Jonathan Coles: Overzealous police

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I read with some interest the recent stories about the shortage of deputies in the Routt County Sheriff's Office. Apparently "Functioning without just one of its 12 patrol deputies stretches the small office" (Dec. 31).

I have felt for most of the 15 years I have lived in Steamboat that there is a certain amount of overzealous policing by all law enforcement agencies working here. For many years, I worked in a job which required me to be driving between town and the mountain regularly, very late at night. It was a running joke among my co-workers that often every car leaving town had a law-enforcement "escort" right behind it. Does this sound like an overstretched agency?

Before sounding off like this, I thought I would do a little research, and run a few numbers. The first statistic I found, which is freely available in many places, is that there is a nationwide average of about 1,700 citizens per law enforcement officer. Then I thought I would see how many law enforcement officers we have in Routt county.

The Sheriff's Office usually has 12, the Steamboat Police Department has 15, including three sergeants and a training coordinator. I couldn't find hard numbers for the Hayden police department, or for Oak Creek, but let us assume a total of four between them. If we add a couple of Colorado State Patrol troopers and one GRAMNET guy, we have a total of 34. Add about six other investigative officers across these agencies for a total of 40 law enforcement officers. (I invite anyone more knowledgeable than I to correct these numbers; however, I imagine if you included every officer, including sheriff's detention officers for instance, as the national average does, you would have to adjust the number up considerably.) Divide that total by the Sheriff's Office's estimate of a population of 20,000, and we get a paltry 500 citizens per law enforcement officer in the county.

Now, let us be generous, and consider that from time to time there may be as many as 15,000 visitors in town. That means, with an extremely conservative estimate of numbers of officers, we have an average of 875 people per law enforcement officer. So we have almost double the national average number of officers. Add to this the fact that one of the oft-quoted reasons for living in this county is relatively low incidence of crime, and it would appear that we are not in the least under-policed.

This is not a complaint about the work that individual officers do. I'm sure that they take their jobs seriously and work very hard. I am also glad that it is an all-volunteer force. (That is to say that they are professionals who do not have to be conscripted; they do the job because they choose to, and if they get tired of the largely thankless work, they can choose to do something else.) What I am writing about is the overall level of law-enforcement in a town which doesn't seem to have a big crime problem.

I do not suggest that we never have serious or violent crime, I know that we do, from time to time. What I wonder is how many officers we really need to maintain law and order. I guess I feel that I am very well -- perhaps more than adequately -- "protected and served."

Jonathan Coles

Steamboat Springs

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