Assaults up on Eagle County officers
Vail CO, Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY ” Jenny Ojala does not know whether she will ever do police work again.
Ojala hurt her neck in July 2003 when as a Vail police officer she tried to wrestle a suspect to the ground, she said. At first, her injury was diagnosed as a shoulder strain.
For a year, she took steroid injections for her shoulder. Then she was diagnosed with spinal nerve damage, for which she constantly took pain medication, but still could not sleep at night, she said.
“I’m definitely to a point where it’s tolerable, but I’ll never be to a point where I was before the injury,” Ojala said. (Her last name was Call before she was married and when she was a Vail police officer).
Ojala worked training police and at a police desk job for a few months until she quit. Now she lives in Castle Rock with her husband and daughter and still does physical therapy on her own.
“My quality of life significantly decreased after this injury,” she said.
In 2006, U.S. police departments reported that 58,634 officers out of 495,270 were assaulted (11.8 percent) on the job, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports, released in October. That percent was about the same in 2005 and 2004, according to the reports.
But in unincorporated Eagle County, assaults on sheriff’s deputies has risen from zero in 2005 to four in 2007.
Police say that suspects have become more combative.
“I think people are losing respect,” said Master Deputy Aaron Veldheer, who has had knifes pulled on him and has been spit on and kicked during his several years at the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. “They don’t want to go to jail.”
Police want to avoid hurting people, he said.
Despite the occasional injury, Veldheer likes seeing people around the county who tell him that they have been sober since he arrested them for driving under the influence of alcohol, he said.
“I like seeing, every once in a while, that somebody has turned their ways around,” he said.
In July 2003, Ojala and another officer went inside a bathroom in Mill Creek Court in Vail because some men were reportedly doing cocaine, she said.
A man was pouring cocaine into the sink and police told him to stop, she said. The man kept throwing out the cocaine, so Ojala and grabbed him and he backhanded her in the mouth.
“I couldn’t tell you if it was him flailing around or him just punching and trying to hit me,” Ojala said.
Some officers say that being assaulted is “part of the job,” said John Nicoletti, a Denver-based police psychologist who works with police in Eagle County.
“They’re pretty used to it,” Nicoletti said.
Other officers feel frustrated that people refuse to obey their commands, he said.
Some police obsess about what they could have done differently. Nicoletti tries to make sure that those thoughts do not interfere with an officer’s ability to do his or her job, he said.
After being assaulted, police still react reasonably to encounters with suspects because they are professional and have good training. They don’t “assume every person in [their] encounter is going to attack,” he said.
Ojala’s lawyer suggested that she get counseling after her injury.
“I didn’t feel like it was necessary,” Ojala said.
Avon Police Officer Steve Hodges once arrested an uncooperative passenger during a driving under the influence arrest in 2004.
Hodges handcuffed the passenger and as two were walking back to Hodges’ police car, the man kicked Hodges and collapsed his knee.
“It didn’t do any permanent damage, but it was enough to put me out of work for a couple days,” Hodges said.
Since 2005, Vail police and Avon police, respectively, have had three and five reports of officers being assaulted, according to police.
The town of Vail’s insurance company paid more than $148,000 in worker’s compensation insurance claims since 2003 due to violent encounters with suspects.
But the increase in insurance premiums is only part of the problem, Ojala said.
Before Ojala resigned, Vail police had one less officer on the street because the department could not hire another officer to replace her, she said.
“It has an impact on everybody,” she said.
Ojala now lives in Castle Rock and she still thinks about working as an officer again. With regular physical therapy, she could do it, she said.
“It’s definitely something I consider when my daughter gets older,” she said. But her injury “left a bad taste in my mouth for sure.”
Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.