Oak Creek examines police pros, cons

Community involvement, professionalism top residents' concerns

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— The take-home message from Tuesday night's police forum was that Oak Creek residents say they care more about who the officers providing their law enforcement are than what type of agency they work for, Police Commissioner Dave Ege said.

But ultimately, whether Oak Creek redevelops a local police department or contracts with the Routt County Sheriff's Office still is a concern, too, Ege said. After two hours of discussion Tuesday, little consensus had been gained on that big question, with a slight majority, 60 percent, voting for local police.

Only 25 people were in attendance at the police focus group's first forum, including four of the town's elected officials and four members of the focus group.

Rather than driving for their ideal law enforcement scenario in Oak Creek, participants engaged in thoughtful, frank discussion about the pros and cons of specific elements of all the possible arrangements, such as community involvement and professionalism.

A survey conducted last month by the police focus group showed five areas that respondents thought needed law enforcement attention in Oak Creek: domestic violence, speeding through downtown, drugs, alcohol and municipal code violations.

The major concerns of the forum attendees, however, were more about the personal characteristics of officers than their employer or responsibilities, moderator Mike Forney said.

Attendees took part in an open-ended discussion in which they stated everything that was important to them about policing, with suggestions ranging from "plays well with others" to keeping within Oak Creek's limited $120,000 law enforcement budget.

Participants stressed that they wanted a law enforcement officer to get to know Oak Creek and its people, particularly its youth.

About 10 Sheriff's Office deputies have been at Soroco High School for various reasons this school year, as opposed to a smaller number of local officers who know all the students, said Principal Dennis Alt, a member of the police focus group.

Dina Murray pointed out that she'd like to see officers paid very well to attract good candidates, but if Oak Creek can afford only one officer, it would be extremely tough to balance a 40-hour workweek with visibility and presence.

"They can't always be there after school and at all night activities," Murray said.

Prioritizing

When attendees were asked to identify their top five concerns, nearly two-thirds selected the top vote-getter: visibility and presence. With a three-way tie for second place, about half of the forum's participants selected code violations, professionalism and community involvement. Participants also placed value in response time, discretion and fairness.

Although keeping within the budget was a major point from the recent survey, with 70 percent of respondents indicating they were unwilling to increase property taxes to pay for better policing, only five of Tuesday's attendees ultimately chose it as a top concern.

"What you're saying is that while the budget is important, there's six or seven things that are more important," Forney said.

When asked to choose their top three out of the most popular concerns, attendees overwhelming chose community involvement and professionalism, with visibility and presence coming in a distant third.

Forum participants then moved on to discussing the pros and cons of each concern, for both a local police department and contracting with the Sheriff's Office. Public sentiment in the room generally was able to come to consensus on the strengths and weaknesses, even if the consensus was that either option was a mixed bag.

Attendees seemed to be in agreement that the Sheriff's Office would be more professional, and better equipped, trained and managed than a local department.

Oak Creek resident Bernard Gagne said a local police department needs professional management and oversight.

"I really have a huge concern that we do not have police administration background here," Gagne said.

However, Sheriff's Office cons that kept cropping up were potentially long response times and a lack of community involvement.

The Sheriff's Office generally has two patrol deputies on duty at any given time, and they are based out of Steamboat Springs to provide the best response time for all of Routt County, Forney said.

Focus group member Eileen Rossi, who recently has been a summer seasonal officer for Oak Creek, gave information about estimated call times for a local police department, focus group member Ann Trout said. Rossi, who lives south of Oak Creek, said she that when she was on-call, she could be dressed and in town from a dead sleep in 10 minutes, Trout said.

The focus group plans to hold a second public forum on April 4 at the South Routt School District offices.

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