Keeping a Lid on Big Events in Small Towns
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the big festivals happening in this valley’s small towns is how little happens, at least from a law enforcement point of view.
“It’s has been a good event when people go home and say ‘Gee, we had a good weekend!’ and not know a thing about what we did,” comments Terry Wilson, who has been chief of police for Glenwood Springs for 20-plus years. “We’re the one business in town that no one wants to be too busy.”
But when Mountain Fair draws an attendance of around 20,000 to Carbondale, a town with a population of only about 6,500, local police are kept quite busy preventing mischief.
During Strawberry Days, all of Glenwood’s officers will typically work 30 to 40 hours over a two-and-a -half day period, expending about 25 percent of the department’s annual overtime budget. To patrol Strawberry Days’ parade, art fair, children’s park, carnival and beer garden, Glenwood cops often work 16 hours each day, Friday through Sunday.
And it’s not just Glenwood’s officers. When Strawberry Days comes up, “We beg for a lot of help from our neighbors,” says Wilson. This year, officers from Carbondale, Rifle, Silt, New Castle and the Garfield County sheriff’s office all helped out. “There’s a gentleman’s agreement among agencies,” Wilson explains. “We pitch in and they return the favor. We’ll go help Silt with HeyDays, pitch in to help Rifle with the County Fair and back Carbondale up with Mountain Fair.” Since Carbondale’s police famously turn out in shirts bright enough to blend in with Mountain Fair’s hippie motif, Wilson was asked whether he follows suit. He chuckled, “They are more than welcome to wear tie dye, but I decline the opportunity.”
Planning for celebrity and elected officials’ appearances is the purview of the Colorado State Patrol and the Secret Service, but those visits typically place demands on police and sheriff’s departments up and down the Roaring Fork Valley. In September of 2014, for example, a 40-car motorcade that took Vice President Joe Biden from the Eagle County Airport to Aspen required local sheriff’s departments to provide helicopter support, block parts of I-70 and Route 82, unsnarl traffic and shoulder a hefty bill for overtime. Nine law enforcement agencies were involved, and the visit prompted Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo to send an invoice for services rendered to Forstmann Little & Company, the firm that invited Biden to its private event.
“In that instance,” says Wilson, “Glenwood Springs got CSP and the Secret Service to accommodate some changes in routing through town. The prior dignitary visit destroyed us. It took 30 people to get one man through town in two minutes. This last time, it worked a lot better.”
The tour de force for event planning is what the Aspen Police department does for the X–Games. “We have gone up and helped, and they do an incredible job,” , says Wilson about the event that combines multiple factors that make for X-rated difficulty. In addition to drawing more than 115,000 people, the X-Games is a large venue, night-oriented and a party atmosphere. It’s a youthful energetic crowd. They have concerts on top of everything, and it all goes late into the night. It’s international, and that flavors it too.”
For all big events, Wilson says that the keys are relationships and collaboration. To prepare for Strawberry Days, Glenwood police begin meeting with the fire department, parks and electric department, the Chamber of Commerce and private security months before the event. They go to the park, review maps and event layouts, check to see whether there are enough electric outlets for food vendors, lights and sound systems and review notes from last year. “We’re always looking for things to tweak. This year we looked for more offsite camping and parking for vendors who arrive on Thursday, or come in earlier, to make sure they have enough storage and camping space,” says Wilson. “I thought that was an improvement this year.”
A few years ago, Wilson’s department told the Glenwood Springs Chamber of Commerce that because of growth, more assistance was needed for Strawberry Days. “They jumped right on it and helped augment local police with private security patrols,” Wilson reports. “Now those patrols watch the booths all night. They man access to the beer garden, making sure no one brings in dogs, guns or bottles. They check IDs and take care of wrist banding. We have a really good relationship.
“What I would stress about making this all work is how much cooperation and coordination it takes. It’s not just us and the city departments. It’s also the Chamber of Commerce and neighboring law enforcement. We’re all there. If we are going to be preventive, we need to heavily staff our events. One reason it’s so trouble-free is that if someone is thinking of being a problem child or a troublemaker, I want them to look around, see a cop and think twice.”
Despite a huge turnout, this year’s Strawberry Days was uneventful. “It was quite possibly the most mellowest ever,” says Wilson. “It was very, very calm. It’s the first time I can remember that we didn’t even ask anyone to leave the beer garden for being inebriated or even grumpy.” The most notable event was the quick return of a three-year-old who got lost in the park. “We had everything set up,” says Wilson. “We were able to immediately put it out on the P.A. Within 25 seconds of it being announced, a private guard saw the child and scooped him up. Within five minutes, we had him back to his mom.”