Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
I have to admit I don’t really care all that much that Hugh Zuker has dropped out of the race to replace Bob Braudis as sheriff of Pitkin County.
I guess maybe I should care, but, heck, I just can’t care about everything all the time.
That said, I couldn’t help noticing two things about his announcement that he just couldn’t go on.
The first thing was that Zuker, in withdrawing from the race, never quite mentioned the actual reason why he was quitting.
I mean, sure, he said it was because of the “vitriol and false accusations directed at me, and especially at my family,” adding that the abuse he has suffered was “but a small taste of what I can expect my family to be put through if I were to move forward.”
But he never mentioned what triggered all that “vitriol.” And that was the fact that his campaign grabbed a website address that should have belonged to one of the other candidates. As a result if people tried to get to that other candidate’s website, they were redirected to Zuker’s site.
It was a silly, thoughtless attempt at campaign dirty tricks. Whether it was really bad enough that Zuker should have been forced out of the campaign is certainly debatable.
But the fact that he quit over what was really a relatively low amount of abuse (something like three letters to the editor calling for him to drop out of the race) does suggest that he didn’t have what it takes to be sheriff in any case.
That said, let’s be clear, Hugh Zuker seems like a hell of a guy. As the longtime president of Mountain Rescue, he deserves lots of credit and gratitude from the community. No doubt about that.
But there’s that old saying about heat and kitchens (you know the one I’m talking about) and that makes me think Zuker was right to head for the exit.
But the second item, the one that really caught my attention, was one of his campaign issues that he apparently just had to mention again even as he dropped out of the race: the Pitkin County suicide rate.
It’s three times the national rate. That’s a terrible thing and it’s a statistic we have heard time and again from people decrying the horrible state of affairs in Pitkin County under Sheriff Bob Braudis.
It is, on the one hand, true. It is, on the other hand, wildly dishonest.
Quick point here: I don’t want to accuse Hugh Zuker of being dishonest. I suspect he picked up this particular item from some of the people who have long been using it to dishonestly attack Braudis – at least one of whom was part of Zuker’s campaign.
But wherever Zuker picked up that item, he used it freely – and it is, in any case, dishonest.
Why dishonest? Here’s why:
Talking about “suicide rates” wildly distorts the numbers when you’re dealing with a place as small as Pitkin County. National rates are based on huge numbers of people (300 million in the country these days). That means everything falls apart when you try applying those numbers to poor little Pitkin County.
It’s the difference between betting two-to-one on a dime and betting two-to-one on a million dollars.
The U.S. national suicide rate runs about 10 per 100,000 people. So, for Pitkin County’s roughly 15,000 residents that would work out to 1.5 suicides a year.
That means, if the county’s suicide rate is three times the national rate, there are 4.5 suicides a year – which is three more actual deaths by suicide a year.
And by the way, Colorado’s suicide rate is 17 per 100,000, well above the national rate. So, at the state’s suicide rate, Pitkin County would have roughly 2.5 suicides a year. Again, the county’s rate is high, but the actual number of suicides is low. Based on the state rate, there are two additional suicides a year in Pitkin County.
Suicide is a tragedy, of course. Any suicides, I suppose, are too many – but ranting about the need for drastic change in the current sheriff’s seriously defective philosophy of law enforcement based on such small numbers is absurd.
Let’s take it one step further.
The people who go on about the county’s suicide rate usually tie it to the “party-town” atmosphere, which is exacerbated and exaggerated by the current sheriff’s sadly lax drug law enforcement.
But in 2005, the most recent year for which I could find state statistics, Pitkin County had five suicides, which is pretty close to the 30 per 100,000 rate. But three of those five were age 65 or older.
Maybe Aspen’s party-town burn-outs are killing themselves as they reach Social Security age and look back over their wasted lives, but I think it’s going to be hard to blame the fall-out of a lifetime of partying on the current incumbent.
I’m definitely not blaming this kind of “figures don’t lie, but all the liars can figure” strategy on Hugh Zuker. I think he was handed this dog’s breakfast of distortions by the same people who have been trying to slop it on our collective plate since the last sheriff’s election in 2006.
And while we’re on the subject of death rates, some of those same people love to rant about the county’s high death rate from drugs, which is again roughly triple the national average.
But again, looking at rates leads us a bit astray. In terms of actual deaths, according to the state’s statistics, there were four “drug-induced” deaths in Pitkin County in 2005.
Now look, if someone wants to say that five suicides in the county are too many, fair enough. If they want to argue that four drug-related deaths are too many, again that’s fair.
We can debate that. We can try to decide who’s to blame and what to do about it.
But everyone needs to realize that we’re talking very small numbers and that one or two sad cases can wildly skew those “rates.”
We’re talking serious business, so let’s at least be honest.
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