Life is a highway

The trials and tribulations that drive state troopers

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The Colorado State Patrol office in Steamboat Springs might be a let down for someone who walks through the doors, expecting to see something that resembles a scene from a television crime drama. The metal, shed-like, building sits unassumingly just west of the U.S. 40 and County Road 129 intersection.

After walking through the door, a white front counter welcomes visitors to a plain room with a couple of desks and a room in the rear with boxes.

The most eye-catching element in the space on Wednesday was the two troopers sitting at the two desks.

The sharpness of their nearly bald shaven heads matched the perfectly pressed blue shirts with ties tucked in just below the second button and the shined patent-leather pouches and holsters connected to their black leather belts.

Trooper Brad Keadle is one of the two. He sits at the desk smiling, breaking through the stoic image the uniform paints on the man.

He begins to speak, but his sentence is interrupted by the phone ringing on his desk. He turns and picks up the receiver.

"Keadle," he says. "Hey Sarge."

It's his boss and it appears the sargeant is inquiring about a recent auto accident that Keadle is investigating. Keadle tells of skid marks leading up to the crash area.

"Then he hit and the skid marks kept going," he said over the phone.

Keadle goes into more detail about the accident, of a fatality, and how he was concerned about not knowing for sure who the driver was.

"Yes sir. Yes sir. OK, I'll do that. Well thank you. Thanks very much," he said and then hangs up the phone.

"I'm getting plowed on hours," he says. "I'm just finishing up my last fatal."

That is the life of a Colorado State Trooper and it explains the plainness of the room.

"Our existence is for highway safety. That's it," Keadle said. "Our expertise is accident investigation."

In the last six month, Keadle says there have been six fatalities that state troopers have dealt with and for Keadle, as an accident investigator, he has dealt with them all.

"I have found, and it is kind of strange, but the dead body itself doesn't bother me."

"What does bother me no," he breaks in mid-sentence. "I don't want to say 'bother.' What I take as the greatest part of my responsibility is to personally deal with the family that remains."

Clearly, Keadle says, the most difficult part of the job is informing the family.

"I take it as a challenge to make sure I spend time with them," he says.

Seven years ago he was on the receiving end of such news when his sister died in a car accident in California.

After the accident, he and his family didn't feel they were properly treated by the state troopers who investigated

the accident.

"I don't think we talked to one state trooper," Keadle says. "They avoided us."

Keadle makes sure that doesn't happen to families that he deals with. Since being head trooper, he has always volunteered to do death notifications.

He says he spends as much time as needed with the families to give them all the information they want to have about the accident to give closure.

Though offering this service sometimes can be the most rewarding part of a troopers job, Keadle says it still is the hardest.

"It's the tears of the mother who I have to tell that her teenager has died. Or the husband who I have to tell that his wife has died," he says in an honest, plain voice. "That's the hardest."

State troopers don't make domestic calls or serve papers. They are on the road most the time.

"Trooper Tafoya here," Keadle said while nodding at the other trooper in the room, Chris Tafoya. "He's on the road for 50 hours in a week."

Tafoya is one of the newer troopers to the area, about a year into his job. Steamboat Springs tends to be a grooming ground for new troopers. The high turnover here is manly because of the high cost of living, Keadle says.

Most troopers come here after the 21 weeks at the academy, stay the mandatory two years required of their first job, then leave.

Tafoya, 24, said he has always been interested in law enforcement, but was really interested in the philosophy of the troopers when it came time to choose his path.

"It's the ideals projected by the patrol," he said.

State troopers have no criminal records, endure a personal interview into their past under lie detector tests that can last five hours, survive an intensive background check that includes interviewing friends and previous coworkers and go through 21 weeks of training at the academy in Golden.

The hopeful result is to get an employee who is a model citizens.

"Most of the troopers you find are troopers all the time," Keadle said. This means walking the proverbial straight line during work hours and while off duty, he explained.

Keadle admits that a two troopers have been in the news recently for breaking that code, referring to a local trooper who was found guilty of child abuse and another who left a blemish on the agency's reputation for dating a minor.

"That's an embarrassment to our patrol," Keadle said.

In a 10-hour shift, a state trooper averages five to 10 contacts with motorists a day. The purpose of that, Keadle explained, is not to write tickets.

"If I go up and down the road writing tickets, I'm not educating," he said. "I'm making a lot of people mad, but I'm not educating."

The idea, he explained, is to have a presence on the road and write tickets and make arrests only when it is absolutely necessary. The patrol has no citation quotas to meet, only an obligation to promote safety, Keadle said.

On the night of St. Patrick's Day, for example, Ryan Parker was among six troopers patrolling highways around Steamboat Springs and Craig. Parker, 24, worked the night shift, 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.

As Parker traveled back and forth on the highway between the edge of Steamboat Springs and Milner, he checked the speed of every vehicle using radar.

In about a three-hour period, he stopped five motorist, giving them warnings for weaving, impeding traffic and defective taillights.

Parker did have one motorist do a roadside sobriety tests. The man passed by walking a straight line and counting backwards from 158 to 147.

"If we can get one drunk driver off the road, this is well worth it," Parker said.

In all, local state troopers made 110 stops during the evening of St. Patrick's Day; 93 resulted in written or verbal warnings.

"That's a pretty good night to work," said Trooper Brett Hilling.

Keadle explained that troopers give more warnings than tickets, usually just to let people know they have a broken taillight or that they are driving dangerously.

"We're the taillight chasers," Keadle said. "We kind of get stuck with it."

But he said it works. Most the time, all it takes is a warning and people won't do it again. Other times, a broken taillight will lead troopers to discover a driver who is impaired or may have committed other offenses.

Keadle said he doesn't patrol the highways as much anymore. Instead, he focuses on accident investigations in Routt and surrounding counties and is involved with community education in public schools regarding road safety, anger management and recruitment for the patrol.

Keadle said the work in the schools ties into the purpose of the Colorado State Patrol, which is highway safety.

"By the time they finish high school," Keadle said of most of the students, "I've made contact with them three or four times."

Along with getting to know people, Keadle's hope is that when teenagers begin to drive, they understand they don't have to become angry with other drivers and they don't have to view the troopers as the enemy.

In the past, Keadle said, the popular belief among troopers was "the badge was a conflict solver."

"We're realizing we can't do that," Keadle said.

Instead, Keadle supports community education regarding safety issues and being proactive with citizens in a familiar setting, instead of being reactive in tense situations.

"We've been called arrogant," Keadle said of the patrol's image, which he said is beginning to change with the community work. "But we do believe we are the best."

Gary Salazar of the Steamboat Pilot staff contributed to this report.

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