Law and ‘boarder: Police helping ski hills run smoothly |

Law and ‘boarder: Police helping ski hills run smoothly

The Denver Post/Andy CrossVail police officers Det. Jessica Mayes, left, and Commander Craig Bettis, enter the lift line at the Vista Bahn lift at Vail Mountain recently on patrol. Other ski areas, including Breckenridge, Monarch and Durango Mountain Resort, also welcome skiing cops, who, like at Vail, volunteer to ski in uniform and help with the occasional problem.

VAIL – Ed Murphy leans closer and inspects the badge on Jessica Mayes’ ski jacket.

“Really?” says the Washington, D.C., skier vacationing in Vail as he shuffles alongside Mayes in a lift line. “How wild is that? We’re getting on line with a cop. We better behave ourselves.”

“Really?” is the most common query fielded by Mayes and the six other Vail police officers who regularly volunteer to patrol Vail Mountain on skis. The second: “Do you ski with a gun?”

“It is part of the uniform,” says Vail police Cmdr. Craig Bettis, who has never actually used it on the mountain but still sometimes answers: “James Bond skis with a gun.”

Police officers on the hill are nothing new in Vail, where the local department has partnered with the ski area’s operators for six seasons.

Other ski areas, including Breckenridge, Monarch and Durango Mountain Resort, also welcome skiing cops, who, like at Vail, volunteer to ski in uniform and help with the occasional problem.

In exchange for their commitment to patrol the slopes for a certain number of days each year, the officers are given free season passes.

The officers don’t seek out rule breakers. They’ll stand behind patrollers and ski-area employees as they try to slow down skiers and snowboarders heading into crowded areas. They’ll respond to an accident or any calls for help. They’ll cast stern glances or flash a badge at rowdies who are, say, cursing in the lift line or cutting ropes. They’ll pass out bags of plastic badges and police stickers to wide-eyed kids.

In addition to lending support to local patrollers and security, basic public relations is a big part of the on-slope patrolling. Mayes says it’s fun to show kids and vacationers that up in the snowy hills, police officers can merge play and work.

“We aren’t here to take away people’s good time,” says Bettis, a telemark skier who captains wide powder skis at mach speed. “We don’t go out looking for specific stuff.”

But when it comes to more serious crimes, like the occasional fisticuffs or ski theft, police work doesn’t end at the pavement.

In Breckenridge, where officers have volunteer-patrolled the ski area for four seasons, the program has thwarted ski thefts. In 2007-08, the area saw a rash of thieves targeting high-end skis – mostly Volkls – at base-area lodges. Local police changed their tactic and began routinely patrolling the base areas and even setting up stings to lure ski thieves.

Since then, the department has seen thefts drop from 165 pairs of skis or snowboards stolen in 2007-08 to 57 last season. Similarly, police presence in lift lines has drastically reduced the number of people using borrowed ski passes and other “theft of services” crimes.

“We are getting positive reinforcement from citizens and ski-area employees,” says Breckenridge assistant chief Greg Morrison, adding, “Really, it’s not that unusual” to have police on the hill. “Any event in a city where you have 20,000 people, there are always a very small group of bad apples that can ruin the experience for the rest of the people.”

At Monarch Ski Area, La Plata County sheriff’s deputies have been skiing in uniform for two seasons. They have since been able to immediately respond to collisions that might have involved violations of the state Ski Safety Act as well as rare altercations inside the lodge. And, like at Breckenridge, ski thefts have plummeted 70 percent since police began hanging out and skiing at Monarch.

Just the occasional sighting of a police officer at the hill has helped, says La Plata County sheriff’s Deputy Felicia McQueen, who runs the Monarch program.

“People don’t know when we are going to be up there, and just word of mouth has led to lower numbers of incidents,” McQueen says. “Every time we are up there, people come up and tell us how nice it is to see us up there.”

The officers say they’ve never had any complaints about their presence.

At Vail, a special safety crew known as the Yellow Jackets promotes safety and tries to control skier speed. Members wave their arms and warn speedy skiers of approaching slow zones near congested intersections. And when there’s a police officer behind the Yellow Jackets, few ignore the warnings.

“Really, what’s a Yellow Jacket going to do? These guys are here to help us enforce the few rules we have,” says Vail ski instructor Richard Honzo. “It’s so nice to have them around.”

Actually, say Bettis and Mayes, their heaviest enforcement tends to be the same as what any ski-area employee can do. Like the Yellow Jackets, the police are able to access skiers’ pass information and and revoke the skiing privileges of egregious violators.

“All our enforcement is through either summons or season-pass access,” Bettis says. “For the locals, what hits them hardest is when they lose their ski pass.”

Vail police chief Dwight Henninger, who launched the partnership with Vail ski area following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, says the program is more about developing better communication with both skiers and mountain workers than actually catching criminals.

“There is so little crime on the mountain,” Henninger says. “I think a lot of it is about relationship building and just helping people’s comfort level when they are out on the mountain.”

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