Community members meet Steamboat’s five police chief candidates

Steamboat Springs has narrowed its police chief search to five candidates, and community members met with them Wednesday to discuss important issues facing the city.

The meet-and-greet brought questions about how each candidate, if hired, would handle mental health issues, drug-related incidents and complaints against short-term rentals. Candidates were also prodded on their philosophies concerning community policing.

Justin Doll, a consultant from Public Sector Search and Consulting, which the city hired to handle the first steps of the recruitment process, said the firm looked specifically for candidates who would strengthen the community’s relationship with its police department.

“You want someone who is going to be engaged with the community and really looking to build that bond between the department and the community,” Doll said. “A law enforcement agency at any level can’t function without the support of the community that it serves.”

Interim Steamboat Springs Police Chief Jerry Stabile, who is a finalist for the position, said he would work to carry on former Chief Cory Christensen’s legacy of being a community player.

“I think Chief Christensen and I are very similar in the way we connect with the community and the momentum we’ve built,” Stabile said. “I think that’s the momentum we should keep.”

Steamboat Springs Police Department Interim Chief Jerry Stabile. l Steamboat Springs/courtesy photo

Stabile pointed out that Christensen joined the department at a time when its relationship with the community was strained, a result of an outside investigation finding that the city’s former top cop allowed a hostile environment.

“I think we regained the trust of the community over the last seven years,” Stabile said.

City Manager Gary Suiter, who has the final say over hiring the next chief, said he hopes to land someone with a diverse background. Public Sector Search and Consulting specifically marketed the job to organizations, such as the National Black Police Association and the International Association of Women Police.

Sherry Burlingame, assistant police chief in Tempe, Arizona, and another finalist in Steamboat, said being a woman in a male-dominated field has brought her a unique understanding of law enforcement and the community.

“I definitely think that I bring a very different perspective and skill set just because of my background and the fact that I am female,” Burlingame said. “We all have different perspectives and experiences, and it’s really important to bring those to the table to become a better organization.”

Sherry Burlingame, assistant police chief in Tempe, Arizona, and a candiate for Steamboat Springs police chief, talks with City Council member Gail Garey on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, at Steamboat Springs City Hall. l Alison Berg/Steamboat Pilot & Today
Alison Berg/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Burlingame said she would focus specifically on improving resources for those in mental health crises, which she also focused on in Arizona.

“I believe strongly that for people who have an underlying problem with mental health or substance abuse or whatever it may be, them coming into the criminal justice system is not doing them any good, and it’s not doing our community any good,” Burlingame said. “We have to connect them with the resources that they need to try to manage whatever their issue is and get the treatment that they need.”

Frank Rodriguez, a deputy commissioner for the criminal investigation division at the North Carolina Department of Insurance and another finalist for the job, said he was attracted to Steamboat because of the community’s desire to welcome fresh perspectives.

“What brought me here is definitely the community, their inclusiveness and their ability to welcome outside ideas and look for good solutions through that collaborative effort,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez, who would be the city’s first Hispanic chief, also said his background has given him a unique perspective, though he does not like to be defined by his race.

“Ultimately, history is only going to judge me on my performance, not on my ethnic background,” Rodriguez said. “I think my background does give me a diversified experience because I’ve had the opportunity to really appreciate different types of backgrounds and listen to differing opinions.”

Ron Leonard, a finalist and Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office commander, said he chose Steamboat because he wanted to make an impact on both the city’s locals and visitors.

Ron Leonard, a Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office commander and Steamboat Springs police chief finalist, talks with City Council member Michael Buccino. l Alison Berg/Steamboat Pilot & Today

“Steamboat has not only a local influence but an international influence,” Leonard said. “There’s more influence coming out of this community than you would have in Denver or Aurora or any of the larger agencies.”

Leonard said most people will only have a handful of interactions with law enforcement throughout their lives, and he wants to make sure those interactions are positive.

“If the police department here has a great encounter with a someone, then what they’re doing is they’re curving the national dialogue that police are evil and inherently bad,” Leonard said. “It’s being able to have that platform of change so people can change their philosophy on policing.”

Another finalist, Sean Dugan, chief of the Red Rocks Community College Police Department, agreed with Leonard’s philosophy and said he would encourage officers to be considerate in how they interact with the public.

“People will forget what you said, and they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel,” Dugan said. “We count on the people in this community for our support.”

Dugan said he would train officers to use discretion when deciding whether to issue a ticket or make an arrest, a tactic he said he teaches in his work as an associate professor at Regis University.

“Everyone can remember a story about being treated either well or poorly by a law enforcement officer,” Dugan said.

Suiter said he hopes to have a decision by January.

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