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Small-Town Policing Takes a Personal Touch : Law enforcement: Despite long hours and low pay, chiefs say their jobs rank high in satisfaction.

November 22, 1992|JEFFREY JONES | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WINDSOR, Colo. — The old Colt six-shooters are long gone, replaced by high-tech, high-capacity semi-automatics.

Battered, leather-bound logbooks are going out as computer systems go in, and those boxy Plymouth Furies are being replaced by racy Chevy Caprices.

But a good small-town police force must never lose its ability to respond to the needs of its community. And despite its hindrances and drawbacks, the job has always been rewarding, say Weld County's small-town chiefs.

"I like being the boss," says Windsor Police Chief John Michaels, 39, who heads an eight-officer force serving the more than 5,000 residents in this town northwest of Greeley.

"That's what I always wanted. I wanted to go through the ranks and become chief," he says. Michaels started as a patrolman on the Windsor squad in April, 1976, and became chief in March, 1984.

"At my oral (hiring) boards, they said, 'What do you want to do?' I looked at the chief and said, 'I want your job--not right now, of course, but eventually.'

"Small-town chiefs--we do everything. We work the street, and we're in uniform. I enjoy it."

Michaels, five-year veteran Kersey Police Chief Rik Clark and almost all other small-town law-enforcement heads are "working" chiefs. Besides taking care of the administrative, training and budgetary facets of their departments, they spend part of their time on patrol.

The Kersey force is made up of two policemen--Clark and officer Pat Carey. Each spends about 84 hours a week at work or on call in the town of 980 residents just east of Greeley. Clark says being on the street makes the long hours bearable.

"I went into it because it was fun, and they paid you, too," Clark said. "Being behind a desk--that sucked. I want to be outside. The chief of Denver, if he had to write a ticket, he couldn't do it. We do all of it."

Michaels says people have asked him to perform such tasks as talk to a neighbor whose sprinkler was watering their lawn, or talk to someone at the newspaper because they didn't want the Wednesday special thrown on their lawn. But being close and attainable to the public makes work more interesting.

"Anybody can come in and talk to the chief," Michaels said. "In Denver, (these complaints) would have been stopped before they came all the way up, but that's what I like about it. You never know who's gonna come talk to you."

Being so close to the community presents problems, too. Writing a ticket to a neighbor or community leader can be tough, Clark says, but a law is a law.

"You stop a friend. They say, 'I'm your friend. You can't write me a ticket.' But if you were my friend, you wouldn't put me in that position," Clark said.

"If you give someone a break, you've got someone saying you didn't do your job. You've got to be consistent in enforcement," Clark said.

"People always ask 'Would you write your mother a ticket?' " Michaels said. "No. We're human beings, too. On the other hand, she thinks I would, so she won't speed through town."

Other drawbacks include low pay--generally under $30,000 a year--and answering to an elected town board.

Most small-town chiefs are supervised either directly or indirectly through town boards. Both chiefs say problems occasionally develop between board members and the force.

"The town board (members) are my ultimate bosses. In seven years, I've seen quite a few come and go," Michaels said. "We haven't seen eye-to-eye on everything, but we work it out.

"Town board members are civilians," he said. "I wouldn't think of going to a water and sewer guy and saying, 'Add two parts per million of chlorine to your water.' But town board members sometimes do that, and that's where the rubs start."

Many town boards must reappoint police chiefs every few years, and Michaels says that makes the job security "precarious."

Former Dacono police chief Richard Baker was fired by the Dacono City Council July 13. Working in a small community is great, Baker says, but town boards can be a big headache.

"You have no job security at all," said Baker. "You're at their pleasure every two years, and you're gone. There's nothing you can do about it.

"(But) there are a lot of good things you can do for the badge in a small town," he added. "My dad was a small-town sheriff for 17 years, and I guess I kind of grew up with it. I'd like to think I did a good job of it."

The law-enforcement profession has radically changed over the years, Clark says, and officers must be "service-oriented" to keep communities satisfied. But trying to help, being out and being available to the community are what breathe life into the job, he adds.

"You can't stay 'Andy Taylor' forever. If you can't stay up with the times, it'll bite you in the butt."

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