Steamboat Springs The most popular person in the downtown scene these days happens to be dressed in blue and wear a badge.
Meet Kiel Petkoff, who joined the Steamboat Springs Police Department in October 2011 and on Aug. 1 was assigned the position of downtown resource officer. From 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, Petkoff can be found working his downtown beat.
“What’s not to like,” Petkoff said. “It allows me to be the cop I’ve always wanted to be.”
On Friday night, his job as the downtown beat officer involved talking with several shop owners who have had shoplifters. He also walked through the downtown bars and posed for a few photos with his new fans.
The dozens of downtown business owners, employees, patrons, residents and visitors Petkoff visited Friday night were happy to see a visible police presence downtown.
“It’s always someone you know you can walk up to and ask a question,” said Jerry Britton, who was visiting from New York.
Bar owners greeted Petkoff and smiled as they told him what entertainment and crowd they were expecting that night.
“It’s super beneficial for the first time in the years I’ve been here,” said Melissa Baker, owner of The Tap House Sports Grill. “I think the police and bar owners are on the same side instead of working against each other.”
Vibrant downtown creates need
Mainstreet Steamboat Springs Manager Tracy Barnett said that for years, downtown business owners have been wanting an officer assigned to the area. She said the idea grew out of the Hospitality Resource Panel, which meets to to address the nighttime hospitality economy downtown.
“This is where everything is happening right now, so it’s good to have eyes and ears on the streets,” Barnett said.
She said that the nighttime economy is important to the downtown district but that it has to be managed.
In the past four years, calls for a police response downtown have increased by 18 percent, Steamboat police Chief Joel Rae said.
In recent years, police have dealt with serious fights. One at Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue in January 2009 resulted in the death of Richard Lopez and a three-year prison sentence for Eduardo Capote. At the same intersection this past December, a man involved in a fight suffered a skull fracture and was flown to a Denver hospital. Another serious incident occurred in June when a gun was fired toward bouncers at a downtown bar. No one was hurt, and the suspect, Steven Torres, has been charged with three counts of attempted first-degree murder.
The assaults have been the most concerning to Rae as well as some downtown business owners.
“I’ll have to be honest,” Mountain Traditions gallery owner Kenton Stratton said. “I think there was a point where it was a little bit seedy in the evening.”
Rae, who was promoted to chief in January, made increasing the police presence downtown a priority. At the beginning of the summer, police began doing regular bar checks, and officers were told to patrol the area on foot, especially during busy nights.
Because of the police presence downtown in June, officers responded within seconds to the Lincoln Avenue bar where the gun was fired and arrested Torres about a block away.
Savings caused by vacancies in the police department during the first half of the year allowed Rae to pay for the dedicated downtown officer position through Dec. 31.
“I think it’s going to be successful, and hopefully we can afford to have it for the future,” Rae said.
Downtown business owners think the position is a necessity.
“Downtown is the heart of our community, and we need to make sure it’s a safe place to be,” said Steve Kennedy, co-owner of The Homesteader kitchenware store.
Barnett said the additional police presence makes people more comfortable to be downtown, and she hopes Petkoff will be allowed to continue working his beat.
“I’m going to lobby as hard as I can to keep that happening,” she said.
Before coming to Steamboat, Petkoff was an officer at the Walsenburg Police Department, which he said frequently did bar checks that were effective in reducing violence. He brought that experience to Steamboat.
“I took it upon myself to do bar checks quite frequently because I knew they were so effective,” Petkoff said.
Downtown bar owners say patrons used to feel that if they saw a cop walking through a bar, something was wrong, and they generally did not want to see law enforcement. That perception has changed now that Petkoff has become a regular customer of sorts.
“The clientele is not terrified when he walks in anymore,” said Baker, the owner of the Tap House.
Customers have gotten to know him, and instead of running out the door, they now come up and talk and take pictures with him, and the ladies admittedly try to flirt with him.
“At first, people were really intimidated when they would see police walk through the door,” Carl’s Tavern co-owner Collin Kelley said. “Now, they rest a little easier.”
Kelley said Petkoff and other officers have been quick to respond to fights outside the bar and have helped them address drug problems in the bathrooms and people walking out on tabs as well as to keep disputes from erupting into fights.
“They’re right here to fix it,” Kelley said.
Other bars have had similar experiences.
“It’s such a load off my mind,” said Rob Shaw, service manager at Sweetwater Grill. “It kind of keeps the shenanigans away from this area for sure.”
Old Town Pub bar manager Sean Regan said the police presence has been a deterrent for fights and has gotten people to “curb their ignorant ways.”
"There are a lot of people that have just relaxed,” he said.
Petkoff said the instances of serious fights downtown are down 70 percent compared with last year.
Shop owners also are appreciative of the police presence, especially during a busy weekend when merchandise is outside for a sidewalk sale. Many shop owners reported problems with shoplifting, a problem Petkoff hopes to address by offering classes and teaching employees how to confront a shoplifter.
A walk through Lincoln Avenue shops showed that the issues businesses face extend beyond shoplifting. One shop employee asked Petkoff how to address a problem with a former employee who had been fired for selling marijuana out of the business and was suspected of stealing merchandise and cash.
As fall approaches and the days get shorter, businesses that stay open late take comfort in knowing there are officers around when employees are working into the night, sometimes alone.
“It’s kind of a really nice, reassuring presence,” Ciao Gelato co-owner Lynne Romeo said. “Knowing someone is looking out for you, that’s nice.”
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com