Law Enforcement The Right Way
One thing most marijuana users have in common is a well-justified caution (if not outright fear) of cops. Simply by virtue of enjoying a substance still considered illicit just because it's not yet legal on a federal level, we all run the risk of getting busted. Even those of us in states that have approved medical marijuana, that ingrained skepticism of police officers remains.
We see them behind us, and immediately make sure both hands are on the steering wheel, make sure we're going the speed limit, make sure we're doing everything right so that we don't get pulled over. We see them on the street, and stop talking until we pass them, lest we draw too much attention from Johnny Law.
In all fairness, this paranoia is overwhelmingly valid. Pretty much every one of us at least knows someone who has been hassled by a power-drunk cop, and plenty of us have personally been busted for dubious crimes that no sane, moral person would find objectionable.
But if we're being fair, you have to acknowledge that, most of the time, the cops we deal with are generally good people. They take a relatively awful salary to be up to their necks in scum every day, because they want to genuinely make their community and world a better place.
Nevertheless, that one out of ten experiences where you get a totally Gestapo-minded cop harassing you for doing nothing ethically wrong, will quickly taint your perception of police as a whole.
The most frustrating aspect of dealing with mean cops is that they are PUBLIC SERVANTS. Their salaries come from our taxes, and they're supposed to be on our side, not the enemy. Most have sworn in some fashion to “serve and protect” their community, and for them to bust people for smoking pot, or other acts that bear no ill effect on society, is infuriating to say the least.
Sadly, America's history is marred with police brutality. For all the scores of times cops have truly helped their communities, those times where police abuse their power stand out way more, which has long produced a culture of citizens afraid of police.
But it should not be...and thankfully, people like Colorado's Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo have proven that compassionate, intelligent law enforcement actually works. DiSalvo has stood tall as an example of how police should be upstanding members of their community - not the controllers.
“My philosophy on law enforcement is,” he says from his office in Aspen, “the number one thing I don't want to do is hassle people. If I was a mega company, I would probably describe our product as Safety and Peace. We're not here to ruin days, and look for every little thing we possibly can to write a ticket for.”
DiSalvo continues, “I think 'Tolerance' is a big word in my vocabulary, and 'Patience.' Seeing that good people do make mistakes sometimes, and shouldn't be chastised or put in front of the whole community to be ridiculed. Good people make mistakes and do bad things.”
All this said, it's not like you can run around the streets of Pitkin County doing whatever you want. “We don't have the same approach on crimes against people,” DiSalvo points out. “If you hurt somebody, and you're out to do some harm, we will take that very seriously, and pretty much have a zero tolerance on crimes against other human beings.
“But there are some areas that I give my officers - and as my predecessor did, and his predecessor before him - a wide berth for discretion, to do the right thing. Probably the most important thing I do is hire…the right people, who I can trust to accurately get the message. That is, the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office has…a lot of discretion…we're not here to hassle, we're here to educate and keep this community as safe as we can.”
When it comes to marijuana, DiSalvo says “I think we take an educated approach to it. It's not to say that any other community is not as intelligent as this community, I just think that, because of the atmosphere that we have - which is a resort community, a place where people come to kind of cut loose - I think that our philosophy is more 'live and let live.' Don't get in somebody's backyard, or look through their windows, if it's not a direct life safety issue.”
Lest you think this is the talk of a recent college grad know-it-all in a sweater-vest spitting out naive ideologies about a world he doesn't fully understand, it's important to note that, before being elected Sheriff in 2010, DiSalvo had over 20 years of experience as a hard working member of Pitkin County's law enforcement.
Looking back on what brought him to Colorado in the first place, he says, “I was 20 years old when I moved here; I'm 50 now. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and spent most of my life up to that point in Queens, or Long Island. When I was 20, I came out here for a two-week vacation in January, and by April I had packed up everything I owned and moved west. I had never been west of Pennsylvania.
“I started doing odd jobs; I drove a bus for a while. Then in 1985, I was playing ball with the chief of police, and he said, 'I think you'd like this job.' And I gave it a shot...and it stuck. I'm still doing it.
“I was initially an Aspen police officer. And then in 1987 or 1988 - when Bob Braudis, my predecessor, was elected - I moved over here to be with him. And then I was a patrol officer for him for a long time, moved into an investigations position, then was Undersheriff for a long time. Then when he retired, he supported me, and I ran against five other people and won. 79% was my margin of victory.”
To this end, DiSalvo is part of a long-standing tradition of law enforcement playing the role of public servant, as opposed to disciplinarian. They even refuse to engage in undercover work. “I think it erodes the trust the community has in police, I think it erodes trust that neighbors have in each other. We don't pay for information, either; we don't have a Crime Stoppers or anything like that.
“And when I say 'I,' I should say 'we.' I have a pretty good idea what this community wants and expects. This community has made it clear, that they are not going to tolerate undercover police work. And I happen to feel the same way.
“When I get questioned about undercover, it's usually about drugs. That's not what we're doing; we're not doing undercover work for petty offenses, which is what marijuana is. It's just not something this community would tolerate.”
DiSalvo says the best route for cannabis is “legalization, and control and regulation by states. That's how I feel marijuana should be dealt with...putting it in the same box as alcohol, and let's take it from there.”
He's gotta be a pot smoker, right?
“I'm not, but if I was, I don't think that's a question that should be asked or answered. No one asks me about my blood pressure medicine, my Prozac, anything else that I or you may be taking. I put it in the same category. This is a medicine, that is not your business how I use it.
“I think it's really tacky for somebody to say, 'do you have your card?' You wouldn't even consider asking a person, 'are you medicated for depression?' It wouldn't even cross an employer's mind, or a friend's mind.
“It's funny how people, when they ask me that question, and I answer 'it's not my business; it's medicine,' I'm often told, 'it's illegal, on a federal level, so it's not medicine, so you should disclose it, and you can't put it in that category with the others.'
“I don't believe the federal government has any role in this. If we have Feds busting people for six or eight plants, we got a problem. There are much bigger problems than that in this country.”
Sure, you can argue that Pitkin County's higher cost of living is the cause of its low crime rate. Even DiSalvo admits with a chuckle, “the average one bedroom apartment in Aspen is about $1,200 a month, for about 500 square feet. I'm not being an elitist, there's just not a lot of riffraff here. It's just different.”
Nonetheless, by successfully presiding over a county of 16,000 people, DiSalvo's approach to law enforcement stands as one of the USA's best examples of how to do it right, in a manner that upholds what really matters in a community: safety and peace.
Jake McGee is filmmaker and writer, currently serving the world of arts & culture as the editor in chief of Kotori Magazine, www.kotorimagazine.com