EAGLE COUNTY — At the top of James van Beek’s list of lessons is protecting and respecting peoples’ rights.
“I’ve watched what happened when rights are taken away and when there is no rule of law or accountability, no checks and no balances,” van Beek said. “Spend a little time in places like that and I will give an appreciation of how good we have it here.”
You know those police forces in Kosovo and Afghanistan that will keep order when U.S. and NATO forces leave? Van Beek spent the past few years helping build those police departments from the ground up.
It’s built on community policing and van Beek said the lessons he learned in those war zones can be applied to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. That’s why he’s running for sheriff, he said.
“I enjoy serving our community and our nation. Most of my jobs throughout my life, from military service and being a cop for so many years, were in the service of America and its people,” he said. “I truly believe we need a change. I’ve walked and talked and worked side by side with a lot of people who feel the same way.”
Van Beek is a Colorado native and a first-generation American. His parents immigrated from Holland in 1957. He and his family have been coming to the valley since 1971.
They moved here in 1989 and he went to work with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office as a patrol officer before moving into field training and eventually becoming a detective.
He spent four years in the Army, three and a half years in Kosovo as part of the United Nations mission. He was a police officer and senior shift supervisor, chief of operations and chief of police in the Kaminicia area on the Serbian/Kosovo border.
Under a U.S. State Department contract he spent three and a half years in Afghanistan as a police mentor supervisor, working closely with the new Afghan police force in the field.
“It’s vital to work in the environment and be preventive instead of reactive. It helps cure some problems before they occur,” he said. “Getting into a community, you learn what the problems are, and that maybe it’s the problem, but maybe it’s a symptom.”
Working in law enforcement in Kosovo he said he saw human nature at its best and worst. Kosovo was hit with four days of riots in 2004, but they saw only one serious injury. Because of the relationships we established we were able to put things back on path.”
The ethnic hatred is pronounced with Serb enclaves next to Albanian enclaves. Sometimes a brave soul would wander over to the other side, but not often, and almost any spark could set off a fight, even in the markets.
“It could be some of the things they sold, the things they speak or even the way they stand,” van Beek said.
In about a year, most of that was gone and the security people were down to handling traffic. Residents might not be holding hands and singing “Kum Ba Yah,” but they’re talking and things are largely peaceful. It was measurable by the drop in the crime rate.
He spent a year and a half as the security manager on Vail Mountain. When he was working in Vail and during trips home from Kosovo, he volunteered his time with the Sheriff’s Office.
“In Kosovo and Afghanistan I had command positions, dealing with diverse groups, community elders and people from all walks of life,” he said. “We had to learn how different people perceive things. Even police officers from different areas of the U.S. see things differently. It taught me to appreciate other points of view and perspectives.”
They integrated the schools, working side by side with students, NGOs and the governments. By the time he left the kids were beginning to interact and many were bilingual.
They did the same thing with the police force. He refused to have police forces that were strictly Serb or Albanian. They were mixed.
“If we can do it, so can everyone else,” he told his officers. “We stand side by side and this is our community.”
The principle applies to Eagle County, he said.
“I’d like to see the deputies interact with the communities. That’s one of the biggest complaints I hear, that the deputies are disengaged. People see them in their cars, but they don’t know them,” he said. “There are some great programs going on, but they can be improved.”
He said he plans to upgrade SALT — Seniors and Law Enforcement Together. “There’s a lot of knowledge and skill that I feel is untapped. Quite often, many of them would love to be engaged,” he said.
Kids should be more engaged with the officers. There’s an Explorer program that helps kids interact with police and fire fighters. It enhances the community and gives kids a positive involvement.
“I’d love to see the kids stay in the community and contribute to the community,” he said.
DEALING WITH JUVENILE OFFENDERS
The area needs a juvenile intervention program — juvenile justice. It’s for first-time time offenders and not serious crime, not violent crimes.
“Kids can make a stupid mistake and technically they violated the law, but would putting them into the system really accomplish anything?” he asked. “Especially with kids, the justice system does not always work. If you’re not responding almost immediately and holding them accountable, it’s not as effective. They need to understand what the impact is.”
They need to answer this question.
“Are they remorseful because they got caught or because of the impacts it has on the victim, their family and community?” Van Beek asked. “They need to understand that they’ve done this damage, but they also need to learn that life will go on. Kids don’t have the perspective they need to understand this. They need to know they’re still loved, that they cannot continue down this path, but all is not lost. Sometimes that’s what it takes, someone to step up and say, ‘We believe in you,’” he said.
Sometimes, though, people need to be arrested, cited and go to jail. But if there is trust and a relationship, it will be easier for everyone.
“When they have to arrest someone and you have that trust and relationship, it’s going to go much better. They’ll be helping you,” he said.
These days he works, spends time with his family and church, volunteers with various nonprofit boards and heads the local Survive! program, a restorative justice program that teaches inmates the skills they need to deal with life on the outside.
“It allows them to take responsibility for the decisions they’ve made through their lives, and what they have done has impacted not just themselves and their families but also their victims and their families,” he said. “By having them take responsibility and understand the damage they have done, they can become a contributing community member.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.