Police meet with public

Department holds community meeting to field concerns

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The Steamboat Springs Police Department fielded questions, explained procedures and started taking steps toward improving communications with the public Thursday night.

About 20 people came to the community meeting held by the police department in an attempt to improve communications with the public.

Residents asked and police answered questions about DUI enforcement, the police department's policy on the arrest process, officer training and underage drinking. Some asked about the outcomes of specific cases.

Five representatives from the police department were there: City Director of Public Safety J.D. Hays; Assistant Police Chief Art Fiebing; Detective Bob DelVallep; Sgt. Joel Rae; and School Resource Officer Debbie Funston.

Fiebing talked about how officers are trained to evaluate whether a driver has had too much to drink. He said his officers were told to not arrest people who have warrants for their arrests in minor cases such as littering and dogs-at-large. He also said it is policy to not take people into custody for driving with suspended licenses.

Fiebing said emphasis is placed on treating the public with respect.

"What I wanted to do my whole career is just have good people get into law enforcement," Fiebing said. "We tell (police officers) if you treat the public poorly, then we are going to fire you. We hit that really hard. J.D. and I are passionate about that."

The community meeting was sparked by concerns residents made at City Council meetings this fall. Gary Wall, a private investigator hired by residents to look into law enforcement tactics, praised the police department's willingness to hold the meeting.

Most of the complaints Wall said he received came from people who felt they were being treated unfairly by local law enforcement.

"It came up so often from the people I talked to," Wall said. "I think these (meetings) are wonderful. We weren't concerned about the number of arrests but the respect for civil and constitutional rights."

One resident came to the meeting with statistics in hand. As part of an alcohol education class, John C. Lamb looked into the number of DUI arrests and total arrests the Steamboat Springs Police Department has made compared to other areas.

What he found surprised him.

Using 2002 data from the Colorado Bureau of Investigations and the U.S. Census Bureau, Lamb looked at 27 communities in Colorado. The sampling included resort communities such as Aspen, Crested Butte, Silverthorne and Durango. He also picked larger communities such as Denver, Boulder and Grand Junction.

When comparing the number of DUI arrests to overall arrests by a single agency, Lamb found that Steamboat ranked slightly below the average, with 18 percent of its arrests being DUI arrests.

When comparing the number of arrests made by a single uniformed officer per year, Lamb found that Steamboat was higher than average with one uniformed officer making an average of 26.8 arrests per year.

"The perception that Steamboat police are rougher on drunk drivers or rougher on people in general may not be correct," Lamb said after the meeting.

Hays said his police force is not always perfect.

Because of the disparity between the cost of living in Steamboat and a police officer's salary, retaining and attracting officers can be difficult, Hays said.

Police said there are procedures officers must follow when pulling over drivers they suspect have been drinking and that the intent is only to catch drunken drivers.

"It's not to say they (always) follow that line perfectly. It takes time to get to where they want to be," Hays said.

The police are hoping to hold more community meetings such as the one Thursday night, and they would like to focus on specific issues, such as DUI enforcement, domestic violence and underage drinking.

Residents suggested bringing in other law enforcement agencies.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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