When Cargo Rodeman ran for mayor of Oak Creek in 2002, she ran on a platform of common sense, kindness and cleaning up the police department.
In 2001, a series of incidents convinced Rodeman and other Oak Creek residents that "people's rights were violated endlessly" by police, Rodeman said.
Now, less than two years after Rodeman took office, the town's police force has been through several upheavals but is at last what Rodeman considers a good department.
"I think the change has been really good," Rodeman said. "I think both (Chief Tim Willert and officer Felipe Nardo) are professionals. I think they're people first. I know they can handle any situation. They've shown it."
Many Oak Creek residents seem to agree with the mayor. Others feel the problem was not that serious to begin with, or that there is still room to improve.
Tim "T-MAC" MacDonald runs the kitchen at The Colorado Bar and Grill. He said he's often in the middle of law enforcement issues, if a fight starts at the bar or people drink too much and need a ride home.
MacDonald calls the town's new police force "fantastic." He's seen the town's teenagers, who often stop by the restaurant to play pool, taking the time to say "hi" to officers instead of taking off in the other direction. He said he also has noticed more people coming downtown for meals and fewer people avoiding town.
"A lot of times, people wouldn't come to town or wouldn't even drive through Oak Creek no less, just for fear of getting pulled over," MacDonald said. "They don't fear the white Chevy Blazer in their rearview mirror any more."
Efforts to change the police department began in the summer and fall of 2001, when residents who thought police were treating people unfairly formed an activist group called Citizen Down.
Two months after Rodeman was elected mayor in April 2002, Police Chief Tom Ling resigned, and the department began the first of several collapses that would keep the Town Board busy through the summer and fall.
By Labor Day 2002, the town found itself without a single officer.
As it searched for a new chief, the town signed an agreement contracting for services from the Routt County Sheriff's Office, and Rodeman took some precautions herself, such as positioning the town's police cars at either end of town to encourage drivers to slow down.
"I was moving police cars from one end of town to another," she said. "Everyone that lived in town knew I was moving police cars around, but it actually slowed down traffic."
By January 2003, Tim Willert was offered the job as chief of police.
"It was a total relief," Rodeman said. "I really think that prayers were answered, in as much as finding the right man. He didn't know anybody, didn't have any preconceived notions about anybody. Everybody basically had a clean state. There was just a huge perception of the people that felt they had been picked on and targeted for so long."
The new officers
Willert then chose officer Felipe Nardo to complete the town's department.
Willert has about 20 years of experience as a police officer. He joined the military police in 1983, was stationed in Hawaii and Germany, and in 1991, served in Desert Storm. After that, he worked in Morgan County and Fountain, then applied for the Oak Creek position.
Nardo has worked as a police officer in Kansas, at a jail in Colorado Springs and for the YMCA in Fountain.
"I think it's been challenging, and it's been rewarding, as well," Willert said. "I think we've accomplished a lot of things in the last year."
Those accomplishments include implementing a policy and procedure manual for the police department, which Willert said the town did not have before, completing an inventory of the evidence room and working to establish a Police Activities League to encourage children to get involved in athletics and other activities and to stay out of trouble.
The program's first activity was a New Year's Eve party, which program director Mindy Willert, the police chief's wife, said was a success and was attended by about 80 children.
As another effort to reach out to town children and teenagers, they established a school resource officer program at Soroco Middle and High schools.
The town's reaction
Don Williams, director of the Routt County Alternative School in downtown Oak Creek, thinks the new police force is an improvement.
"I really think the whole community is feeling much more positive about the police force," Williams said. "They're feeling supported rather than harassed."
Williams said he sees a big improvement in the relationship the police officers have with the town's youth.
Before, there was a sense that police officers were unfair to adolescents, Williams said.
Now, police are focusing on what preventative actions they can take to keep teens out of trouble, such as providing after-school activities, he said.
The current officers connect with the adolescents in more ways than just pulling them over after curfew, he said.
"We see more of a partnership with a regular police presence, them being able to hang out with the kids," Williams said. "(The police) connect with kids in a different fashion."
Williams said he's heard minor complaints from students, saying they still feel they're being checked on, "but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing," he said.
David Bonfiglio, the owner of Bonfiglio Drug in downtown Oak Creek, said he's pleased and feels the new officers, who helped apprehend a burglar at the drugstore last fall, are "very competent."
But, Bonfiglio said, he doesn't think there was a problem with the town's police in the first place.
"It's hard to call it an improvement. What I would say is it's calmed down the issue," Bonfiglio said. "I never felt we had a huge problem, I would think it was more of a perceived problem than a real problem."
The real improvement, he said, is that in most people's minds, the police department has become a "nonissue."
Bill Norris, a resident who has been involved in local and county government and whose wife used to be a town trustee, said he also didn't have a problem with the previous department.
The previous police officers, Norris said, "weren't perfect, but they were striving to do a goal that I thought was the right goal: to clean up the area and keep crime off the streets."
While he said he thinks the new officers are fine, he also thinks more guidance and direction from the Town Board would be helpful.
"We don't necessarily have to change the police department right now, but the structure above it needs to be torn down and restructured," Norris said. "If (police were) directed a little more appropriately, we could have a better Oak Creek."
Willert and Nardo said they were not aware of the town's tumultuous police background when they accepted their jobs but feel they've had time to build trust with residents and dispel some past perceptions.
"I'm glad we've kind of broken the barriers down," Nardo said. "Overall, we just hear a lot of good compliments."
They still receive negative comments, but that comes with any job, he said.
"As a police officer, you're going to experience getting good and bad (comments)," Willert said. "If you're doing your job, somebody's going to like you, and somebody's not going to like you."
Feeling she has the police problems taken care of, Rodeman said she has time to deal with some of the town's other issues.
"Maybe the only reason I can get all this other stuff done is because I don't have to worry about the police force," she said.
-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203
or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org