Steamboat Springs The Oak Creek Town Board purchased new police cameras and discussed appointing a local citizen to review police complaints alongside the town's police commissioners after ongoing heated discussion about the Oak Creek Police Department at the board's meeting Thursday.
A public police forum scheduled for Wednesday evening was postponed due to a propane gas explosion earlier that day in Oak Creek that killed a local man. The town hopes to reschedule the forum in the next few weeks, Oak Creek Police Chief Russ Caterinicchio said.
Disgruntled residents and business owners have been circulating a petition enumerating complaints against the department, whose "big city" mentality is being blamed for hurting business in town.
Caterinicchio dismissed much of the controversy as "rumor and innuendo," noting that perceived increased enforcement of the law has actually been brought about by the citizens. Since he came to the department in the fall, calls for service have skyrocketed from 39 in October to 262 in January.
People on all sides of recent controversy packed Thursday's meeting, where the Town Board eagerly gave approval for the police department to purchase a pair of VidMics for its officers to wear on patrol. The devices, worn on the officer's uniform, record video and audio and also can take still photos.
Despite heated moments early in the meeting, locals expressed broad support for the purchase - one man even offered a $100 bill as a donation.
The VidMic units cost about $700 each, instead of the $3,000 to $4,000 to outfit each patrol vehicle with a camera. VidMic units have added benefits in their mobility, Caterinicchio said. Video and sound recorded on the device cannot be erased by an officer and can be subpoenaed in court proceedings, he said.
Footage and images recorded not only aid in criminal prosecution, but are also important when allegations of police impropriety or wrongdoing arise, Caterinicchio said. Given the ongoing discussion in town regarding the police force, having video of all police action has an especially high value in Oak Creek, he said.
"This documents the behavior of my officers, irrefutably, and the behavior of the contacts," Caterinicchio said.
The device also could limit liability and save the town costs in attorney fees, Town Clerk Karen Halterman said.
Under the town's current process, complaints against the police department are reviewed by the police chief and Police Commissioners Dave Fisher and Chuck Wisecup, who both serve on the Town Board.
At the suggestion of local residents, the Town Board discussed adding a citizen to the review process, pending approval of the town attorney.
Infighting about whether the police are upholding the law or unnecessarily hassling residents occurred not just among the audience, but also among the town board.
Many members of the board expressed displeasure that Mayor J. Elliott blacked out the name and contact information for a serious complaint against the police department and did not distribute it through proper channels.
Without that information, the police have little ability to investigate the complaint, Caterinicchio said.
"The process wasn't handled properly - not even close," board member Tom Bleuer said. "All it does is divide this town even more."