Crashes, crowds and COVID-19: Eagle County law enforcement agencies preach patience as tensions rise
Agencies across the valley are seeing an uptick in crashes and other public safety incidents
Eagle County law enforcement is asking for patience as the high season, snowy weather, staffing challenges and returning mask mandates collide, causing an uptick in crashes and other public safety incidents.
“Let’s all practice patience on the roads, on the slopes, with masks,” Amber Mulson-Barrett of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office said.
The Avon Police Department received 28 calls about motor vehicle crashes between Dec. 23 and Jan. 6 compared with just 15 calls in the same two-week period a year ago.
The Vail Police Department reported 20 crashes over the past two weeks, and Eagle reported 10, according to spokespersons with the two agencies.
The Sheriff’s Office reported 50 traffic complaints between the end of November and the beginning of January, many of which were crashes due to inclement weather, Mulson-Barrett said.
Snowy conditions also brought frequent closures of Vail Pass and two rounds of avalanche mitigation, both of which can be frustrating for drivers but pose a potential danger for law enforcement, Commander Justin Liffick with the Vail Police Department said Friday.
Liffick also preached patience, asking residents to bear in mind that local law enforcement has not been immune to the effects of the nationwide labor shortage and the latest surge in COVID-19 infections.
“Law enforcement in general is just short-handed right now, and with the blizzard during New Year’s Eve and around then, it was absolutely nuts the amount of slide-offs and calls of people stranded in their vehicles,” Mulson-Barrett said.
Eagle County’s regional Colorado State Patrol troop has been especially short-handed in responding to crashes and slide-offs on Interstate 70, with just one trooper on duty on New Year’s Eve for the whole four-county region, she said.
Master Trooper Gary Cutler said this is a combination of an especially strong class of recruits reaching retirement age and struggles with retention and recruitment due to the current political climate around policing in the United States.
“We have those staffing issues that have kind of plagued us a little bit here, but we are also taking steps right now to try and get those numbers back up,” Cutler said. In the meantime, the agency has been bringing in troopers from other regions to assist.
In instances of minor crashes in which both parties have insurance and are not injured, Colorado State Patrol asks that drivers exchange information, vacate the roadway and fill out a report on the agency’s website, rather than waiting for a trooper to arrive on scene. That way, drivers do not remain pulled over in dangerous conditions and troopers can focus their time on more serious crashes, Cutler said.
Cutler advised tourists to be careful when driving in the mountains or in snowy and icy conditions that they may not have experienced in their home states. He also reminded local drivers to gear up and slow down regardless of their experience level.
“When we have this weather and it’s causing crashes, it comes down to two main things,” Cutler said. “One is speed. So, it’s the condition of the road. … Are you going too fast? And the other is following other vehicles too closely. Those are the reasons we have these big pile-ups, because people aren’t giving themselves enough ability to see it, react to it and have the right conditions to where they can slow before they hit another vehicle.”
‘People are on edge’
Leading up to the holidays, Mulson-Barrett said it felt like sheriff’s deputies were also being called up to the mountains more often than usual because “the crowds were large, and the ski terrain was very small.”
Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek fall within the jurisdiction of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, so they respond to any criminal incidents at the two resorts.
Now, “the mountain’s open and tensions are still high,” Mulson-Barrett said. “We’re seeing it on the roads. We’re seeing it on the mountain.”
Between Dec. 16 and Dec. 31, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office was called to Vail Mountain twice and Beaver Creek once on reports of minor assaults.
The victim of the alleged assault at Beaver Creek, Eagle resident Steve Litt, was left with a displaced rib and a lot of bruising after the Dec. 31 incident.
It was a busy day on the slopes when a man hit Litt while skiing, Litt recalled. It wasn’t a big collision, but the man had hit him nonetheless, so Litt found him at the bottom of the run to say something about it. When the man laughed at him for bringing the brush-up to his attention, Litt said he became frustrated, exchanged a few unsavory words, but decided to walk away.
Litt skied down to Beaver Creek’s landing near the Strawberry Park lift. It was then that he saw a different man come barreling down the mountain toward him, he recalled.
“(The man) started taking off his skis and started running down the mountain at me and then he completely just tackled me … and started punching me,” Litt said. “And I hadn’t even said a word to that guy. Then, they took off and left me there laying on the mountain.”
He believes his alleged assailant was a friend of the man who hit him while skiing shortly before the assault, as both men were with a group of people.
Litt filed a report with Beaver Creek’s public safety department and, eventually, with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. The case has since been closed with no leads on who the alleged assailant may have been, Mulson-Barrett said.
“We always expect our guests to interact with kindness and compassion — violent words or actions are never tolerated at our resorts,” Vail Resorts Senior Communications Manager John Plack said in a statement on behalf of the company Friday.
Litt received initial treatment at Beaver Creek Medical Center, and his primary care physician later confirmed he had a broken rib from the assault, meaning eight weeks of resting and recovering. He also reported some bruising and other pain, mainly in his legs from being tackled while wearing skis.
He said he feels that crowded conditions on the mountain have caused an increased level of frustration and may have added to the escalation of the interaction that day.
“In my opinion, they have completely oversold these mountains,” Litt said. “I’ve been skiing here for 32 years, and it’s remarkable what you see now for lift lines and people on the slopes.”
The mountains are short-staffed, buses are crowded, and lift lines are long, he said.
“People are on edge,” Litt added.
In the statement from Vail Resorts, Plack said this holiday season’s “daily peak visitation for our individual resorts was not that different than previous years.”
Plack acknowledged that there are “new guests” this year, but added that “a significant portion” of new pass holders purchased lift tickets in previous seasons.
“Everyone’s just agitated with COVID and everything that’s going on in the world, and it just feels as though everybody is … almost at the boiling point,” Litt’s wife said.
Mask mandate friction
The Sheriff’s Office has seemingly borne the brunt of COVID-19-related frustrations, responding to 64 disturbance calls between the end of November to the beginning of January, as the return of the indoor mask mandate caused tension for some businesses.
They were called to the airport most frequently — 11 times in just over one month — to keep the peace amid “flight delays,” “mask issues,” and “rental car, taxi issues,” Mulson-Barrett said.
“We’re not writing tickets. We just keep saying we’re not the mask police. We’re just trying to keep the peace,” she said. “Business owners have every right to deny you service if you don’t want to wear a mask and follow the county’s mask guidelines.”
Sheriff’s deputies continue to take an educational approach to supporting the enforcement of mask mandates and only get involved when a person refuses to mask up or leave a business, she said.
Avon, Vail and Eagle police departments reported very few mask-related issues, representatives said.
As for on-mountain safety, Avon Police Department sends officers to work with Beaver Creek’s Ski Patrol on a semi-regular basis as a form of support and community policing, although the area is in the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office, Chief Greg Daly said. Chief Daly grabbed his gear and went up himself Friday morning to check in.
The Ski Patrol at Beaver Creek can be reached at 970-754-6610 and the dispatch for Vail Mountain is 970-754-4610.
Ski patrollers can respond quickly and “very effectively deescalate these situations on a regular basis there. It’s part of their role,” Daly said.
In general, “I always recommend just to take a deep breath first,” Daly said.
“You got to worry about yourself, you can’t worry about others,” Commander Liffick said. “As long as you’re keeping yourself safe and masked up, exercise some patience when those lift lines are long or that traffic is at a standstill for a while. Exercising patience is going to go a long way for you and to help us out.”
Email Kelli Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org