Whenever there is a critical incident with someone in “Blue” people begin to fear all law enforcement. In the minds of many, that single person’s actions represent everyone in that position. There is a fear-driven sense of vulnerability … what if that was me?
It happens across other professions, as well … a doctor who commits malpractice, causing patients to question the qualifications of all physicians; a professor who becomes too friendly with a student; a rogue minister; basically, anyone with whom we place our trust, and find it violated, causes a degree of uncertainty, lack of control and panic. We naturally seek to eliminate that threat, yet logically, we understand that it is not only impractical but, in most cases, impossible.
As we look for preventative measures, we begin to understand that there are no guarantees, no matter what we do; we can’t always preempt tragedy. Sometimes, someone meets all of the criteria and then suddenly something happens, which triggers an uncharacteristically violent or irredeemable act.
In seeking solutions, we are left with mitigation strategies designed to diminish negative outcomes, but there will always be an “x-factor” … an unknown circumstance or event.
We can make declarations like, we’ll never go to a doctor again, or we will change our church, or withdraw from school, or as in recent headlines, defund the police. In all of those instances, when our initial fear subsides, we realize that such drastic measures are not only unrealistic but unwarranted, as these isolated events are not the norm and the services provided are essential. Most encounters are professional, ethical and even compassionate.
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Yet, when a tragedy occurs, it sparks introspection. We must check our own “house” for potential weaknesses. Thankfully, community engagement among agencies is strong in Eagle County.
Much of the “Reimagine” campaign, designed to improve law enforcement, has long been our standard.
Qualifications: All potential law enforcement officers/deputies receive a thorough mental health evaluation and background check. We will not accept anyone with whom we have any concerns. Of course, not all past actions predict future response. As an example, people who may have had a horrible childhood or were wild teens have experience-driven motivations. Some may head toward a life of crime, while others are motivated toward greatness because they know first-hand the consequences of living otherwise. A rough start can be a detriment or can produce a deep sense of empathy. So, diverse backgrounds must be evaluated in perspective.
Training: Everyone must complete a certified program that covers all aspects of law enforcement and community engagement. This training includes skills needed in handling challenging confrontations but also the softer interpersonal skills, necessary for situational awareness and communications.
Equipment: Bodycams have become an essential tool in policing. It protects both officers and those they encounter by recording a clear dialog of what’s occurred. During an intense situation, an action may be taken, which, if presented out of context, may appear quite differently. A full and accurate storyline is essential.
Law enforcement is regularly sent to handle intense issues, where civilians are unable to contain the situation. That alone creates a level of emotion, uncertainty and potential danger that can easily escalate. When tensions are high, people may say or do things that may be out of character, and an officer must respond, with almost psychic acuity, to contain the situation as safely as possible. They must remain calm, even in the face of a possible fatality, including their own.
There has been some concern about local law enforcement utilizing military equipment. While the degree is greatly exaggerated, we must train and be ready for any threat, including terrorism or natural disasters, where regular gear is simply insufficient to save lives. And, while many would say that terrorism is rare, its rarity makes it unpredictable. Because we are prepared with the best equipment, and continually work on exceptional prevention measures, these issues are rare.
Schools: Some think that our school officers should be social workers, not police. While our deputies receive additional training and work closely with the mental health services across the county, their primary focus is your child’s safety. We must be prepared for the unlikelihood of a school shooting because every one that has occurred prior never thought it would happen to them, and many have occurred in “safe” neighborhoods. We absolutely refuse to subject our community to a parade of tiny caskets. The most vulnerable of our community deserve the highest level of protection and guidance.
Mental health: Thanks to the innovation of our county’s law enforcement and Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, we have created an extensive list of local resources for those in sensitive or volatile psychological crisis. Many services are offered free of charge or at scaled fees. No one in need will be turned away. We work closely with these dedicated professionals and defer to them when appropriate.
Homelessness: While not a huge factor in this valley, we have great empathy for those struggling for food and housing. If we must take someone in, we immediately work on placing them in contact with county resources. We want them to leave with a place to go and the potential of a home and job. While we cannot guarantee that outcome, it is our objective, and is often realized through government, community and faith organizations. No one is arrested for being poor.
Diversity: It is no surprise to anyone that Eagle County is not as diverse as many urban areas. We offer equality of opportunity and strive for equity of representation. We strongly encourage those within underrepresented groups to please consider a career in law enforcement. We need you to lead from within.
Sustainable solutions are a work in progress. “Imagining” a safe community is not enough — we must engage in the tough job of delivering safety and are continually seeking ways to improve. Help us on this journey towards excellence in service. We are grateful for the honor.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at email@example.com.