Diversity, inclusion, experience top community’s list of wants for new police chief

A Steamboat Springs Police Department vehicle.
Matt Stensland/Steamboat Pilot & Today archive

As Steamboat Springs Police Department Chief Cory Christensen celebrated his last day Friday with the city, officials are ramping up the search for his replacement.

Steamboat City Manager Gary Suiter, who oversees the search and has the final say, has hired Public Sector Search and Consulting Inc., a California-based firm specializing in hiring law enforcement officials, to conduct the search for the top candidates.

The firm will recruit candidates from around the country, and Suiter said he has asked the firm to search specifically from organizations such as the National Black Police Association and the International Association of Women Police to ensure the city is considering candidates with diverse backgrounds.

Gary Peterson, the firm’s president and CEO, said they have not officially begun accepting applications for the position, as they are still gathering feedback on what community members want. Peterson, a former police chief in California, said the group has hired chiefs for cities of all sizes and geographic locations, and is collecting local input to better understand the community’s needs.

“The guy who’s struggling just to get by, the guy with the second home here, whatever the situation, we need our law enforcement to take care of everyone in the community,” said Jeff Steck, Steamboat resident and former deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office.

Steck was one of several residents who joined a community event Friday to discuss the top priorities for the city’s next top cop.

“People are the same everywhere, they make different amounts of money, and they may look different, but we have the same problems in a resort community as I did when I worked in Compton (California),” Steck said. “Everyone wants to have a place where they feel safe.”

Steck said he thinks Steamboat’s police department is performing well overall, but he hopes the new chief brings in more experienced officers and is able to retain and train more officers, which he said is becoming a challenge across the country.

“We can attract people with high wages, good benefits and also good leadership,” Steck said. “If they feel they’re being treated fairly in their local community, I think that means they can handle any external factors that come their way.”

While Steck emphasized a need for experienced officers and quality leadership, other community members encouraged Peterson and Suiter to focus on diverse candidates.

“We definitely need to make sure that we’re paying attention to all this stuff going on nationally and that we’re staying up to date with what’s going on in regards to Black Lives Matter and diversity efforts,” said Mariah Hoots, a fifth-generation Steamboat resident. “Even though we’re a small town, we’re not in a bubble, and we’re not exempt from those things.”

Steamboat resident Amy Olson said she wants to see more women in the police force to inspire other women in the community and show representation in a traditionally male-dominated field.

“I’d like to see a better participation rate from women and more families involved in our force, just to be represented in our community and be a good role model for our daughters,” Olson said.

Jim Sunderland, a resident and retired administrator of a mental health clinic, said the next chief should have an adequate understanding of how mental health issues impact people in the criminal justice system.

“We depend on our police a lot to be able to assist us in a positive way, and I think we need someone that understands that sensitivity,” Sunderland said.

Barbie Wither, a longtime resident with generational ties to Steamboat, said she wanted someone who followed similar ideologies to what she believed Christensen followed: reinforcing compassion and integrity as being core values of the department.

“The police here are not worried about coming out and getting us,” Wither said. “They want to help us.”

Steamboat Springs City Council member Robin Crossan said she and others on council hope the next chief works to get to know the community and earn its trust.

“Cory (Christensen) has a very supportive community,” Crossan said. “You gain that respect, you don’t come in with it.”

Suiter said the official search will begin in the coming weeks, and the department hopes to have a candidate hired by the end of 2021.

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