VAIL – Detective Greg Schwartz spied a couple in need and skied up to them in front of the bright yellow “Slow Skiing” sign on Vail’s Northwoods run.
“Can I take it for you?” he asked, reaching for the phone balancing in Lowell Zarzuela’s hand as he snapped selfies of himself and his wife, Angie.
“Catch any bad guys today?” Lowell Zarzuela asked, realizing after a few seconds that he was talking to a police officer on skis.
“It’s not really about catching the bad guys,” Schwartz said. “It’s more about chatting with folks like you. Just letting you know we are around.”
“So no high-speed chases?” said Zarzuela, on vacation in Vail with his family from Chicago.
“Not yet,” Schwartz said with a laugh.
For 16 years, the Mountain Patrol has put skiing officers on the slopes of Vail and Beaver Creek. It’s a one-of-a-kind policing program, with uniformed officers supporting safety teams and ski patrollers. They don’t do much actual police work – very few arrests – and serve more as back-up and safety ambassadors at the ski areas.
“A friendly law enforcement presence is beneficial anywhere,” said Schwartz, pointing to the recent shooting at a Boulder grocery store that killed 10 people, including a police officer who was among the first to rush into the store.
“I don’t think anyone will feel uncomfortable passing a cop in the aisle of the grocery store any more,” he said. “They are going to smile at us. It’s the same thing on the mountain. People like to see us and maybe we can be a deterrent from anyone doing something bad. And if something bad does happen, we are there that much quicker.”
Similar programs at Breckenridge, Purgatory Resort and Monarch have faded away, but uniformed police officers have been skiing on Vail Mountain since 2005. A 24-person crew drawn from the Forest Service, Eagle County Sheriff’s Office and the Vail, Avon and Eagle police departments regularly patrols at Vail and Beaver Creek. They each spend seven days on the hill in exchange for a free ski pass.
It’s impressive how little policing is needed for skiers, Schwartz said. Vail sees more than 20,000 visitors most winter Saturdays. And police officers rarely need to help patrollers or safety crews on the mountain. Think about a gathering of more than 20,000 people anywhere. Chances are, there are more than a couple of officers there to keep things orderly.
Though his fellow officers very rarely cite or arrest anyone on skis, they are ready, with all the tools of a patrol officer, including a gun, handcuffs and ticket book. The only time Schwartz and his colleagues have had to arrest skiers has been on the final weekend of skiing at the resorts.
Most of the time, Schwartz said, if he sees a patroller or yellow-jacketed safety patroller talking to a skier – maybe asking them to slow it down in a crowded zone – he will ski up and just stand there without saying anything.
“That skier might be less inclined to get lippy if there are more people there, especially if it’s a police officer in uniform,” he said.
Threat of lost privilegesOne of the strongest influences on good behavior at a ski area isn’t police, Schwartz said. It’s Vail’s ability to pull a pass and deny a skier access to the lifts.
“I think most skiers would be more nervous about losing their ski pass than getting a ticket and going to court,” Schwartz said. “The ski pass for a lot of these people is a bit more important. On those closing weekends, when we are assisting with getting people down the mountain, a scan gun that can read who the person is via their RFID pass is just as detrimental as seeing a police badge.”
But on closing weekend, when the threat of losing a ski pass carries less heft, Schwartz is busy. It’s the only time he’s made an arrest. And he does not have fond memories of the 45-minute snowcat ride down from the closing day mountaintop party with a gaggle of skiers too inebriated to ski down. Even then, those skiers were simply sent home, not arrested.
That’s not to say there isn’t crime at ski areas. Ski theft remains an issue, and the resort cracks down on people using another person’s pass, which is a misdemeanor called “deceptive use of a ski facility.”
In 2017 and 2019, from Jan. 1 through March 24 at Vail ski area, police charged 70 skiers with that crime. They reported only 14 cases of ski pass fraud in 2018. Last year, from New Year’s Day to March 14, there were 39 cases of skiers charged with deceptive use. So far this year, there have been 43 cases.
That’s somewhat surprising, considering ticket scanners can’t match the faces on their devices with the masked and goggled skiers in the lift line.
“The scan department employees who are good, they can tell. They just know,” said Schwartz, who describes ski pass fraud as “starting slow” at the beginning of the season, though now officers respond to one or two calls a weekend.
Ski thefts also are tracking similarly to the previous season, with officers taking 16 reports of stolen skis and snowboards through March this year. Police are not seeing a distinctive pattern this year, like the time thieves were ripping skis from roof racks on cars in parking structures or the time Summit County police caught a serial ski thief at Arapahoe Basin.
But generally, those crimes don’t involve the on-mountain officers.
Schwartz was a safety patroller at Breckenridge many years ago, before he joined Vail Police Department. He also worked for the town’s code enforcement before becoming an officer, a job that involved a lot of interaction with vacationers and visitors.
It can be a balance, he said, enforcing rules and keeping vacationers happy as they enjoy a holiday-friendly town built on good times. Especially in a ski town, where the culture is intricately connected to après ski beers or wine on the deck. Old black-and-white photos hanging in the base lodges at Vail show the resort’s founders, Earl Eaton and Pete Seibert, drinking wine atop the ski area. The mid-mountain Cloud Nine Bistro at Aspen Highlands regularly sells more than 100 bottles of champagne every weekend lunch. (A Chicago man being sued in Pitkin County for an alleged hit-and-run crash at Aspen Highlands that injured another skier had just paid a $4,704 tab from Cloud Nine from earlier in the afternoon.)
It’s not that resort police are turning a blind eye, but they recognize that people who are in town – the people who support the valley’s economy – are there to have fun. And those vacationers tend to know how to keep themselves in control, Schwartz said.
“I think society as a whole has had to become more responsible. Everyone is aware of the threat of being sued and litigation and I don’t think any of the steps taken by the mountain or the town is too much,” he said. “We try to find that balance between allowing people to enjoy their vacation and promoting a sense of safety and security.”
This season, Schwartz and his fellow skiing officers have given presentations to lift operators and helped safety patrollers trumpet the mask and distancing message. Just standing with a patroller urging skiers to mask up is usually enough, Schwartz said.
Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger said the Mountain Patrol program helps him recruit and retain officers. A day on the slopes interacting with guests can be appealing.
“I hear guests say to officers working on the mountain, ‘You have the best job in the world!’” Henninger said. “It is particularly good for the officers working night shifts who deal with many folks (who are) pretty inebriated and not always real pleasant.”