be a ski tuner or a bartender or a ski instructor.”

The community resentment would lead a few years later to the City Council banning Aspen police from performing undercover work.

When they voted for the ban, the council also likely looked back on an incident involving a hang-gliding operator with no arms.

Harry Swets had landed on high-tension wires and “burned his arms off,” Braudis said.

Swets was given hooks in place of his limbs, but “his employment opportunities were limited, so he started selling drugs,” he said.

One night, Swets was involved in a “buy-bust” by Drug Enforcement Agency officers in the West End.

“Some old lady looking out of her Victorian window saw [the men] throwing hooks and fighting with each other and called a cop,” Braudis said.

A police officer and sheriff’s deputy responded, but they had no way of knowing “who the good guys or the bad guys were. And one of the local cops almost busted a cap in a federal agent.”

That led to an agreement in which federal authorities were required to divulge to local police their activities in Pitkin County.

“We don’t need to know names,” Braudis said of the policy. “We need to know where and when and why, just in case a scenario like this pops up again.”

The allegiance to community policing has been broken occasionally in ways that have not led to tragedy, “but could have,” Braudis said.

Braudis considers it his mission to further Kienast’s ideals. In Pitkin County, deputies have as much discretion as the sheriff ” “Supervisors aren’t looking over their shoulder,” he said.

The jail and court system should be reserved for those suspected of serious criminal violations, he contended.

Kienast and Braudis agreed early on that the “drug laws represented a huge failure in our society,” the sheriff said. “The thinking man’s solution to the drug wars is to make them legal, save billions, divert it to treatment, education, medical research, so that if you do become addicted to something that’s not healthy for you, you go to your doctor and he sends you to a 28-day program that’s funded by the government.”

He also noted the hypocrisy of current drug laws that do nothing to prevent alcoholism, one of the severest forms of addiction.

“When you start detoxing, if you go into delirium tremens, 15 percent of those people will die in an emergency room,” Braudis said. “So we’ve got a problem in the kitchens in Aspen with cocaine while they’re selling millions of dollars every year in whiskey out the front door.”

He called for a “parliamentary procedure” to start debating the benefits of the legalization of drugs.

“Some of the smartest, oldest, richest people I know support legalization. They’ve seen Prohibition, they’ve seen the war on drugs fail miserably,” Braudis said. “And the community obviously supports a different approach to the standard undercover” approach in which small-time dealers are nabbed.

Both he and Ryerson agreed that the nation’s war on drugs has failed.

“I think a war on drugs is a losing proposition,” the police chief said. “Substance abuse is a health issue. But you also have to arrest people who are jeopardizing public safety.”

As the Colorado Legislature continues to pass hundreds of new laws annually, without removing any of the old ones, Kienast’s “Dick Dove and the Deputies of Love” legacy will likely not disappear any time soon.

“I hope my legacy is that I tried my best vis-à-vis the relaxed policing attitude that I inherited from my mentor, Dick Kienast,” Braudis said. “I’m not training ninjas.”

Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com