Van Beek: The changing of the guard

James van Beek
Courtesy photo

Sometimes it felt like Joey Staufer and I were on the set of “Lethal Weapon.”  Murtaugh and Riggs, heading out to a routine meeting together, then … something would hit the fan, nearly every time. 

“I don’t make things complicated, that’s the way they get all by themselves,” like Riggs said, was a feeling we had frequently.  If not a major event occurring, we’d witness a drunk driver or some other incident, engage as expected, then upon arrest, try to remember how to fill out the forms, needing to call a deputy for assistance. 

My partner (in theoretical crime) and dear friend, Joey Staufer, who is leaving his post as Eagle’s chief of police, has been an inspiration to work with. His passion is matched by his dedication to serving. We have shared some fun times together, as well as some life-threatening situations. 

There was one day when we were working the Lake Christine Fire, and on our way home, were called in on two other major flames. At our level, we seldom have to trigger the use of lights and sirens, and it would feel almost surreal, whenever we had to flip the switch and engage in pursuit or be the first on the scene of an event. We remember how to do it, but our roles have shifted since the days of patrol, and things change over time.

One particularly harrowing experience was when a suspect began high-speed evasive maneuvers to avoid capture. In pursuit were the Colorado State Patrol, the Eagle Police Department, and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. The suspect crashed his car and jumped into a freezing, raging river. Experience told us that he would soon perish of hypothermia if we couldn’t get him out of the river soon.

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Along the side of the river, for several miles, were officers, deputies, and others, representing every agency in Eagle County, all calling for the man to swim toward the side so that they could rescue him, but the currents were too strong, and he was not responding. Clearly, he had no idea that a jump into the river during the spring melt was more likely to result in death, rather than freedom.

Joey and I decided to take my truck and head to the other side of the river, running parallel to the train tracks. We drove to where we anticipated he might be and quickly hiked through the steep brush. We were at the last point of rescue. 

The suspect was out of arms reach, in the middle of the river. He was beginning to sink, as the river’s currents kept pulling him down, each time a little longer. 

Coincidentally, we had recently received river rescue training and we had our equipment in the car. Others joined us as we attempted to reach the man. It didn’t matter what he had done, we were not going to let him die in that river. 

Reaching him while traveling at such a fast speed along the river was going to take tremendous skill, luck, and a little help from above. We needed to get the rescue bag to him quickly and precisely. Joey took aim and during what could have been this man’s last effort above water, landed it right by his head, where he was able to grab it and hold on.

I removed the heaviest parts of my uniform and despite the possibility of getting swept away myself, I jumped in to grab hold of the man, in case he was too weak to hold onto the rope. By then, Joey was joined by four people from three different agencies, who positioned themselves along the riverbank and pulled with all their might. Together we were able to rescue this man from drowning. 

The medical helicopter was summoned, and while he was suffering from hypothermia, and some water in the lungs, he ended up fully recovering. Without the impressive skills and teamwork of our Eagle County agencies, we might have been planning a funeral. Did I mention that this occurred when Joey and I were simply meeting for lunch? 

This situation, while not typical, is representative of the heroism that Joey exhibits on a daily basis. Of course, some things are more comical than others.

Leave it to Joey to make national news by delivering a baby on the side of the highway. An academic course that he barely paid attention to at the academy, after all, it would be highly unlikely that he’d ever need those skills when medical help was only a call away, suddenly became critical and personal. Little did he know that night, he’d be delivering his own little daughter on mile marker 140 of Interstate 70. 

As with all who are in law enforcement, Joey’s family has given up a lot. We all quickly realize that it is not simply a job, but a calling to serve, and that service comes at all hours of the day and night. We miss those special family events and holidays, dreaming of a time when we won’t have to make those tough choices. Joey has more than earned his right to enjoy his incredible family, and while we will miss him, we couldn’t be happier for him. 

There were many more adventures of Eagle County’s “Lethal Weapon” duo, but that will be for another time.  While many have lots to say about Joey, here are a few.

From Greg Daly, Avon Police Chief

It has been a pleasure collaborating with Joey for many years — he is the consummate professional.  I have always been impressed with his writing abilities and his oration, as both a forward thinker and community partner.  He has impressively navigated his roles from officer to chief level, traversing the trials and tribulations of COVID-19, while handling the challenging national police narrative that was developing. I’ve enjoyed our work together on the Your Hope Center, and his innovative approach to community-orientated policing approaches, which has created closer communities across the valley. I thank Joey for his vision and inspiration; he will be missed.   

From Dwight Henninger, Vail Police Chief

Much can be said of the exceptional service that Joey Staufer has delivered to Eagle, with its impact extending to all neighboring communities. Aside from his position in law enforcement, he worked endlessly on community volunteer projects. I had the pleasure of teaming up with him on the Tip a Cop program, which is a fundraiser for the Colorado Special Olympics. The impact of his work knows no boundaries. Joey, thank you for all that you have done to make our communities a better place for all.

From Tyler Stronum, retired police officer

After leaving the military, as a naval officer, I started working in Breckenridge as a community services officer. Joey was a sergeant at the time. I was in my early 40s, but he convinced me I should be a police officer. Then, Joey got me into the police academy. 

He has been a great mentor and I followed him from Breckenridge to Eagle, where he entered a department that was in shambles. He transformed it into a stellar organization. I admire his selflessness, and his stamina, both physically and mentally. 

At a time when law enforcement was under tremendous pressure and officers were experiencing greater than usual stress, Joey ensured that all police officers were able to receive whatever mental health services they needed, with privacy ensured and at no personal cost. Given the increased pressure law enforcement has faced over the past several years, this was a true blessing for the entire department. 

Last year, I retired from the police department after 13 years of service, and Joey has become a great personal friend. I admire him beyond words. 

Katie Jarnot, Assistant Superintendent of Eagle County Schools

The mission of Mountain Youth is to improve the lives of youth continuously and collaboratively, in the most powerful ways possible and Joey embodied that mission. Joey served as a board member and as president, I have seen Joey’s dedication to the youth of Eagle County first-hand.  His focus on community policing, building relationships with students, and school safety benefited the Mountain Youth organization as well as Eagle County Schools, where I worked with him as both a middle school principal and as assistant superintendent. We are so grateful for his service, and he will definitely be missed.  We wish Joey the best of luck in his next great chapter!

James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at

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