Dick Kienast of Aspen, Colorado, sheriff of Pitkin County, seems to be the kind of law enforcer people have in mind when they talk about limiting government to the protection of individual rights. Kienast recently came in for national attention when Sixty Minutes and People magazine covered his continuing battle with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
The battle is this: Kienast has refused to allow any undercover drug investigation in his county. When the DEA tried to get around Kienast by placing surveillance equipment on private property—against the owner's wishes—the sheriff seized the equipment. A Sixty Minutes camera crew was on hand when the DEA came to reclaim it. The DEA has filed charges against Kienast for obstruction of justice. That Pitkin County's sheriff would be so obstreperous seems to be a particularly acute embarrassment for the DEA: by all reports, the agency has concentrated a lot of effort in Aspen because the population is young and financially successful, a combination that often encourages the use of recreational drugs like cocaine.
In 1976, 41-year-old Kienast ran to fill a term for sheriff, winning with 52 percent of the vote. He was elected for four more years in '78 with 54 percent, even though conservatives had organized a campaign against him promising "a return to traditional law enforcement." That promise is quite enlightening when held up to Kienast's record. Since he took office, there has been a 35 percent drop in major crimes, coupled with a doubling of the "crime solution rate" (arrests for reported crimes). The "stolen property recovery rate" has tripled.
Complaints about deputies have dropped from one a day to one a month. Private-enterprise management techniques and the nonadversary role of the sheriff's department have combined to cut its job turnover from 80 percent a year to less than 10 percent. Two-thirds of the deputies have trained to serve as emergency medical technicians who are subject to call in life-threatening situations.
With results like that, who needs "traditional law enforcement"? Richard Kienast has proven that libertarian rhetoric about the proper role of the police is more than wishful thinking; "big brother" policing cannot compare.
A large part of the explanation for Kienast's success is that his department uses its resources to protect people and their property rather than to chase down people who use drugs. "Drug enforcement is really a waste of money," says Kienast. "I think that's been proven with the history of marijuana—you can't stop it once it's become socially acceptable. You can make all the laws you want, but they're basically unenforceable. I would analogize it to prohibition. It's going to continue to exist no matter how much you enforce it.
"Locally, you have to set certain priorities in terms of budget. I don't know what the figures are for federal drug law enforcement, but I do know that more than 25 percent of the people in federal institutions are in there for drug violations. And in terms of enforcement, it's been estimated that in 1975, $350 million was involved in investigation on the federal level alone.
"If we were to attempt to operate an undercover operation at the most minimal level, it would cost a minimum of $50,000 a year in an area with a permanent population of 10,000."
Tony Fairchild of Aspen has brought a suit against the DEA for invasion of privacy. The agency set up a camera disguised as power transformer on a telephone pole across from Fairchild's home. Privacy suits are almost never successful, but Tony thinks he has a chance because the pictures of his house were broadcast to Aspen citizens on a local television station. Dick Kienast is worried about the power of centralized police agencies. He believes "local police agencies have been the one single institution that has preserved our freedom in the United States, as opposed to having a national centralization of police work, say with the FBI and the DEA. It's a bad move, and I think we're getting to a point where people are recognizing that. In the east, sheriffs' powers have been eroded where they have state police now. I find it kind of scary, especially after my experience with the feds over the last six months. I characterize it as a sort of 'big brother' imposition by the feds—telling us not only how to live our lives but how to enforce the law."
Talking about Colorado's new paraphernalia law that makes apparatus associated with the consumption of drugs illegal, Dick notes that "one of the big supporters of the bill was the archconservative of our legislature. He talks about individual rights for a person to do their own business and then turns around and says that it only applies to commerce. If you look at the marijuana and cocaine business, it's the last bastion of entrepreneurial America left. The linkage of those two things with organized crime is bullshit, though it depends on what you mean by organized.
"The LaGuardia Report of 1944 recommended legalizing heroin, because they figured they could cut street crime by 50 percent. In England, where the use of heroin is legal, reported addiction has leveled out in terms of percentage of population. In the United States, it has actually increased in the last 10 years. The interesting thing is that heroin addiction is physically less debilitating than alcoholism. But the bad effects of alcohol was the prohibition cause; it was their argument. They tried it, and it doesn't work."
Richard Kienast is a deeply religious man who sees his role in society as a "peacemaker." His opponents accuse him of being paid off by organized crime to limit the scope of his policing. They want "traditional law enforcement." But they have forgotten an even earlier tradition, when law enforcers were known as officers of the peace, whose function it was to protect people from others' aggression—to keep the peace. "Blessed are the peacemakers."
Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Peace Keeper".