The People’s Policeman

The Sherrif of Pitkin County, Colorado has one of the world’s most famous ski resorts in his juristiction but Aspen’s reputation as a fun loving, easy going town owes a lot to the Sheriff’s enlightened attitude to law enforcement.

Bob Braudis, Sheriff of Aspen. [Photo Credit: Renee Sando]

Bob Braudis, Sheriff of Aspen. [Photo Credit: Renee Sando]

Braudis is still fighting the forces he saw as dangerously wrong back in the sixties. He’s still anti-establishment, anti-racist, still pro-freedom of expression and firmly pro-drug legalisation.

“The illegal status of drugs, from a law enforcement perspective is nothing but price support for the narco-traficante.”

Because of his sixties spawned philosophies and the pure physical size of him, many would snigger as they called him a dinosaur, just a big man left behind by the high tide of hippy-trippy times. Anachronism? Bob? Hell no, he’s one of the few politicians – it’s his term – one of the few politicians, in the US or anywhere else, that can claim and receive mass support and respect from a cross section of the community. Particularly the young,

“They think I am a hero, mainly because of the stance on legalisation of drugs and the fact that we are not out there peeping in their bedroom windows trying to catch them smoking a joint. And for some reason the establishment likes what I do. It maybe related to self interest; that they can sell a ten million dollar home here by saying we have virtually no violent crime.”

In 1998 Aspen and the rest of  Pitkin County went to the polls.  Did they wanted to limit the number of terms any one person could be elected Sheriff? 80% of the electorate said no. Ask most people if they think Bob does a good job and the answer is yes. Ok, so not everyone likes his style or his policies, but how many law enforcement officers get people walking up to them in the middle of street to give them a hug? How many politicians for that matter? Bob does.

“Some people think that we are the thin blue line between the threats to the establishment and the establishment.  We always have to remind ourselves for whom we work. It’s the public. It’s the smart public, the dumb public, the rich public, the poor public. We work for the public.”

Bob Braudis isn’t your run-of-the-mill lawman, but then Aspen isn’t a straight forward town.

It’s a schizophrenic place.  Its has a reputation as being exclusive; a mountain theme park for the rich. But for a small town it’s been home to an alarming diversity of people. The sort of bunch that if you had them all to a dinner party you’d at least want to video it for curiosity sake, and to back up the insurance claim. Originally it was the Summer home of the Ute indians, then the live/work space to a hoard of silver miners and all their lively entourage – who had a whale of a time for a while till the Gold rate replaced the Silver rate and the party moved elsewhere. A smattering of ranchers, lumberjacks and dogmatic miners hung around through the depression, then in 1945 the community swelled by returning GI’s of the 10th Mountain Division who trained in Rockies for war and wanted to live amongst them in peace. Over the next sixty years, stir in fair sized clutch of world renowned academics, an annual crop of ski bums, more than one VW van full of hippies, and an ever increasing mix of tourists, immigrant workers and uber-wealthy second homers. With all that  diversity and more in a small population you might reasonably assume it is a bit of a social powder keg, but it’s not. There are tensions in the town over the sky high cost of real estate that prices most locals out of the market, and heated discussions about land use and local amenities, but in general it’s a peaceful, law abiding, party loving community. Just like its Sheriff.

“I would never be able to be elected sheriff in one of the redneck counties in Colorado. Colorado for the most part is a conservative state governed by farmers and Ford dealers. Fortunately each county elects its own Sheriff and that Sheriff for the most part reflects the values of the majority of voters in that county.”

Most of the time we talked it was in his office. More like a den really, a homely little room with a desk on one side and a sofa the other. On the wall, a black poster sporting a large blood red fist – Hunter S. Thomson’s 1970  campaign poster when he narrowly lost the election for Sheriff of Pitkin County.

“Hunter always said, ‘politics is the art of controlling your own environment’. He called it freak power, empower the young electors. He paved the way.

Hunter S. Thompson was Bob’s best friend. Bob was a central figure in Hunter’s Owl Farm kitchen cabinet, the inner sanctum.  As Sheriff, he had to attend the scene of Hunter’s suicide.

Bob’s attitude to law enforcement is very much his own, but it has been honed during many late night conversations in Thompson’s kitchen with a stiff drink and sturdy debate amongst razor sharp minds.

“Live and let live philosophy, that’s what I subscribe to as the chief executive law enforcement officer here. I tell all my deputies to question authority even though they are authority. I tell them, ‘I want you to be as mellow and as compassionate as you can be.’ They’ll often give you a break, we call it a street corner plea bargain or lecture and release. I get a lot of business done in the grey.”

He started our conversation with an eloquent history of the British Medieval legal system and how this evolved into the US County Sheriff. He explained the nuances of politics in the modern West and the intricate nature of Aspen society. He quoted Louis XV, in French and used the phrase “homeostatic equanimity” to explain an Aspen attitude to fitness and fun.

“The guy who’s snorting cocaine or drunk as a lord at midnight on friday night is in  the lift line at nine on saturday morning. They keep it in balance. Homeostatic equanimity. Trying to figure out what’s right. Philosophers have been debating this for millennia, what is the good life for man and how do you achieve it?”

Bob Bruadis is a sharp, earnest and genial man, but he’s thought out his opinions and he’s happy to stand by them.

“People focus on my attitudes to drugs. I’m not a one trick pony,  I think I can hold my own in a parliamentary dialogue about anything. I am not going to force anything down anyone’s throat but every four years they get to decide whether they like me or not.”

“Apres moi le deluge”, that was the Louis XV quote Bob used; “after me the flood”. The French king was foreseeing the fall of the gallows on his son’s neck. He was expressing a fear for the future after his time and a desire not to leave too soon.

And Bob meant it in a similar way. He thinks that the fight he spent so much time fighting is building. Politically, maybe socially and possibly personally he believes we are living through interesting times.

International politics, national politics and the environment, he’s thinking hard about them all. And on another level he is concerned that after his generation steps down, real estate prices will finally turn Aspen into just another sterile playground for just the wealthy, that his community will die without the vibrancy of diversity.

“We came out here to drop out, we ran away from some thing. I ran away from the corporate world but slowly and surely all those things I ran away from caught up with me.”

But just like Aspen, the Sheriff isn’t a one trick pony. The old hippy, the people loving party head that is also Bob Braudis, he’s looking at his 60’s and thinking, maybe it’s time to spent more time living the life he’s spent so much time fighting to have.

CNN Traveller, September/October 2005


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