Police defend their operations

Law enforcement says recent criticism is off base

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A private investigator is challenging the way law enforcement officers in Steamboat Springs treat the public.

Gary Wall, who was hired by a group of residents to look into police conduct, said his research shows law enforcement is intimidating and overzealous. Wall and other residents voiced complaints at a City Council meeting Tuesday.

Representatives of all three local law enforcement agencies -- the Routt County Sheriff's Office, the Steamboat Springs Police Department and the Colorado State Patrol -- said Wall's complaints are off base.

Wall will not say how many people he represents, and he will not name them. He also does not cite specific instances. But he and other residents questioned law enforcement's practice of using minor traffic violations to stop drivers to see if the drivers are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Wall also said his research indicates police have an adversarial relationship with some teenagers.

Police defended their aggressive approach to DUI enforcement. J.D. Hays, Steamboat's director of public safety, said his employees are trained to treat people with respect. He said the department is open to hearing residents' complaints and working to get them resolved.

Wall opened his private investigation firm in Steamboat two years ago and gathers information for criminal defense cases. He said several individuals contacted him a year ago to look into area law enforcement practices. He placed a newspaper advertisement asking residents to share stories with him.

"Everybody has a story. It either happened to them or a friend or their co-worker," Wall said.

But Wall, who was Vail's police chief from 1973 to 1979 and won't rule out a run for Routt County sheriff in three years, isn't ready to share those stories.

"It is not about each individual case. It is about the attitude and philosophy of the law enforcement agencies," Wall said. "The overall big picture of law enforcement -- how they treat people and how they conduct themselves in terms of everyday contact."

Wall said he believes DUI enforcement often borders on harassment. Drivers have a right to refuse a vehicle search or a roadside sobriety test, but drivers often are unaware or too nervous to stand up for their rights, he said.

But police defended their actions, pointing to the number of deaths and traffic accidents caused by those driving under the influence.

"My job is to enforce the law and especially laws that kill and injure people," Hays said.

Hays said police do not stop drivers unless a traffic violation is committed and that officers do not initiate field sobriety tests or search vehicles unless the officers have specific indications that the drivers have been drinking or using drugs.

Routt County Undersheriff Dan Taylor said smaller traffic violations often are strong indicators of someone driving under the influence. He said the state's DUI enforcement manual correlates traffic offenses with the likelihood that the driver has a blood alcohol level greater than 0.1.

Trooper Brett Hilling of the Colorado State Patrol said the state patrol's job is to enforce all violations, some of which lead to DUI arrests.

Hilling remembers the first DUI fatality he worked -- it was an 18-year-old whose blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit and whose mother showed up on the scene. "What do you say to the mother of an 18-year-old child? That we waited to see if it was a DUI because we're not going to get behind someone with a 'minor' equipment violation?" Hilling said. "We are not going to wait."

Hilling said national statistics show 40 percent of all accidents are alcohol related.

Taylor said aggressive DUI enforcement is a community service. "Instead of being offended by this, you should tell me, 'Thanks for being out here making sure my family and I are safe,'" he said.

Wall also criticized the police department's zero tolerance policy for underage drinking and drug abuse as unrealistic. He said officers should be developing relationships with teenagers and questioned the practice of asking teenagers who hang out in town for identification.

"It is just the overall demeanor. What they portray to kids is not one of friendliness," he said.

David Cullen, the father of an 18-year-old and 20-year-old, complained to the City Council about the treatment his sons received from law enforcement.

Cullen said his son was questioned for hours without his knowledge, and that an officer searched his house for signs of beer and marijuana. Cullen said he has heard other teens describe similar treatment.

Cullen compared the fight against underage drinking and drugs to the war in Vietnam, where he spent two years.

"We weren't winning the war," he said. "There were years when we continued to fight in Vietnam until the American people stood up and said we had enough. It was unmanageable. That is what this is. We are fighting all the wrong wars."

Hays noted the police department's outreach efforts, including department-sponsored barbecues for teens and a high school resource officer who is on campus each school day.

Hays will not apologize for the stance the department takes on drug and alcohol use. He pointed to a community survey showing Steamboat teenagers have a higher than average rate for drug and alcohol use.

Cullen rejects such statistics. "The idea that we are somehow an excessive society of druggies and alcoholics is absolutely false," Cullen said. "Really, look at Steamboat parents and kids. I think you'll find we have exceptional kids."

Hays, Taylor and Hilling said their agencies are open to listening to residents' concerns and trying to address them. But the officers said Wall gave them little notice of their concerns before Tuesday's council meeting.

Taylor said the sheriff's office didn't talk to Wall and did not know about the council meeting.

Hays will return to the council Sept. 9 to give a response to the complaints.


-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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