Christensen reflects on past years of service in last week as Steamboat Springs Police chief

Steamboat Springs Police Department Chief Cory Christensen is retiring after 32 years in law enforcement, with the last six being in Steamboat. He’ll now focus on hitting the open road with his wife in an RV. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Cory Christensen followed controversies surrounding the Steamboat Springs Police Department in the news closely while working as the assistant police chief in Fort Collins.

He and his wife, Marnie, both built their careers at the department north of Denver and held deep family roots in the area.

But when the couple read a letter explaining how desperately Steamboat’s police department needed a new chief, they each knew Christensen needed to apply to lead the department.

“It was a mess before I got here, there’s no two ways about it,” Christensen said Tuesday. “I’ve supervised police officers for years now; my career has been to go to teams, fix them and hand them off to someone else.”

Christensen was hired in 2015 after an investigation found evidence that the city’s former top cop presided over a hostile work environment. Specifically, the investigation revealed instances of hazing, bullying and gender-based harassment that likely occurred for more than a decade.

After six years spent in Steamboat and nearly 33 years total in law enforcement, Christensen turns over his badge Friday.

“It’s both great and sad for me at the same time,” he said. “I’m leaving it better than I found it, and the next person will find new things to talk about.”

Throughout his years in law enforcement, Christensen said he has seen grueling, tragic incidents but has also experienced beautiful memories, all of which will stick with him.

“I’ve answered hundreds of phone calls in the middle of the night, and I have seen the worst things that people will do to each other,” Christensen said. “That will be in my brain forever.”

Since starting in Steamboat, Christensen earned a reputation as an active member of the community, encouraging his officers to join volunteer organizations and take on community involvement in various areas. He fondly remembers how he learned about the community by walking around the Main Street Steamboat Farmers Market on weekends and attending Rotary Club meetings.

Mark Fitzgerald, president of the Rotary Club of Steamboat Springs, said Christensen will be most notably remembered for his efforts to bring more women into a heavily male-dominated field.

Under Christensen’s leadership, the department increased its female representation, with women encompassing 25% of patrol — more than twice the 11% industry average.

“He did a great job with focusing on diversifying the police force,” Fitzgerald said. “That will be his legacy, and it shows.”

Kris Middledorf, Colorado Parks and Wildlife area manager, said he will remember Christensen not only for his law enforcement expertise but also for his ability to help those around him feel welcomed.

“He’s just cordial and an absolute gentleman to work with,” Middledorf said.

Brooke Northrop, Christensen’s executive assistant, said Christensen “is who he says he is.”

“From the first time the employees met him at the chief candidate meet and greet until this very week that he’s leaving, he’s always been the same Cory,” Northrop said.

Steamboat School Resources Officer John Miller echoed Northrop’s sentiments, adding that his boss’ charisma and gentility make Christensen who he is.

“Something that I think everyone will miss about (Christensen) is he seemed to know everyone personally,” said Miller, who joined the department in 2017. “He just seemed to know everyone on such a personal level, and he was such a great leader for our department.”

Miller said he heard from fellow officers and community members that the department has earned back previously lost trust during Christensen’s years in town.

“They’re going to have to be an open, public figure and pick up right where Chief Christensen left off,” Miller said of the department’s next chief.

Concerning a potential successor, Christensen emphasized a need for them to focus on community involvement, as well as be open to policing as a profession that is constantly adapting to new laws, technology and other shifts.

“I don’t ever believe that there is a finish line in improving,” Christensen said. “The community will change, and the desire will change, and we need to focus on that.”

Northrop said Christensen has earned a reputation among city employees for getting to know his employees on a more personal level.

“Cory is a family-first kind of person,” Northrop said, adding that Christensen has always encouraged her to put her two children ahead of her work.

“‘Do what you need to do for your family; remember this is a marathon not a sprint,'” Northrop said she remembers Christensen telling her.

Though he feels comfortable with the department’s current staff and budget, Christensen said the department is struggling to hire after seeing several officers leave law enforcement last year.

Though officers have expressed nervousness over what a new chief might bring, Christensen tells them to trust Steamboat City Manager Gary Suiter’s decision — who hires and supervises the city’s police chief.

“The way to police is going to continue to change, and that person has to be open-minded to change,” Christensen said.

After Friday, the Christensens will focus on touring the U.S. in an RV. Once they’re done visiting farmers markets, festivals, museums and “seeing all the largest balls of yarn” across the country, the two hope to settle down closer to their grandchildren.

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