Hell to the Chiefs
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.
"I don't think people receive as effective service with turnover rates being so high," says Wagoner, "but it doesn't hamper the overall protection that the police provide. The people that are hardest hit are those within the department. Change comes along with every new police chief, and that gives cops within that department a case of whiplash."
Some of Colorado's crustier, more colorful chiefs--along with some who are just plain incompetent--are simply being pushed out. "The job is becoming increasingly complex," says Wagoner. "It's a lot like that circus act where you've got twenty poles with spinning plates on top of them. One plate is the police force, another is the city council, another is the community. You end up running back and forth, and soon enough, one of those plates is going to fall and crack."
Some police chiefs, like Boulder's Tom Koby, are leaving before they're thrown out because they lack community and departmental support due to real or perceived incompetence. Koby (who declined interview requests) has been hammered mainly for his failure to arrest anyone for JonBenet Ramsey's murder. Others, like Grand Junction's Darold Sloan, have shot themselves in the foot.
Back in July 1996, Sloan told reporters that "police officers and police workers are held to a higher legal standard, not only on duty but off-duty...It's very complicated, and there are a lot of places to make mistakes." Sloan found one of them. Two months after making that statement, he was arrested for drunken driving while on vacation in Ouray County. Sloan, whose blood-alcohol level was 0.183, admitted his error during a tearful press conference and was fired.
But the former chief didn't go without a fight. He sued Grand Junction, saying that he was dismissed unfairly and that under the Americans With Disabilities Act, his firing was illegal because he's an alcoholic and therefore "disabled." (Sloan declines comment on his current lawsuit. He's now the deputy director of the ACP.)
But for every Koby and Sloan, there are police chiefs who fall out of favor for more petty reasons.
And that includes chiefs like Kris Monson--despite Monson's heroics in the legendary gun battle. Problems for Monson intensified last summer when several of Fruita's 5,000 residents complained that his officers were too rough and used excessive force. Officials of the agricultural community a few miles west of Grand Junction on I-70 took the complaints seriously and investigated. Out of the seven complaints, the city's police commission found that six were unfounded.
"You've got to understand that these six or seven alleged incidents occurred over a three-year period," says one Fruita insider. "And only one of them had credence. Still, the city manager sent Kris a four-page letter reprimanding his force. When any jerk can go in and file a complaint and have it treated like gospel, it undermines the whole operation."
Dale Wood says that while last summer's allegations frustrated Monson, there was another incident that proved too much for the even-keeled chief to take.
In the spring of 1996, Monson and three of his officers responded to a "man with a gun" call. A tow truck driver had gone to the man's house to remove a derelict vehicle and got a .357 Magnum pushed in his face.
"As usual, the chief was in plainclothes when he responded to the call," says Wood. "While the two other officers hit the front of the house, the chief went around back to set up a tactical position, not knowing that was exactly where the incident with the tow truck driver had occurred. He was immediately confronted by the perpetrator brandishing the .357.
"I was responding to the call from all the way across town, and by the time I got there, the chief had already disarmed him. It was the same sort of thing that happened back in '86. Even though the perpetrator was threatening him with a gun, Kris used his verbal skills to talk him out of doing something extremely stupid.
"But then last summer the city hired the same guy in the public works department. That didn't sit well with the department--and especially with the chief. Here's a guy who was arrested for felony menacing of a police officer, and then the city turns around a year later and hires him. But even then I think Monson handled it well. He was headed on vacation, and he let it be known that if he came back and the individual was still employed, he'd quit."
The city bowed to Monson's threat, and by the time he returned from vacation, the employee had been fired. However, with the allegations of officer misconduct still stinging, Monson decided that he'd had enough. He resigned a few months later and recently moved to Tennessee with his family.
Fruita city manager John Schneiger says Monson wasn't pushed out in any way. Schneiger says no four-page letter of reprimand was ever sent to Monson, but he acknowledges that the chief had to undergo a battery of questions and evaluations after the public complaints. "The chief retired," says Schneiger, "because he didn't want to be in law enforcement anymore. I think that the guy pulling a gun on him last year was the last straw. These accusations that we pushed Kris out come from a fringe group. I'll admit that his retirement came as a surprise to me, but everything got dealt with, as far as I'm concerned. Eight years is a long time to be a police chief in a small town."
Wood says Monson's decision to leave was complicated. "There was the situation with the employee," says Wood. "Then there was the lukewarm support from the city administration during a time of crisis for the department and the fact that Kris really didn't want to be exposed to another deadly-force situation. You put it all together and it makes sense why he retired. But it's still a shame. Kris has the best people-management skills I've ever seen, and he led by example. He didn't just sit behind his desk and fire off memos. He led the way."
The Fruita insider, who requests anonymity because he doesn't want to stir up trouble for himself in the small town, puts it a bit more succinctly. "You can only get poked in the eye with a sharp stick so many times," he says. "It's a damn shame. Best chief we ever had."
It's simply a different time for Colorado lawmen, says Delta chief of police Paul Suppes.
"I can't go out and be a cop," he says. "Instead I've got to be an administrator. You look at a guy like Kris Monson and you see a situation where a great cop got driven out by the city as opposed to perpetrators. We try to do the best job we can, but we can still be brought into the city manager's office for perceived violations. We're not elected to office, but still we've got to be politically savvy. You make a comment like Koby did during the Boulder riots [about how the police would have been justified in shooting the rioters], and you've got to turn around and eat crow."
And as any good politician will tell you, along with not sticking one's foot in one's own mouth, it's also best not to make enemies of people in high places.
Floyd Rogers, veteran chief of the corn-growing town of Fowler (population 1,200), half an hour east of Pueblo, did just that. Rogers was fired in April 1997 after a special meeting of the town council was called to discuss what they felt was the last in a long string of missteps by the chief.
Earlier that month Rogers had picked up a fourteen-year-old runaway boy from Pueblo. All parties agree that Rogers later dropped the youth off in the middle of a snowstorm somewhere between Fowler and Pueblo. But Rogers claims that after repeated attempts to get someone from Pueblo's Social Services department or the Pueblo Police Department to come pick up the runaway, he dropped the kid on the road in front of a home the fourteen-year-old said belonged to a friend of his.
"Nobody wanted to take responsibility for the kid," says Roberta Earley, Rogers's attorney. "And Floyd had no right to hold him. The kid asked for a ride halfway home, and Floyd obliged him."
The Fowler Town Council didn't see it that way. The town decided to suspend Rogers and later fired him because of his "careless disregard to the welfare of a child."
The night Rogers was suspended, the young people of Fowler showed their own brand of disregard. They rioted.
With Rogers out of uniform, another officer away for the weekend with the National Guard, and the town's remaining cop off-duty and asleep, an estimated crowd of sixty adolescents ran amok. A story in the La Junta Tribune-Democrat describes the scene: "When Otero County Sheriff's Department and Colorado State Patrol officers responded, they found Highway 50 barricaded with small flashing barriers taken from area construction sites, and young people both in the center of Main Street around a dumpster with burning materials in it and then on the tops of buildings along Main throwing debris and firecrackers down on the street.
"Officers also found the two Fowler police vehicles painted with obscene graffiti, battered, apparently with cement blocks, and their windows broken out. In addition, the officers responding found obscene graffiti on the front of the police building and its windows."
A highway patrol officer was quoted as saying, "When the police are away, the kids will play."
Two days after the riot, a special town council meeting was the scene of more unrest. The meeting had to be held in the town's community theater because of the large public turnout. While the council debated behind closed doors, the crowd waited in the theater for over two hours for the verdict. According to local press reports, when the council's decision to fire Rogers was announced after a 4-2 vote (one member abstained because of business ties to Rogers's wife), some members of the bipartisan crowd burst into cries for the recall of the entire town council and demands for an explanation as to why the town was left unprotected on the night of the riots.
Despite the public outcry, Mayor Letha Bradshaw defends the city's decision to fire Rogers. "Over a five-year period during which Floyd was the chief, there were a lot of questionable things done," says Bradshaw. "These things accumulated until the incident with the runaway."
Town councilman Bill Taylor says many of Rogers's previous problems involved his treatment of local juveniles. "Rogers had a tendency to mishandle things regarding local kids," says Taylor. "There was a situation where there were two boys in the same family. One of the brothers was stopped almost every time he was seen on the street. The other brother was an athlete, and Rogers never bothered him in any way. There was a similar situation with a pair of sisters. One was the town's valedictorian, and she was hassled constantly. The other was a volleyball player, and she'd break laws without consequence. I guess a lot of this comes from the fact that the chief was a big booster. He went to every high-school game.
"I'm not saying that Rogers didn't accomplish things in town. He controlled gangs by cracking down on certain types of clothing and haircuts. I mean, a lot of people like law and order, but towards the end he just went over the line. Running good kids out of town and things like that. He was kind of a throwback, 1890s town-marshal type of guy. Maybe he just watched too much Gunsmoke."
Taylor contends that Rogers was also a sloppy administrator. "His techniques were very amateurish," says Taylor. "He didn't keep any records. Evidence wasn't properly documented or was missing. In the end the county district attorney had to throw out tons of cases because the records were so poorly kept. The only cases we were winning were traffic cases, and that's because the best thing Rogers had going was a speed trap along Highway 50. But this job calls for a lot more than confronting speeders."
(Despite Taylor's allegations, Otero County DA Gary Stork says that he's "not aware of any current or past problems with Fowler's evidence locker or record keeping.")
Rogers admits that he did things his own way in Fowler. "My philosophy was that a little PR work goes a long way," says Rogers. "But when the time came to drop the hammer, I did it, and everybody respected that. I didn't give nobody special treatment, and that includes athletes. I'd bust a football player as quick as anyone else. Hell, the townfolk got mad at me a few times about that sort of thing. Fowler is a sports-minded town, and they don't like it when a big stud football player gets suspended because of trouble with the law. I'll admit that I gave every kid one or two breaks before I charged them with anything. And that included the mayor's kid. But when I busted him, all hell broke loose."
Rogers says that a few months before Mayor Bradshaw was elected, he arrested her son after at least two warnings for contributing to the delinquency of a minor by providing alcohol. As a result, Rogers says, Bradshaw launched what he calls "a vendetta" after she was elected. And he says it didn't help his cause when two members of the town council had run-ins with his department.
"It's just small-town politics," he says. "You just don't monkey with the mayor's kid, and that goes the same for town council members. I did both."
Rogers says that the councilmembers wanted him to give them, not the town's high-school athletes, special treatment.
"We go out to one councilwoman's house because a neighbor called about a fight," recalls Rogers. "Well, we get out there, and it ain't much of a fight, more like an argument with a lot of hollering and screaming. So we decide not to press any charges, but the woman starts telling me that I've got to arrest the neighbor for false reporting. Well, I just wasn't going to do it."
The other run-in was with Bill Taylor. "I find this fella, who's about forty years old, in the cemetery at around nine, ten o'clock at night with a very young girl," says Rogers. "I ask him what's going on, and he says he's on a snipe hunt. Now, the only problem with this explanation is the fact that this particular councilmember is blind."
Taylor's response to Rogers's snipe-hunt allegation: "The fact is that I took my niece from Oregon out on a snipe hunt, and on the way back, we got stopped for trespassing after dark in the cemetery. But we were never ticketed, because the trespassing-after-sunset rule wasn't posted. Floyd never mentioned it to me again, but he keeps those sort of things alive in his repertoire to explain why things go wrong and to protect his ego."
Rogers sees it differently. "I guess the bottom line is that I just pissed off the wrong three people and they played God," he says. "What can you do?"
The 56-year-old Rogers has filed one lawsuit specifically naming Bradshaw and the two councilmembers. The suit claims the three town officials willingly engaged in "defamation of character and wrongful firing, which resulted in mental anguish." A separate suit filed by Rogers seeks over $100,000, which he claims represents six years of overtime pay that the city refuses to hand over.
Although Mayor Bradshaw acknowledges that her son was arrested by Rogers, she says she didn't hold a personal grudge because of it. "His claim that I was on a personal vendetta is not a true statement," says Bradshaw. "I tried to work with Rogers for over a year. As for the incidents concerning the two councilmembers, I'm not sure about those and decline to comment. This was strictly an administrative decision. Rogers wasn't doing his job." (The two city council members whom Rogers accuses of personal bias did not return repeated phone calls from Westword.)
One thing both Bradshaw and Rogers agree upon is the fact that the firing has divided the town. "They held a dance hoping to mend things around town," says Rogers. "Well, about ten or fifteen people showed up. I guess a lot of folks are still pretty upset about the whole thing."
That's the kind of thing that can cause burnout. And burnout, not a firing, claimed the career of Commerce City police chief Mike Maudlin. After 24 years of law enforcement, Maudlin quit and opened his own private consulting firm.
"There are very few of us who came into the job wanting to be chiefs," says Maudlin. "We all came in wanting to be cops. I started to miss being on the street and helping people. I missed turning on the lights at an accident scene. But that's not a chief's job. The chief's job is to hold down the middle ground by combining their police background with a solid grasp of management skills. And with that comes the challenge of being a 'cop's cop' as well as a politician.
"But no matter what you do, some of your troops are going to start wondering, 'Is he really a cop, or a politician?' And if you like and need positive feedback, the chief's job isn't for you, because there's a lot of criticism coming in, and you've got to sugarcoat everything going out."
Maudlin's temporary replacement is Captain Mary Wamsley. During her brief stint, she's already had to face a lawsuit by a former employee who claims that she was unfairly subjected to Wamsley's "locker-room talk" and was forced out of the job when she complained. Another former employee has recently filed a lawsuit claiming a supervising officer was sexually harassing her. The former employee claims she was demoted because of her complaints. Adding to the brouhaha is yet another lawsuit filed by a local strip-club owner who claims that the city has "engaged in a conspiracy of harassment."
The lawsuits have left a bad taste in Wamsley's mouth. "It's a lot of pressure and stress," says Wamsley. "And that's the reason I don't want to be chief any longer than I have to. After all this, I can honestly say that they don't make a chief's job that I'd take. I don't like being stuck behind a desk, and I don't like the politics."
Maudlin says that politics have always been a big part of a chief's job but that even small departments with a handful of officers are now asking more of their top cops. "We're seeing a lot of the older chiefs retiring as the position changes, requiring more administration and less field work," he says. "The chiefs we'll be seeing in the year 2000 are going to be well-educated, confident, and they'll have a staff that's probably just as qualified and sophisticated as they are. And I think most importantly, we're going to be seeing more chiefs who planned on achieving that position from the get-go.
"Considering that, I'm not sure how many long-term chiefs we're going to have anymore. These days most chiefs last about five years."
If Maudlin's correct about the future of police chiefs, Ed Marah was the last of a dying breed.
Marah was police chief--and mayor--of the Western Slope town of Cedaredge for almost forty years. At the time of his forced retirement in 1996, this was the longest consecutive run by any Colorado police chief in state history. But that didn't deter the 1,400 residents of the farming and ranching community on Colorado 65 east of Grand Junction from going after him.
"For many years the only stabilizing influence we had out here was Ed Marah," says current mayor David Watson. "For forty years Ed was police chief, mayor, sewer chief, water chief, snowplow driver--you name it. But I think a lot of people, including myself, felt that the time had come for Cedaredge to move into at least the late '80s, if not the latter part of the twentieth century. And to do that, you can't have one person holding down all the jobs in the city government.
"Everything was in Ed's head--there was no written policy about anything. Hell, Ed wasn't even a certified police officer--he never had any training at all except for what he learned on the job."
Watson, who grew up in Cedaredge, returned in 1991 and led the ouster of Marah.
"Things were the same as they were in 1981, 1971, even 1961," says Watson. "It was the same chief and the same good ol' boy network. In Thornton you call 911, and somebody shows up properly trained and equipped. Out here you would call 911, and two guys would jump out of the ditch where they were working, jump in an ambulance and show up caked with mud. Or you'd have Ed show up in his pickup truck."
But the 75-year-old Marah, who lives next door to Watson, thinks the situation was just fine. Problems got taken care of, even if it did take a little time. Like it does when a caller has to hold on for five minutes while Marah's wife, Beryle, gets her husband off the tractor he's pushing snow around with in the backyard.
The old cop, when he reaches the phone, says, "A lot of folks are saying that we needed a change in police chief because times was changing. But the truth is, we had considerable crime out here all along and we handled it. During my time we had two bank robberies. I remember one time when we picked up some car thieves from Philadelphia."
Marah calls out to his wife, "When did we pick up those crooks from Philadelphia?" She can't remember exactly.
"Can't recall the exact date," he says when he gets back on the line, "but it goes back a spell. As I recall, the dispatcher sent out a call about some suspicious fellas down by the highway barn who'd maybe been involved in a wreck. So I jump in my truck with this little old shepherd dog I had at the time and drives out there to see what's what. I pull over when I seen the fellas and start talking to them. Now the one closest, he goes and puts his hand in his pocket and I become real suspicious right quick. So I grabbed the fella's hand and kept it jammed in his pocket. Now the other fella starts to look a little wild, so I says to him that I'd let that little shepherd dog eat him up if he didn't stand still."
Marah pauses to laugh. "Well, the fella froze right there and I'm trying to keep a straight face, because that little old dog wouldn't bite nobody. It was a bluff, but it worked. Turns out both of them fellas had matched six-shooters on 'em and the car was stolen."
Marah admits that he noticed some changes in Cedaredge during recent years. "Lot of dope coming in," he says, "and most people are pretty reluctant to talk about that. But other than that, I think things were working out pretty good."
The townspeople obviously didn't agree. Marah lost his re-election bid for mayor by a vote of 420 to 250. The loss may have been a surprise to Marah, but not to Watson.
"I think Ed made a miscalculation in the election," says Watson. "He didn't count on the new people in town--and a lot of his people were dead."
The election created quite a stir. And apparently Marah had angered some people. He later admitted that he had accepted and distributed tapes a crony made of cellular-phone conversations involving a disgruntled Cedaredge police officer. Neither Marah nor Watson will comment on that situation. Watson says there are "a lot of other things I can't talk about" and adds that after the election he was contacted by "several men in suits who work for an organization with a three-letter abbreviation" who had some questions about alleged misconduct by Marah. (An FBI spokesman says the agency hasn't conducted any investigations regarding Cedaredge or Marah.)
Despite the election loss, Marah and what are left of his supporters aren't giving up. Watson says ten or twelve staunch Marah supporters still show up at every city council meeting and "raise hell."
Watson says the town is simply better off now. "This isn't a quaint Old West town anymore," he says, "even though we may still be considered a backwater by Denver standards. But it's like this old playground we have here in town. Sure, the thing has a lot of history, but kids risk their necks every time they play on it, so we're replacing it with a new one.
"We haven't lost anything besides the fact that the town is growing up. The whole world is growing up."
Which apparently leaves less room for the Ed Marahs of Colorado.
"I thought we were pretty unique out here," says Marah. "For a long time, I was the only cop. Then I became town marshal, and it just kinda kept on building. One morning I woke up and I was chief. And seeing as how I was mayor, I was in a position of being my own boss. I think that it worked out pretty good.
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