Hell to the Chiefs

What's happening to Colorado's top cops?

The first volley of bullets smacked into police chief Kris Monson's parked squad car at 1:30 a.m., while he was sitting behind the wheel in downtown Olathe, doing paperwork. The windshield shattered into a spider web, and the young Western Slope lawman hit the floor. He felt a sharp pain in his chest and frisked himself quickly, feeling for blood. The badge over his heart was dented.

Monson grabbed his radio and calmly called for backup. Then he unholstered his 9mm automatic and crawled outside, using the door for cover. He saw the guy who had shot at him reload his rifle and start walking across a parking lot toward the B&C White Kitchen bar.

Monson was 35 yards from the shooter, whom he recognized as a bar regular named George; the chief had a clear shot and could have taken him out. Instead, he called out, "Freeze!" George swung around and emptied his rifle at Monson.

The chief abandoned diplomacy and fired back, hitting George in the leg. George dove for cover behind a car, and the gun battle continued. As the two men exchanged fire in the parking lot, Monson wondered when his backup would arrive. In the middle of the night in a small town, who knew?

Monson knew his enemy. Earlier that night the chief had been inside the bar and had talked with the man who was now trying to kill him. George was drunk then, and after Monson left he got worse. A few hours later the bartender eighty-sixed him. George headed home to get his gun. Now, in between cracks of gunfire, Monson listened for sirens.

The chief popped his last clip into his pistol and dragged a shotgun out of the car. But as he reached for the scattergun, the chief's leg flashed into view. George winged him in the left thigh.

Figuring the cop was down for good, George slipped out from behind the car he was using for cover and headed toward the bar. Monson popped up and fired, forcing him to hit the ground. At every lull in gunfire, George advanced toward the bar. Monson was down to his last few bullets when a deputy sheriff from Montrose showed up, more than ten minutes after Monson's call for help. The deputy got out of his car shooting.

Using the deputy's gunfire as cover, Monson tried to drag himself out of the fray. But George came after him, ignoring the deputy. A twelve-gauge shotgun blast from the deputy ended the longest known one-on-one gun battle in modern Colorado history.

Most shootings involving police last five to seven seconds. Monson's gunfight lasted thirteen minutes.

"The most amazing thing isn't how long it lasted," says Dale Wood, Monson's onetime right-hand man and currently the police chief in Mountain Village, near Telluride. "The amazing thing is that after shots had been fired on his position, Kris still warned the individual instead of shooting back right off the bat. Most police officers wouldn't have bothered with a warning in that situation. But that's the chief. He used minimal force at all times."

Soon after this 1986 incident, Monson took over as police chief in nearby Fruita. After eight years there, he decided to turn in his badge. He said that he was "sick of being on the wrong end of a gun."

Some locals say that, more than the threat of being shot again, the 42-year-old Monson was tired of the politics that came along with his job.

That's a problem that is plaguing Colorado's police chiefs. A high number of them have bailed out of their jobs--or have been kicked out--in recent years.

They can survive gun battles. But political battles--even goofy, small-town ones--are often more deadly to Colorado's police chiefs.

Scholars, veteran lawmen and the police chiefs themselves say the job of a Western lawman is radically changing. Most police chiefs these days are saddled with administrative and political duties and don't have the time to make it to the gun range, let alone get into a gun battle. And as demands placed on chiefs change, so have the chiefs. Old-timers who in some cases held down small-town posts for decades are being replaced by cops with a flair for budgeting and public relations. This new breed of police executive seldom sticks around for more than a few years, often moving on in search of more high-profile positions.

Fred Rainguet, former police chief of Fort Collins, has noticed the trend and is writing his doctoral dissertation at the University of Colorado on the subject. In the course of his research, Rainguet has found that nationally, the average chief's tenure lasts a little less than three years. And he's discovered that in Colorado over the past five years, at least fifty chiefs from of a total of 145 agencies have left their jobs. That's a turnover rate of 34.5 percent.

In his dissertation proposal, Rainguet quotes former New York police commissioner William Bratton as saying that police chiefs have about the same job security as professional football coaches.

So does that leave the public in the same boat as New Orleans Saints fans? Tom Wagoner, Loveland's police chief and president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police (ACP), says no.

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