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Did loose lips sink

By DeeDee Correll
The Daily Times-Call

BOULDER — The official line is that the letter from Boulder police Chief Mark Beckner to Boulder County Sheriff George Epp hasn’t soured the relationship between the two agencies.

As evidence, Beckner points to the date he fired off his missive criticizing Boulder County sheriff’s Detective Steve Ainsworth for publicly discussing the JonBenet Ramsey case: May 6. Since then, he said, the two departments have continued to work together.

“It hasn’t affected our working relationship, and I don’t see problems working together in the future,” Beckner said. “I think they’re a fine organization. One or two incidents doesn’t ruin that.”

The most recent incident to which Beckner refers was Ainsworth’s appearance on “The Today Show” in May to support investigator Lou Smit, who believes an intruder broke into the Ramsey house and killed the girl.

By discussing theories in an open case and criticizing the Boulder investigation, Ainsworth has violated ethical standards and compromised the integrity of the case, Beckner wrote to Epp.

“With the exception of Steve Ainsworth, we remain committed to working closely with all members of your agency,” he wrote.

Epp addresses the cooperation question this way: “It’s fair to say we have differences of opinion on lots of things, but it’s also important for us to put those aside when it’s necessary and be able to focus on the job.”

But Epp also notes that Beckner’s letter represents a departure from the norm.

“I’ve never received a complaint from any police chief or sheriff before,” he said.

Conflicts between agencies certainly aren’t unheard of, said Rex Splitt, a former police chief in Craig who now works with the County Sheriffs of Colorado organization.

“We’d all like to live in a perfect world, right? But law enforcement people are human just like everyone else. People tend to forget that,” Splitt said.

Like businesses, law enforcement agencies aren’t immune to conflict, he said.

“There’s conflict at different times, and they get resolved,” he said.

Despite the widely broadcast dissension between Boulder police and other groups over the Ramsey murder, Colorado agencies have generally escaped the kind of conflict that can plague their counterparts in other states, Splitt said.

“From what I see across the state, most of the agencies tend to get along pretty well. Issues surface and go away,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot worse horror stories from other states — everything from A to Z.”

No matter what issues arise, agencies must maintain strong relations, Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden said.

“The way I view it, we’re all part of the brotherhood. We have the same goal of protecting the public, and none of the agencies are large enough to operate independently of each other,” Alderden said. “We rely on each other for aid and support. If we didn’t have that relationship, it would hinder our ability to serve the public.”

To maintain good relationships, he said, he and other chiefs in Larimer County meet regularly to discuss problems and hash out differences.

Those frequently stem from differences in philosophy, Alderden said.

“That can cause friction, but hopefully it won’t degenerate to the point where it causes problems on the street, because those guys need each other,” he said.

But conflicts between agency leaders don’t tend to affect the line-level personnel.

“It depends on the relationship that line people have to begin with. Typically, they get along, and it’s the CEOs who have the problem,” Alderden said.

The most damaging aspect of the situation in Boulder County is the public airing of conflicts, the sheriff said.

“It certainly could destroy public confidence,” he said.

Even if the departments are working well together, the perception that they are not can undermine them, he said.

“These are things that grown men ought to sit down and work out and not make into a public spectacle. It hurts everybody,” Alderden said.

And the media is doing a disservice by fueling the conflict, Longmont police Chief Mike Butler said.

“You have two highly professional departments filled with highly professional people with one disagreement. If the media wants to make more out of it than what it is, the common person may begin to believe that the two departments can’t cooperate,” he said.

Right now, it seems the two departments aren’t cooperating on the issue of Ainsworth’s participation in cases that involve both jurisdictions.

In his letter to Epp, Beckner said he will not allow Ainsworth to participate in any investigations under the city’s jurisdiction.

The sheriff’s office has treated Beckner’s allegation of misconduct as it would any other, Epp said.

“We have a procedure for handling those, and we followed it,” he said. “The result was a letter to (Ainsworth).”

He declined to disclose the contents of the letter, but he hinted that Ainsworth was chastised for his comments supporting the theory that an intruder killed JonBenet and criticizing the Boulder police investigation.

“Without getting into personnel issues, I think it’s fair to say I don’t want my people discussing other agencies’ open cases,” Epp said.

Whether Ainsworth will participate in county/city investigations isn’t clear yet, Epp said.

“(Beckner) was pretty angry at the time that he wrote the letter. We should let those chips fall where they may in the future,” he said. “It seemed to me Beckner wanted to blackball Steve, and I didn’t agree with that.”

Epp also praised Ainsworth’s talents as an investigator.

“Steve is a consummate investigator. I have a lot of faith in his ability to continue to do good work and to put this incident behind us,” he said.

Trip DeMuth — a former assistant district attorney who appeared with Ainsworth on “Today” earlier this year to support Smit — echoed Epp’s sentiments.

“The first thing I will say is that Detective Ainsworth is the best detective I ever worked with in the 17 years I was in the D.A.’s office,” said DeMuth, who most recently partnered with Ainsworth on the successful prosecution of Longmont killer Matthew Mirabal.

“I’ve always found him to be a very trustworthy public servant, and I can’t say enough about him in terms of what an excellent person and investigator he is,” DeMuth said. “I think it is very unfortunate that Chief Beckner has stooped to the level of trying to blacklist Steve simply because they have a difference of opinion.”

DeeDee Correll can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 211, or by e-mail at