Police officers on the hill are nothing new in Vail, where the local department has partnered with the ski area’s operators for six seasons. Other ski areas, including Breckenridge, Monarch and Durango Mountain Resort, also welcome skiing cops, who, like at Vail, volunteer to ski in uniform and help with the occasional problem.
In exchange for their commitment to patrol the slopes for a certain number of days each year, the officers are given free season passes.
The officers lend support to local patrollers and security, but basic public relations is a big part of the on-slope patrolling. Mayes says it’s fun to show kids and vacationers that up in the snowy hills, police officers can merge play and work.
In Breckenridge, where officers have volunteer-patrolled the ski area for four seasons, the program has thwarted ski thefts. In 2007-08, the area saw a rash of thieves targeting high-end skis — mostly Volkls — at base-area lodges. Local police changed their tactic and began routinely patrolling the base areas and even setting up stings to lure ski thieves.
Since then, the department has seen thefts drop from 165 pairs of skis or snowboards stolen in 2007-08 to 57 last season. Similarly, police presence in lift lines has drastically reduced the number of people using borrowed ski passes and other “theft of services” crimes.
At Monarch Ski Area, La Plata County sheriff’s deputies have been skiing in uniform for two seasons. They have since been able to immediately respond to collisions that might have involved violations of the state Ski Safety Act as well as rare altercations inside the lodge. And, like at Breckenridge, ski thefts have plummeted 70 percent since police began hanging out and skiing at Monarch.
Just the occasional sighting of a police officer at the hill has helped, says La Plata County sheriff’s Deputy Felicia McQueen, who runs the Monarch program. The officers say they’ve never had any complaints about their presence.
At Vail, a special safety crew known as the Yellow Jackets promotes safety and tries to control skier speed. Members wave their arms and warn speedy skiers of approaching slow zones near congested intersections. And when there’s a police officer behind the Yellow Jackets, few ignore the warnings.
Like the Yellow Jackets, the police are able to access skiers’ pass information and revoke the skiing privileges of egregious violators.
Vail police chief Dwight Henninger, who launched the partnership with Vail ski area following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, says the program is more about developing better communication with both skiers and mountain workers than actually catching criminals.