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A CALLING - article by Eagle County Sheriff - James Van Beek (County Sheriff's of Colorado Magazine Fall/Winter 2018)

A CALLING - article featured in the County Sheriffs of Colorado magazine Fall/Winter 2018 edition
By: Eagle County , Colorado - Sheriff James van Beek

Eagle County: Population of over 53,000 covering 1692 square miles of mountainous terrain.  Most of the county lies in the Eagle Valley, with around 20% of the population in the Roaring Fork Valley.  It includes the Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts, as a primary economic driver, with over 80% forests and public land.  This area was once the summer hunting grounds for the Ute Indians, and during the 1850s, the area became well-known for its mining operations.   Eagle County is world-renowned for its ski resorts which can cause a huge population influx during the height of season with around 30,000 people skiing and the seasonal workers, yet it still has very active ranching communities and it attracts adventurers from around the world.  In the 1940s Camp Hale became home to the 10th Mountain Division, training soldiers for high-altitude winter combat.  Eagle County continues to offer the ultimate Colorado lifestyle.

The majesty of our nation, and in particular, Colorado, inspires an appreciation of nature’s awesomeness, the realization of our limitations, a camaraderie with those who live here, and a strong desire to protect the synergy of it all.  

While Colorado has expanded to include a very strong technology sector, there are elements of our origins that surface in our daily lives, particularly in our beautiful rural areas, where I have the honor of serving.  We watch ranchers still move livestock, and hunters still venture into the forests and ranges, just as our ancestors did, generations ago.

The balance between urban and rural needs and the resulting diversity that it brings to our state, makes Colorado one of the top locations in the country, yet it falls upon us as Sheriffs to assure that it all works in harmony.

A Calling.  When I speak with Sheriffs across the nation, the one thing we all have in common is a deep desire to face danger head-on, without hesitation, to protect our communities and preserve a lifestyle that extends much further than simply providing security services.  

Many of us have had this drive, this unidentifiable passion to run towards danger like we were in a Bruce Willis movie.  We were the kids on the playground who went after the bully, even when logic provided visions of hospital gowns.  We would sometimes challenge the rules in pursuit of what we felt was the right thing to do… creating challenges to our parents and other authority figures yet ending up with a deeper understanding of why certain rules were in effect.  

Many of us pursued military careers in defense of our nation, perhaps driven by a sense of brotherhood to those who came before us.  As we learned from the ones who paid the ultimate price, and Eagle County is no different in our history when we lost Oscar William Meyer EOW November 2, 1937 and John Fletcher Clark EOW July 11, 1961, danger and sacrifice come with the territory.  It is not a sacrifice that is limited to us, but includes our families and friends, as we never know when that hug at the door may be our last.  When we lose a “brother or sister” we grieve deeply even if we never knew them personally because we are all connected by that instinct to protect, and without a second thought, to place ourselves between danger and an innocent.  It is what drives us every single day.

We also learn the value of team.  “It takes a village” may be an overused phrase, yet it is essential to the success of our mission.  Working with our local, regional, and national law enforcement agencies, community members, social service organizations, first-responders, town councils, and other influential leaders, we are often the ones who set the tone for our entire county; it is important that we make it a positive one, which enhances the safety and enjoyment for everyone.

As the lead law enforcement officer for the county, it is often our responsibility to coordinate multi-jurisdictional efforts and to provide an inspiration and direction to the smaller agencies.  It is those elements of cooperation that can save lives during a crisis, but it requires established programs, dedicated personnel, appropriate facilities, multilevel expertise, pre authorized agency agreements, and an engaged community.  

We continually train to improve our skills, work towards increasing expertise in our various departments, and become excellent at securing funding from every imaginable source, to make it all come together.  The most sensitive can be citizen engagement, as their opinion and cooperation are often highly influenced by national media incidents.  

If the public knows little of what we do, they will fill in those gaps of knowledge with expanded visions of what they see happening in urban environments across the nation, and much of what is reported is sensationalized for impact, rather than truth.  We’ve all suffered the repercussions of those impressions; how do we overcome them? 

The best way to engage the community is through direct experience.  Our friends, family, and neighbors will more easily relate to us as people if they see us in situations that they live every day.  We all have our own unique methods of engagement, I will share what has worked exceptionally well in Eagle County.

I am continually amazed at the difference between what people think we do and what we actually do on a daily basis.  To address the disconnect between media/film influenced impressions, and the reality of how much a part of the community our deputies are, I have been writing a newspaper column that is published bi-weekly.  It has received an incredible amount of positive response and has dramatically increased support from the community as well as other governing agencies.  

Of course, many of our duties as Colorado Sheriffs are similar, yet we each have unique community needs that are influenced by geography, demographics, population, history, and other relevant factors.  Those differences provide both challenge and opportunity to fine-tune our approach to the office.  

Addressing the scope and depth of our responsibilities requires not only information but an ability to make those details relevant and interesting to the public.  Here are some segments of columns published in the Vail Daily newspaper, which may make it easier for other offices to generate that community connection.  It helps to outline the vast number of programs that intersect with our traditional duties and which are heavily influenced by the leadership of the Sheriff’s Office.

Community Engagement.  We most value our connection to community.  We are here for you.  Our involvement is sometimes overt, but most often, it is subtle, behind the scenes, keeping things running smoothly. We work on substance abuse programs; we advise gun owners on safety; our Assault Prevention and Self-Defense Instruction for Women is considered one of the best; the Internet safety programs help to secure our children from predators; we even work with little ones on bicycle safety for their first independent venture out into the world. We are also very proud of our counties diversity and actively participate in the annual La Academia Policia, a Spanish language Citizens Police Academy. From Neighborhood Watch to Crime Stoppers, our team includes some of the best people in the valley.

Detention Center.  "The goal is to work my way out of a job!" -Greg VanWyk, Captain, Detention Division.  Success is defined by never seeing an inmate return.  Upon arrival at the county jail, we first determine space availability.  While there is adequate square footage, we have personnel constraints that reduce the number of inmates we can accept.  Over that amount, must be transported and housed elsewhere, at an inmate per diem county expense.  Those that stay, begin their transition back to a “normal” life, immediately.  After completion of a medical evaluation to assure health and determination of special needs, we arrange for prescriptions and restricted diets.  Their personal belongings are secured, placement evaluations made to assure optimal safety, and loved ones notified, with particular attention paid to those who have no one because often their best break in life begins right here.   We introduce behavior modification, counseling, addiction awareness, skills development, emotional support, medical sustainability, and even nutritional awareness.  Upon release, we connect them to community programs that assist with necessities like housing, childcare, job training, support groups, and other essentials to reduce recidivism.  

CARE Team (Compassionate Assistance, Resources, Education).  The Eagle County Sheriff's Office understands the fear and pain many people face under terrifying circumstances; whether it is a robbery, domestic abuse, sexual assault, discovery of a suicide, stalking or other traumatic incident, the CARE volunteer team is there for you.  They are on-call 24/7 and a source of emotional support and available resources. They will provide comfort, a shoulder to lean on, as well as take you to the hospital or other safe place. They are there to guide you through the sometimes-complex process of recovery, including the trial process.  

Patrol.  Not a moment goes by that we aren't cognizant of potential dangers that may occur in the most unassuming places: our parks, schools, recreational facilities, outdoor venues, shopping areas, basically anywhere. Even when things start out innocently, they can abruptly turn tragic.

A child out past curfew can become a missing person. An outdoor excursion can become a life-threatening ordeal. A reach for the radio can become a deadly car accident. An evening out to a restaurant or pub may result in someone becoming intoxicated and exhibiting behavior that turns violent. Escalation can turn a simple argument into something deadlier. This aggression can make its way home, creating the potential for domestic violence. Unintentional and even deadly consequences can result from unfiltered aggression.  Patrol officers are committed to making sure any tragedy is immediately contained, even at great personal risk.

Public Safety Communications Center - 911.  Imagine receiving more than 125,000 calls per year, knowing that thousands of lives depend upon you. There are six screens at each desk, running the latest technology, monitoring every aspect of emergency and law enforcement in Eagle County. Eagle County Sheriff's Office, Vail Police Department, Vail Fire, Avon Police Department, Eagle Police Department, Eagle Fire, Gypsum Fire, Airport Rescue, Eagle County Paramedics, Rock Creek Fire, Eagle River Fire, Eagle River Water, and Vail Mountain Rescue, all depend on the Vail Public Safety Communications Center. 99% of all calls are answered by the third ring, yet only four to seven people run the entire operation.  The stress of managing 13 Eagle County agencies, with at least 20% of the calls considered life-threatening, creates a level of subliminal stress equal to that of those in combat; post-traumatic stress disorder is a common risk factor.

Special Operations.  Terrorism, hostage situations, crisis negotiations, active shooters, explosives, high-risk narcotics apprehensions, dangerous rural manhunts, dignitary protection, and other critical incidents are part of the readiness training required of this elite, multi-jurisdictional team. It has a medical unit (two volunteer trauma surgeons and two paramedics) that is equally trained for officer and civilian emergencies.  While these situations are not daily occurrences, the Special Operations team must be ready and on call 24/7.  

Sheriff supported 'Search & Rescue' - Vail Mountain Rescue Group (Volunteers).  The simple dog walk that suddenly turns deadly due to wildlife, weather, sudden fire, or terrain changes; the child chasing a bunny that disappears within moments; the elderly parent who is recalling past events and heads off in a new direction, unable to find their way back.  Anyone can quickly find themselves in a life and death emergency, unable to move or reach anyone.  

VMRG volunteers put in over 8000 man-hours per year.  They are on-call 24/7 and their job is often extremely dangerous, as they hang off cliffs; navigate rapids, tackle nearly impossible terrain; helicopter in when necessary; handle wildlife; carry the injured over miles of difficult landscape; all while protecting the wellbeing of each victim.  They go where most people would never dare to enter and they do it, risking their lives, at no pay, for the sheer love of their community.  

Emergency Operations Center.  With our recent wildfires, we see how quickly an incident can turn into a countywide critical incident.  We must be prepared for the quick escalation of any emergency.  How long will it take to respond? If needed, how and where can we transport 500 people? Delays cost lives. Can local hospitals handle massive casualties? What resources are available regionally, statewide and federally? Where is the contact point? The Emergency Operations Center.

While life here seems far removed from these situations, it is the job of Eagle County's Emergency Operations Center to be prepared. An active shooter, suicide bomber or, as in the resort town of Nice, France, a vehicle used to mow down pedestrians can occur anywhere. And while the likelihood of such an incident occurring in Eagle County is small, it is our job to be prepared.

ICE & The Law Enforcement Immigrant Alliance.  With the recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests, questions have arisen regarding the role of the sheriff and local police on immigration. There is a distinct separation of responsibilities within each agency, with the role of local law enforcement being to secure the safety of the residents in its jurisdiction. That safety extends to all residents, as well as long- and short-term visitors to our community.

ICE's focus is in removing threats on a federal level. Those arrested have a criminal and, often, violent history, posing a danger to all. The greatest threat is to our Hispanic communities, where criminals feel like they can terrorize with impunity. Something had to be done.

The Law Enforcement Immigrant Alliance was the brainchild of Catholic Charities, an organization close to the Hispanic community and whose values welcome all beliefs. The Sheriff's Office and the Chiefs of Police for Vail, Avon, Eagle, and Basalt considered this to be an innovative bridge to those who might normally fear law enforcement. Other agencies also recognized the value in this alignment, including Eagle County Schools, the Salvation Army, Bright Future Foundation, YouthPower365, Eagle County Victim Services, county agencies, and other private organizations.

Criminals bet on the silence of those who are undocumented, allowing them to dominate neighborhoods by instilling fear through violence and illegal activities. The council creates a direct line to law enforcement, protecting those in need.

This is not the same as establishing sanctuary city status, as local law enforcement will not interfere with ICE doing their job, but there is a distinct line between their job and that of local law enforcement.  Victims feel safe knowing they will be protected, and everyone in the community benefits by the removal of criminals from our neighborhoods.  

Wildfires.  Regarding the Sheriff’s Role in dealing with Wildland Fires and evacuation responsibilities:  This past summer we had a large WUI Fire where ECSO deputies were the first ones in a local trailer park: calming residents as they could see approaching flames, while carrying crying children to car seats, helping residents gather nearby pets, assisting the elderly and disabled into cars, helping families quickly load their most prized belongings, jump-starting cars that seemed to defiantly refuse to vacate, convincing those who were in denial that leaving was a requirement, not an option, attempting to communicate the urgency without imparting fear to those with limited language capabilities and assuring everyone they would be fine, as the hot smoke and ash covered their faces.  In total, we evacuated more than 200 homes.  

This organized chaos was conducted amongst incredibly deafening noise … sirens, helicopters, people screaming, crying, yelling, as they tried to find loved ones and missing pets and gather cherished possessions, while imagining the worst … a life with lost memories.

The area residents were not the only ones in panic. Spouses and family members worried that the kiss goodbye to their first responders might be their last. Moving families to safety required running toward the danger to make sure every last detail was secure, and every possible threat was addressed. We were all committed … no loss of life would occur on our watch, and our families know that means: We will risk our own in the process.  

All this while also coordinating in a unified command, working on cost sharing agreements, and still providing the high level of coverage that is expected everywhere else in the county.

Other articles we wrote about covered specialized dangers such as hazmat threats. An article on Carfentanil that we wrote about, following some deaths here in Eagle County related to this went global.  Rather than detail it, I will include the newspaper link: 

Of course, we include articles on fire emergencies, gun safety, internet predators, joint columns with Police Chiefs on mutual concerns, charitable events, hunting regulations, wildlife safety, suicide, substance abuse, social media influence, driving issues… all written with sentiment and/or humor to add interest to otherwise dull or frightening information.  

The variety of newspaper column topics helps to reach the diversity of our residents.  My focus is in letting the community know that the Sheriff’s Office is connected to nearly every aspect of our county and that we strive to serve the needs of everyone.  We want people to feel comfortable, included, and to turn to us in crisis, as well as joy.  It is our mission, our calling, and a privilege to add others to our team, in the protection of this state we call home.  

I am honored to be elected into a position of such trust, and as Sheriff, to share with my peers some of the strategies that have been so effective in Eagle County.  May it expand your community team and deliver a lifetime of continued adventure, challenge, and fulfillment.  Thank you for sharing the calling.

This article was featured in the County Sheriff's of Colorado Magazine - Fall/Winter 2018.  Click on the CSOC link to learn more about the County Sheriff's of Colorado online.