Pitkin County sheriff candidate front-runner Joe DiSalvo came out in favor of legalizing illicit drugs at Thursday’s Squirm Night debate, while his opponent Rick Leonard criticized the law enforcement agency for not following up on anonymous tips regarding drug dealers.
DiSalvo, who is currently Pitkin County undersheriff, said he had no interest in whether people in their own homes “fire up a joint or do a line on [their] table.” That means no undercover work would be done by deputies under his command, DiSalvo said, calling the action too expensive and dangerous for law enforcement officers.
“I think adults should be able to do what they want in their own homes and do so safely,” DiSalvo said, adding that that attitude does not apply to children or people getting behind the wheel of automobiles.
Drug use and addiction are health issues, not criminal issues, DiSalvo said, echoing the beliefs of Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, who is retiring in January after 26 years at the helm of the sheriff’s office. And the best way to address the drug issue in society is legalization, DiSalvo said. It’s a more balanced policy that would end much of the violence surrounding the drug trade, he said.
“Joe and I have a very poignant difference on this,” Leonard responded.
Leonard, a reform candidate, called the sheriff’s office approach to drug dealing “unique.” No other law enforcement agency would ignore an anonymous complaint about a drug dealer, he said. And when they do have actionable intelligence, the sheriff’s office will make a phone call or leave a business card with the suspect and ask them to tone it down, Leonard said.
“That’s not an investigation,” he said.
DiSalvo said the office does what is within its power and does not stand in the way of other agencies that conduct drug investigations in the county.
Heather Rousseau/Aspen Daily News
Pitkin County sheriff candidates, from left, Joe DiSalvo and Rick Leonard, answer questions from the audience during Squirm Night on Thursday at City Hall.
Leonard, who had a 22-year career in law enforcement in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York City, and in the Palm Beach, Fla. area, said the characterization of him as a “big city, hard-nosed cop” was unfair. His father was a police chief in a small town, and he molded himself after the small-town cop ethic, he said.
“I’ve always been successful in law enforcement because I’ve always approached things with a humanistic sensitivity,” he said, stating that he had never had a citizen complaint in his career. The highlight of his career, he said, came when he broke a serial rape case by following up on an obscure lead.
Leonard said he has done thorough research on the operations of the sheriff’s office, and has found a number of places where he would tighten up the ship, or be more effective. He said there should be more deputies on the road in the early morning hours; that he would be more proactive working in the schools on drug issues and that he would do a better job of patrolling Highway 133.
DiSalvo said the department he would be inheriting is in the best shape he has seen in his 23 years as a sheriff’s deputy, giving a nod to the quality of recent hires.
“It would be really crazy for me to come in here and make wide sweeping changes and set the department back 10 years,” he said.
He said he would push to extend cell phone service to rural areas of the county for safety purposes.
“It really bothers me that someone could have a crash on Independence Pass and not be able to make a phone call,” DiSalvo said.
In the August primary, DiSalvo took 77 percent of the vote, while Leonard came in second with 12 percent. Aspen police officer Rick Magnuson finished third with 11 percent and was eliminated. Mountain Rescue Aspen president Hugh Zucker was a candidate for two months before dropping out of the race three weeks before the primary, citing “vitriol.”
GrassRoots TV will re-air Squirm Night on Saturday at noon and 8:30 p.m.