Aspen Sojourner: How does a Brit with a degree in farm management end up being the top cop in one of the world’s toniest ski resorts?
Richard Pryor: That sounds more outrageous than it really feels when you present it like that.
A.S.: But you did grow up on a farm.
R.P.: I grew up on a farm in England just 50 miles north of London. My mum’s American; she was born in Chapel Hill and has family there. Essentially the farm ended up having to be sold. It was the dissolution of a family partnership in 1989.
A.S.: What had you been doing?
R.P.: Just working on the farm, with the intent of taking over eventually. That just evaporated, so I decided I needed a change of scenery. I had an English friend who lived in Carbondale, so I came out to visit her and got a job within three days up in Snowmass, doing the ski-bum thing tuning skis. I was 24.
A.S.: In other words, a typical Colorado story.
R.P.: It really is. I did that job for a season, then I worked at the front desk of a hotel in Snowmass and drove a luggage van. In 1994 I saw an ad for the Aspen P.D. I needed a change, although I knew I did not want to be a police officer.
A.S.: Why not?
R.P.: I didn’t want to carry a gun. I grew up with firearms in England: shotguns, rifles. But to come here and be in a position where I would have to carry a gun was pretty alien.
A.S.: So you started off as an animal control and community safety officer.
R.P.: Dogs, bears, responded to traffic accidents, ambulance calls, medical calls. I got to see how the department operated, and it didn’t match the clichéd view of American police departments I had grown up with on TV. I saw the connections the police had with the community and saw that it wasn’t about carrying a gun. So I went to the academy and became a patrol officer in 1996. Sergeant in ’99. Assistant chief in 2001. Chief in 2007.
A.S.: Career highlights?
R.P.: I’m pretty boring, really. I don’t seek the limelight. It’s not that important to me.
A.S.: But if you had to pick one thing.
R.P.: The rescue of a dog from a pond. He had fallen through the ice, and me and another officer got a ladder and got the dog out. The guy we did that for has never forgotten and always mentions it. Again, it’s the relationships you create. One woman from a domestic violence call from probably 20 years ago, whenever she sees me it’s, “Thank you for changing my life.”
A.S.: When asked about your philosophy of policing, you once quoted Sir Robert Peel, who founded the Metropolitan Police of London in 1829 and said, “People are the police, and police are the people.”
R.P.: That talks to whom I want to hire and my perception of myself, which is: I’m not a cop. I grew up on a farm. That’s where my values came from. The police should just be people who are from the community and of the community, representing the interests of the wider community.
A.S.: What’s the primary challenge you face as Aspen’s police chief?
R.P.: It’s finding the people with the right values and philosophy, who get that you need to build relationships and think on your feet and not rely on the tools on your belt so much. At its core, if you want to be successful at policing, don’t you have to have relationships? If any police department isn’t working toward that, then shame on them.
A.S.: Even with the local owner of a Ferrari who felt he was being unfairly targeted for traffic stops?
R.P.: What can I say but laugh?
A.S.: So then I have to ask: do you have a favorite Richard Pryor joke?
R.P.: A number of times people have asked me if I ever set my hair on fire. It’s a great icebreaker.