Police called unfair

Department defends its actions

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Bill Rangitsch told the City Council he has been pulled over so many times he knows every new officer on the Steamboat Springs police force.

Rangitsch works late hours in his office in downtown Steamboat and said he has been pulled over more times than he can count. He has been pulled over for signaling a little too late, not coming to a full stop and for weaving as he swerved to miss a man standing on the side of the road.

"I have personally met every single new cop," he said.

Rangitsch was just one of a half-dozen residents who stood up to lodge complaints about the police department at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.

Private investigator Gary Wall, who was a police chief in Vail in the 1970s and served on state police boards, said he represents many clients who have had problems with local law enforcement agencies.

Wall called law enforcement overzealous and intimidating and said officers do not respect residents' constitutional rights. More than a year ago, Wall said he was approached by a group of residents who had complaints about law enforcement and, after investigating, he believes those complaints to be real and valid.

"This is not about the enforcement of law. This is about how they are enforcing or how they are mistreating people," Wall said.

Wall would not say exactly how many clients he represents or how many complaints he has heard. This spring, advertisements ran in the Steamboat Today asking any residents who felt they had been mistreated by law enforcement to contact the group.

The police department ran simultaneous ads asking anyone with concerns to contact them.

After listening to the residents' complaints, Director of Public Safety Services J.D. Hays said he would like to hear about specific incidents. He also said many of the situations brought up Tuesday night involved other law enforcement agencies, which he had no control over.

Hays and Assistant Police Chief Art Fiebing urged anyone with concerns to come into the police office.

"If you have a problem, we want to know about it. We want to hear it," Fiebing said. "It is very easy to come in and talk so we find out exactly what happened. We're not running the CIA over there."

Wall told of incidents in which he said police searched vehicles when they had no reason to suspect illegal activity, but unknowing residents gave them consent. Other residents complained that juveniles were being held and interviewed without the parents' knowledge, that one resident was unduly harassed and children were being unfairly targeted at schools.

"Let's place efforts into major crime that will actually protect the people and leave these kids alone," said Frank Chillemi, whose child recently had a run-in with the police department.

A recent community survey confirmed that abusing drugs and alcohol are problems among Steamboat Springs' young people, Hays said, and the police are working to curb those problems.

"We have zero tolerance for that, and I make no apologies for that," he said.

Keeping drunken drivers off the road also is a priority, so if someone weaves at any time of day they will be pulled over and inconvenienced for a short period of time, Fiebing said.

Hays and Fiebing said they considered it illegal to interrogate juveniles without a parent's consent or presence.

"We certainly stress to officers to treat people as you would a family member. The people we deal with at times can be very rude and at times dangerous. We (teach officers) to treat everybody with respect," Fiebing said.

Wall noted that the police department, which has a 24-person staff, has seen 16 officers leave in the past three years, is understaffed by five officers and offers lower starting pay than many similar communities.

City Council members said they would continue the discussion at their Sept. 9 meeting.

"Constitutional rights are extremely important and our police need to be treated fairly as well as being respected. It is a two-way street. It is a problem, and I think we have some work to do," City Council President Kathy Connell said.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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