Use of force by Aspen police on the decline
THE ASPEN POLICE DEPARTMENT HAD TO USE ITS WEAPONS JUST ONCE IN 2014, AND THAT WAS WHEN A SUSPECT WAS HELD AT TASER-POINT. HERE’S A LOOK AT THE DEPARTMENT’S USE OF FORCE SINCE 2011.
Year Taser display Taser stun Taser cartridge Other* Total
2011 5 1 2 2 10
2012 1 1 1 3
2013 3 3 2 8
2014 1 1
SOURCE: ASPEN POLICE DEPARTMENT
Not since Jan. 27 of last year has an Aspen police officer used a weapon, and even then, it was not fired. A transient man, whom police said had a history of threats, violence and unpredictable behavior, was trespassing at an Aspen church.
When officers tracked down the man, who was huddled over a table, they asked him to get on his knees. He didn’t comply, prompting an officer to point a stun gun at the suspect’s chest before he got on his knees and was handcuffed and arrested, according to police reports.
Of the Police Department’s 24,000 calls for service in 2014 — whether they were traffic stops, reports of bears, thefts or domestic disputes, among other incidents — 370 yielded arrests. And of 511 verbal encounters with individuals in 2014, the Police Department reported 79 of those were noncompliant. Three so-called hard techniques — strikes or kicks by police officers — were used in 2014, according to data the department provided to The Aspen Times, but only the January incident resulted in the deployment of a weapon.
“There’s a culture in Aspen where we try to take time with people and listen to them,” said Police Chief Richard Pryor. “We’re not there to stir up conflict, so the overarching goal is not to have to use any force and to use other skills we have through hiring intelligent people who are able to look at the big picture, who have time to slow things down and listen to what people have to say.”
In 2007, the Police Department implemented a policy regarding stun-gun use. The policy was created after an officer zapped a homeless 63-year-old woman who was rifling through donated items in the alley behind the Thrift Shop of Aspen. The woman was hospitalized, and the officer who used the Taser was fired.
Police Department statistics also show its use of weapons on the decline. In the four-year period from 2011 to 2014, weapons were displayed or used a total of 22 times. From 2004 to 2009, the department had 152 use-of-force incidents.
Pryor said the use-of-force policy is always evolving.
“The latest recommendation we have from Taser (the company that manufactures the less-than-lethal weapons) is that you avoid the chest area if you can,” Pryor said.
But there’s no textbook policy on when or when not to deploy weapons, Pryor and Assistant Police Chief Linda Consuegra said.
“If you have somebody who’s running away with a weapon and they might go and hurt someone, you don’t want them to get away,” Consuegra said.
Those types of incidents are a rarity in Aspen, Consuegra and Pryor noted.
“We really want our people to think hard about using these tools,” Pryor said. “They’re extremely intrusive with anything from a baton to displaying a firearm or (pepper spray).”
He added, “Every situation is unique, and often, the public has in its mind we should use a certain thing all of the time in a certain way, but life isn’t like that. “
Use of force by police has been under heightened public scrutiny following the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the July 17 chokehold death Eric Garner by a New York City officer.
Pryor and Consuegra said they have paid close attention to those stories as well as the December shooting deaths of New York City police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.
“What’s been absolutely phenomenal has been the support in the community, people saying, ‘Thanks for being the way you are,’” Pryor said. “But I had one person put their hands up to me. … I couldn’t believe someone in Aspen was doing that, but it was on everybody’s mind, and I can certainly understand the frustration people feel in some aspects of policing. But generally speaking, 99 percent of cops do the right thing all the time.”
A majority of Aspen residents certainly are satisfied with their Police Department’s approach toward law enforcement. The results of the city of Aspen’s 2014 Citizen Survey, which were released in October, showed the Police Department, along with the Aspen Recreation Center and Clerk’s Office, receiving the highest marks. Ninety-three percent of the survey’s respondents said they were either “somewhat satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the Police Department. Five percent said they were “somewhat not satisfied,” and 2 percent were reportedly “not at all satisfied.”
Only in 2008, when 94 percent of the respondents reported being somewhat or very satisfied, has there been a higher mark since 2006.
“If there’s a message from our people, it’s that we treat people with respect,” Pryor said.
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