Aspen policeman Walter Chi characterized himself as someone who would enforce the law more equitably while Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo touted his extensive administrative experience during the sheriff’s race segment of Community GrassRoots TV’s Squirm Night on Thursday.
The two candidates were questioned by editors Curtis Wackerle of the Aspen Daily News and David Krause of The Aspen Times. One of the session’s uncomfortable moments came when Krause questioned Chi about having been under investigation by the district attorney’s office earlier this summer for allegedly failing to report a child sexual assault he had heard about three years ago. Chi was not charged with misdemeanor failure to report child abuse because the statute of limitations had expired, according to an Oct. 3 story in the Times.
Chi has said that he was never told by the DA that he was under investigation, and that the person who told him about the incident never mentioned that it involved a sexual incident involving a child. On Thursday, he expounded on his advisory role to the alleged victim’s grandmother, who was described in a police report as Chi’s friend.
Chi also questioned the timing of the story, published a little more than a month prior to Election Day.
“Even if there was no mention of sexual assault, do you still feel personally obligated to report a crime involving any kind of violence or abuse, especially on a child,” Krause asked.
“Absolutely,” Chi responded. “I think number one … I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed that if something bad happened to that person, I didn’t take part to change it. I do take sexual assault very seriously. When I investigate it, the main thing that I try to do is re-empower people.
“The person we’re talking about called me two days ago for advice,” Chi said. “I don’t think that they’re trying to say I did anything wrong.”
Chi said he has since apologized to the family of the alleged victim. In the story, Chi said his recommendation to the grandmother was to report the incident to the sheriff’s department “if she felt that something had happened.”
“I know the rules of mandatory reporting,” Chi said Thursday.
DiSalvo asked if he could respond to Chi’s comments.
“What Walter did was inexcusable,” DiSalvo said. “In Walter’s statement, he said he told [the grandmother] that the investigation probably would go through River Bridge [Regional Center in Glenwood Springs]. River Bridge does one thing, investigates child sex. If he didn’t know it was about child sex, why would he bring up River Bridge?”
DiSalvo said Chi may still have to answer questions about not reporting the alleged incident.
“I don’t know what could have been prevented two years ago if Walter had done his duty, but I’m finding it real hard to swallow that he’d take a defensive nature on that.” DiSalvo said.
The sheriff said the inquiries about Chi’s actions were not based on politics.
“Anyone who thinks that this was political, or a plant, needs to come talk to me because I think you’re naive to think you’d run for a position like this and not have yourself fully vetted,” the sheriff said.
In other remarks, Chi reiterated previous statements he’s made about wanting to help the local public school system keep drugs off the campus by occasionally sending a K-9 unit to do locker searches. DiSalvo said neither parents nor school administrators would support such tactics.
DiSalvo closed by saying that Pitkin County residents cannot afford to train a new sheriff.
“I’m very lucky and proud to have served this community for the last 32 years and the last eight as sheriff,” DiSalvo said. “I started my career as a patrol officer and climbed every rung in this organization, from patrol to investigations to supervisor and then, eventually, undersheriff. I’m without question the most experienced person for this job.”
In his closing statement, Chi suggested that DiSalvo allows some drug and mental-health issues to go unchecked.
“I would like to see that changed,” Chi said. “I’d like to invest in the community and invest my time [by helping out] with mental-health, help out with the suicide problems, the child alcohol and the child drug use … . They’re all things that I think I can make a better stand than Joe does at it.”
The two candidates face each other in the Nov. 6 election. Voters will receive ballots in the mail on Oct. 15 and early voting begins Oct. 22 at the county’s administration building on Main Street.