Voces Unidas: Aspen police chief search offers opportunity to engage and unify communities
Voces Unidas de las Montañas
Aspen isn’t Memphis — or Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, or even Denver. But Aspen’s search for its next police chief serves as a timely reminder that the importance of police and community relations extends beyond the big city.
As a Latino growing up in the Roaring Fork Valley, I’ve personally experienced excessive police practices on more than one occasion. And as an advocate and leader of an advocacy organization, I have heard countless first-hand accounts of inappropriate and aggressive interactions with police from members of my community. Here in the central mountains, and all around the state, the tales are never-ending.
We see them more vividly on a nationwide scale, reminding us that there is much room for improvement, both around the way we experience police and the way police experience community. It shouldn’t take another national incident exposing yet another police shooting to remind us we need to work on these goals on an ongoing basis. Yet, remind us they do.
To be clear, I’m not trying to single out the Aspen Police Department, much less the five final candidates scheduled to meet with the community on Wednesday from 5:15-6:45 p.m. at the Aspen Police Department Community room.
Instead, I want to emphasize the importance of input from the entire community during this process — and the importance of building community into the challenges of police work moving forward.
Although Latinos make up a small percentage of the residents in Aspen, we do make up a significant portion of the workforce, and it’s important that the next leader continues to model what good community policing practices are.
Aspen’s next chief of police needs to understand our needs and come to the job with the mindset of building bridges rather than alienating workers who commute to and from town.
Whether it is recognized or not, we already have a trust issue between many members of our communities and our law enforcement agencies. It is often justified.
Last summer, our organization conducted the largest-ever survey of Latino voters in Colorado to inform the 2022 Colorado Latino Policy Agenda. Out of more than 1,500 Latino adults polled, which included voters from Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, an overwhelming majority of 84% believe that law enforcement does not always treat Latinos with dignity and respect, and more than 40% say they have either personally experienced or had someone in their household experience discrimination from law enforcement as a result of being Latino.
That discriminatory experience translates to 1 in 4 Latinos in Colorado being uncomfortable calling the police if they need help. The situation is even more common among young adults, with 32% uncomfortable calling law enforcement, even if they or their family are in need of help. To an incoming police chief, those figures should serve as a call to action.
We all need to work hard to repair the harm, the distrust, and begin to rethink how to address public safety while eradicating policy brutality, bad policies and practices, the over-militarized culture of local police and sheriff’s offices, and ways to invest in better training and better community-police relations.
Nearly half (49%) of Latinos in the survey believe funding for local police departments should be increased, and more than two thirds (67%) support additional tax dollars being invested to improve the training and regulations for law enforcement officers. But there are several additional measures to be considered, everything from involving community in policy reviews, to creating advisory committees with Latinos and others, offering community police academies and ride-alongs to build community, increasing diversity throughout the ranks and especially in management, involving community in de-escalation and racial bias policy and training reviews, and much more.
I’ve done a few ride-alongs with police officers in my time as an advocate to better understand the challenges and opportunities as a community. I’ve advocated for more funding and better tools for police, and I’ve been engaged in the hiring of at least four chiefs of police locally and in other communities where I have lived because public safety is a pillar of every community.
I’ve also been a fierce watchdog and critic when officers or departments attempt to get away with criminal, unethical, or unbecoming acts. It is, after all, the community’s police department, and the incidents we’ve witnessed locally, around our state, and across the nation should inspire action from all of us.
“Community input is essential in helping us select the right candidate to lead Aspen’s Police Department moving forward,” city Human Resources Director Courtney DeVito stated last week.
And it’s true. We all have a stake in public safety, but it doesn’t end with one community forum or an online survey at AspenCommunityVoice.com. The entire model must be sustainable.
For Latinos, we want to feel safe and trust that our local police officers will treat us with the dignity and respect that every resident deserves. For our law-enforcement agencies, the public and community’s buy-in, trust and support is critical to continuing to do the job of protecting and serving. We not only have an opportunity, but also an obligation to come to the table, engage in what’s happening, and decide whether our law enforcement policies and protocols are bringing us all together, or dividing us.
Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and Voces Unidas Action Fund, two Latino-created, Latino-led non-profit organizations working in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin, and Garfield counties.