Hays defends department | SteamboatToday.com

Hays defends department

50 crowd Centennial Hall to lodge complaints, support police

Christine Metz

The Steamboat Springs Police Department is not perfect, Public Safety Services Director J.D. Hays said as he defended the department’s stand on DUI enforcement, treatment of juveniles and the officers’ interaction with the public.

“Do we ever say something we shouldn’t have said? Do we make mistakes? Absolutely, we do,” Hays said. “If not successful, we will change behavior and discipline will take place.”

Hays’ statements were made Tuesday in reply to complaints lodged by residents at an Aug. 19 City Council meeting.

More than 50 people crowded into Centennial Hall on Tuesday night, some to listen to Hays’ response, others to lodge more complaints and some to speak in support of the police department.

After hearing more than two hours of public comment, President Pro Tempore Paul Strong ended the discussion but said he was not ending investigation of the topic. The city has been working to improve its customer service with every department, including the police.

“We want all of our citizens treated with respect by any of the city employees,” Strong said.

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More than a dozen members of the public commented at the meeting; after their statements, council gave the floor to Hays.

Hays talked about DUI enforcement, saying that between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., the department does increase its DUI enforcement because of a higher probability of drunken drivers on the road.

He also said residents should not be stopped if they do not commit a violation. If a police officer pulls a driver over without cause, the officer would be disciplined, Hays said. Police officers also are trained to look for clues or indication of illegal drug use, Hays said, and will only search cars if those signs are present.

Hays made no apologies for recent DUI enforcement checkpoints, saying 88 percent of those surveyed in the city’s last checkpoint approved of it.

Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James also defended the police department. He gave examples of people injured or killed locally by drunken drivers in recent years. He showed a video of the damage a drunken driver did to a young Nathan Bunn in 1997.

Bunn was shown in a hospital bed, covered in tubes and barely able to breathe.

St. James shared a recent phone call he had with Bunn.

“I asked him how things were going. (He said) they were not going well right now. This is not the kind of life to have. I thought about how to end the call. Do I say, ‘hang in there, maybe things will get better.’ That was six years ago. That is his life. That is his future,” St. James said.

St. James asked the audience how many of their friends and family are not in Bunn’s position because of law enforcement efforts.

Attorney Tim Oliphant said no one in their right mind endorses drinking and driving, but he has countless clients who say that when they are pulled over, they feel intimidated into taking roadside sobriety tests or allowing searches of their cars. And most, he said, do not know the law and are not informed of the right to refuse a test or a search.

“The point is not what police do, but how they do it,” Oliphant said.

Oak Creek Mayor Cargo Rodeman told stories about how she and her friends have been pulled over for what seemed like nonexistent traffic violations: weaving on a very narrow road, signaling too early and claims that a functioning tail light was out.

“There are so many stories, I could spend an entire day mentioning them to you,” she said.

People were afraid to speak Tuesday night, Rodeman said, because of fear of retaliation.

“Whether the fear is justified or not, I can tell you it’s very, very real,” she said.

Throughout his presentation, Hays repeatedly said that officer retaliation against people who made complaints would not be tolerated. If it did happen, Hays said, the officer would be disciplined through counseling and days off without pay, and could be fired.

Hays said the police department also has no tolerance for underage drinking and drug use. The police department works with area youths, he said, through its high school resource officer and outreach programs.

Hays cited recent juvenile situations and discussed the causes under which police can enter a home. He said if there were extenuating circumstances — juveniles in a home that was broken into, someone who appeared unconscious or juveniles who were dangerously intoxicated — the police could enter.

Michelle Holton, a former law enforcement officer in Palm Beach County, Fla., talked about the national strife between teenagers and law enforcement and what she called the dismal failure of the War on Drugs campaign.

“Kids are literally screaming for our attention. Listen to their music. They want nothing more than most human beings, to be heard and to feel like they count. Instead, they are ignored or incarcerated at a young age, put in a system they were never intended to be in,” she said.

A few people, such as Jack Richardson, spoke of positive experiences with the police department. Richardson said that in the past he has had numerous DUI arrests and that anytime he has had a problem, it has been dealt with effectively.