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Cripple Creek police chief Ed Stauffer pushes back from the table at Creekers restaurant, leaving his plate of fries untouched and bringing on a lecture from the matronly waitress. He listens politely to her discourse on diet and health, then lights up a cigarette as she walks away. He smiles to himself. Cripple Creek is still a small town. Everybody knows everybody else's business, and residents freely dish out advice, whether or not it's wanted. "The other day," the chief confesses, "somebody called me Andy of Mayberry."

But Andy Taylor, the TV sheriff who left the keys to the jail cells within reach of the prisoners and didn't carry a gun, probably couldn't hack it in modern-day Cripple Creek. Stauffer is beginning to doubt his role in the whole business, too.

The chief's easygoing ways--he keeps his wife and two sons-in-law on the payroll and sometimes wears an International Harvester cap with his uniform--are increasingly difficult to reconcile with the old mining camp's newfound status as a gambling boomtown. The big-city district attorney down in Colorado Springs, complains Stauffer, is trying to get him fired, claiming that he and his officers show favoritism to locals when making arrests. And though townspeople may view Stauffer as a Nineties version of Sheriff Taylor, a series of public-relations gaffes have made him look more like bungling deputy Barney Fife.

When a married Cripple Creek police officer ran off with a female dispatcher (without first returning his badge and gun), Stauffer issued a warrant for the man's arrest. The warrant was canceled only after Stauffer received the gun in the mail. Stauffer also was forced to temporarily suspend his wife, a part-time officer, for revealing details of an ongoing investigation.

Similar scenarios have played out in Black Hawk and Central City, the other Colorado mountain towns where crime and gambling have come hand in hand. As the crush of casino crowds has forced law enforcement agencies to expand rapidly, police departments in the three communities have been plagued by questionable hiring practices, political infighting and personnel problems that at times have bordered on the bizarre.

In Central City, the former chief was forced to resign after his own officers squealed on him for taking a bicycle from a Christmas toy drive. Before he left, Elmo Gatlin hired an officer with his own troubled history: former Denver cop David Hayhurst, who made headlines five years ago when he abandoned his patrol cruiser while on duty and fled over the mountains to Utah to begin a new life.

Black Hawk, the smallest and now richest of the three mountain towns, is coping with big-league problems of its own. A special prosecutor was recently assigned to look into accusations that police chief Jerry Yocom buried a police report accusing an alderman's son of a crime. A report on the investigation is expected within the next few weeks.

And it's not the first time Yocom has faced scrutiny: In 1988 he was fired by the Littleton Police Department after being accused of rape. Although Yocom was never charged with a crime, Black Hawk officials apparently hired him without first checking with Littleton police. Two of the aldermen who confirmed Yocom's appointment say they were unaware of the allegations against him until recently.

Today, town councils in the three communities are working hard to ensure that their officers are qualified, capable and get the help they need. The police departments are devoting more time to training, and they are upgrading their equipment and facilities. But critics still depict those agencies as poorly trained and inadequately equipped to handle investigations--a recipe that could ultimately jeopardize criminal prosecutions. Meanwhile, Stauffer is feuding with El Paso County District Attorney John Suthers and Black Hawk police are squabbling with Gilpin County deputies.

Says Brian Terrett of the Jefferson-Gilpin District Attorney's office, "Policing above 10,000 feet is a whole other ball game."

As recently as four years ago, Cripple Creek, Central City and Black Hawk were dying. The three mining towns were highly dependent on the tourists--and cash--that flowed in from Memorial Day until the first early snows. Property taxes were high and good jobs were practically nonexistent. Roads and reservoirs were crumbling, as were the historic buildings lining the main streets. In desperation, the residents turned north to Deadwood, South Dakota, which boomed after approving limited-stakes gambling.

The Colorado towns made a deal with the devil--give the okay to gambling, town officials told voters, and we'll put money aside for historic preservation and still have plenty of tax dollars to pass around. Voters agreed, approving a state referendum in the fall of 1990 that allowed casino-style gambling. Slot machines were gobbling up quarters by October of the following year.

In the eleven months between the approval of gaming and its inauguration, the three towns geared up for the onslaught of visitors and the problems expected to follow. For Cripple Creek and Central City, that meant beefing up the police departments. For Black Hawk, it meant establishing a police department.

Black Hawk, which has only 125 registered voters in its two-and-a-half-square-mile boundary, had been without its own law enforcement agency for about five years. Town residents managed for a while with a part-time marshal before deciding it made more sense to contract with the Gilpin County Sheriff's Department for police services.

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