After 23 years, cop moves on
VAIL ” Joe Russell is leaving the only job he’s had as an adult.
Russell has worked for the Vail Police Department since he graduated from Mesa State College in 1982.
In that time, he’s worked in just about every job a police officer can have in Vail, and has invented a few jobs in the process. At the end of this month, he’ll clean out his desk in Vail and take a new job, as Silverthorne’s new police chief.
Like a lot of longtime locals, Russell never imagined his stay in Vail would last more than 20 years.
“I thought we’d be here a few years, then I’d end up at a Front Range or Denver department,” he said.
But there was little doubt Russell would be a cop. The Denver-born son of a homicide detective in that city, Russell got his first taste of police work at 13, when he went with his dad to a grisly crime scene.
His dad was at the wheel the first time Russell was involved in a high-speed chase. “It sure wasn’t boring,” he said.
After finishing college at Mesa State in Grand Junction, Russell was Vail’s newest cop three days later. He’s been in town ever since.
In that time, Russell has worked for five police chiefs, and has seen any number of officers and other town employees come and go.
He’s also had his share of good and bad moments.
As a member of the department’s SWAT team, he was sent to Aspen to help police there arrest a man thought to have a machine gun. Russell was the first man through the door.
Another time on SWAT team duty, Russell and his partners snuck into an apartment in Avon to arrest a gun-wielding man who had peppered the Sunridge apartments with bullets one afternoon.
Creeping in after the man had either fallen asleep or passed out, the officers found him on a bed, with the gun just an arm’s reach away.
Those moments scared Russell’s wife, Cheryl, more than him.
“The training you get here prepares you for those times,” he said. “My wife hated it when I was working the SWAT team or narcotics. I just felt like it was part of what you were trained to do.”
But along with the scary moments are the times unique to cops in resort towns, like the time Russell was investigating a firewood theft and stumbled across a nude couple engaged in the sort of thing nude couples tend to do.
Then there were the French bicycle racers participating in the old Vail Criterion who thought it was OK to stop to answer nature’s call just anywhere in town.
That’s besides the countless tourists and longtime locals who sometimes forget their manners. Dealing with those people requires some diplomatic skills.
“The community has expectations the cops will treat them a certain way,” Russell said. “Being a resort cop takes a special kind of person. It requires more of people. I think of it as having a basic box of law enforcement tools, then flowering it up a little more.”
But with the diplomacy, being a resort cop also requires officers to stick to their guns.
“We used to hear ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ or ‘I’ll have your job in the morning’ a lot more than we do now,” he said.
There are also small ironies that come from spending a long time at one place. The biggest one, for Russell, was the time he saved local gadfly Michael Cacioppo from being assaulted one night after a concert.
“The irony of that still strikes me,” he said.
While doing regular police work, Russell has also invented some jobs for himself. For several years Russell has been a leader in efforts to curb teen drinking. He also runs the department’s volunteer corps.
“One of the nice things about Vail is they’ve always been good in looking for ways to be involved in the community,” Russell said. “The volunteers and the youth programs really add a dimension to the police department you can’t replace.”
One of Russell’s fans from the volunteer corps said he’s going to be missed.
“The Vail Police Volunteer Program owes its very existence to Joe,” said Gilda Kaplan, the volunteer head of the group. “He guided us from our inception, and we’ve come a long way under his tutelage.”
The volunteer corps in a way is the logical extension of community events police take part in from flag football to Olympic torch running.
Judge Buck Allen has had an office in Vail’s town hall longer than Russell. Allen remembered that not long after Russell joined the force, all the town’s police officers were required to take part in a 3-mile run for some reason.
“It was kind of like a defensive lineman (Russell) and a waterboy (Allen) out there that day,” he said.
“I didn’t break any speed records,” Russell said. “But you just do that stuff.”
As Russell clears off his desk and prepares to set up shop in Silverthorne, he said he wants to take the volunteer and youth drinking programs with him. He’s also eager to get to know his new town a little better.
“Silverthorne’s a very diverse community,” he said. “But the town and community are very close-knit.
“But the people of Vail and the employees here are some great people,” he added. “It makes it difficult to leave.”
Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vail Daily, Vail Colorado
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