Vail Daily guest column: patrolling paradise
The joys of being a patrol officer are often expressed in the little moments. An impromptu football toss with some kids in the park; a chat with an elderly woman walking her dog; stepping out of the car and having a young child run up to give you a hug; letting a group of kids switch on the police lights and giggle with excitement; noticing someone in need and connecting them with those who can help; volunteering at a community event … It is truly a privilege to work in this place we call home.
Living in Eagle County can make us feel exempt from events happening elsewhere. It is our job to understand that we are not, and to prepare for any possible contingency. The magnificence of our environment and friendliness of its residents, generates global appeal and that requires additional security measures. As patrol officers, we are the front line of defense. We must remain vigilant so that others needn’t be. Tragedy can occur anywhere, at any time and even with our extensive level of training, we are still affected by certain events.
A typical traffic stop can suddenly become a deadly encounter. You notice a car driving erratically. It’s mid-afternoon and you wonder if they have begun an early happy hour, are distracted by a phone text, or perhaps dealing with a rambunctious dog in the front seat — any number of things could be going on, but they don’t appear to be in control of their car and the results could be disastrous. You pull them over to make sure things are OK.
As you exit your vehicle, you notice quite a bit of movement in the car. The driver has leaned over several times and the passenger is reaching for something in the back. Your training alerts you to potential danger. While it could simply be a mom, talking to her child in the back seat, it could also be a gang member traveling through, and reaching for a gun — you don’t know and must be ready for anything.
Not a moment goes by that we aren’t cognizant of potential dangers that may occur in the most unassuming places: our parks, schools, recreational facilities, outdoor venues, shopping areas, basically anywhere. Even when things start out innocently, they can abruptly turn tragic.
A child out past curfew can become a missing person. An outdoor excursion can become a life-threatening ordeal. A reach for the radio can become a deadly car accident. An evening out to a restaurant or pub may result in someone becoming intoxicated and exhibiting behavior that turns violent. Escalation can turn a simple argument into something deadlier. This aggression can make its way home, creating the potential for domestic violence. Unintentional and even deadly consequences can result from unfiltered aggression. We must often be the calming force for a peaceful resolution, and at times that means removing one or more parties from the equation and taking them into protective custody.
Nothing prepares you for the images permanently embedded in your mind, of the dead bodies you encounter from various situations: accidents, suicides, outdoor incidents, murders, drug overdoses, natural causes, but especially those of children. Patrol officers are committed to making sure any tragedy is immediately contained, even at great personal risk. It’s a tough job but completely worth it. We have the honor of protecting our incredible community, insuring a positive future for our children.
Getting selected for this position is not easy. All patrol officers must complete a state certified Police Officers Standards & Training (POST) program, which covers all areas of law enforcement including: investigations, firearms, law, intelligence, civil liability, arrest procedures, detention skills, traffic, field operations, community relations, drugs, self-defense, control tactics, surveillance, driving techniques and additional county procedures.
There are also continual training mandates throughout an officer’s career. Applicants must pass an extensive background check, polygraph, psychological test, college transcript evaluation and multiple interviews. In addition, officers must possess a true desire to help others — those seeking bravado are quickly eliminated. In addition, there are personal sacrifices.
Driving through our neighborhoods, thoughts may wander to your youngest, who is competing in a state championship, which you are unable to attend. The 12-hour shift, which changes from nights to days every eight weeks, is an equitable solution for all officers, but makes planning family events and holidays a challenge. Balancing law enforcement with family life can be difficult, yet most agree, it is worth the cost.
Patrol operations with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office is a fulfilling opportunity, and while it can be quite dangerous and requires unwavering dedication, it is also the honor of a lifetime.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff.
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