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Hard questions need to be asked in wake of Eagle County jail suicides

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September 20, 2019, 6:50 pm
eagle county justice center
The Eagle County Justice Center in Eagle.

Talk about burying the lead. In the fourth paragraph of a column by Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek in the Vail Daily on Wednesday he revealed there have been two suicides in the Eagle County Detention facility in the past month.

To quote him exactly: “There has been a rise in suicides across Eagle County, and we were shocked when two occurred in our jail this month.”

Eagle County Sheriff James Van Beek
Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek

Sorry, but in a county that set an awful new record of 17 suicides in 2018 and has seen seven (now, apparently, nine) so far in 2019, that is front-page breaking news – not a fact to be released in a likely ghostwritten column and buried on the opinion pages of the local paper.

Why hasn’t the county’s paper of record followed up with a story that asks the tough questions, including what the circumstances were, how these deaths occurred, was there adequate staffing, were proper procedures followed and what steps are being taken to make sure we don’t have a third such death in the jail any time soon?

There is a good, well-paid communications staff at the county, so why are we learning about this in a column rather than a press release as close to the actual events as possible? There are major public-safety and litigation concerns that could impact us all as Eagle County taxpayers.

And, of course, the format for releasing this information has to be seriously questioned when District Attorney Bruce Brown has filed a complaint of official misconduct against van Beek for pulling money from a public fund to pay a ghostwriter for the sheriff’s column in the Vail Daily.

Time for the Vail Daily to find out and reveal to the taxpaying public who is writing these columns for van Beek, how much that person is being paid, why the county communications department can’t handle that task and whether the ghostwriter has a political agenda.

The act of ghostwriting itself is not the issue. The question is why that person is necessary and whether the outlay of taxpayer money could be better spent on something else (like better inmate monitoring) – especially when the column is being used to spin something as critical as two suicides in the jail in the last month.

Public funds cannot be spent for political purposes, but these columns seem to walk a fine line.

The Vail Daily also needs to ask the sheriff if he has reassessed his position on Colorado’s new red-flag law, or extreme risk protection order. Remember, the sheriff supported the concept of the law in 2018, when it failed in the legislature, and then wouldn’t publicly comment on the bill when it came up again in 2019.

Van Beek finally released a 3,000-plus word statement opposing the law the day it was signed by the governor in April and followed that up by going on Fox News. Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser told the Vail Daily he expects sheriffs, even those who oppose it, to enforce the law.

Proponents of Colorado’s red-flag law, which allows family member and law enforcement to petition a judge to confiscate the weapons of someone deemed a danger to themselves or others, point out that its main impetus is to prevent suicides by gun — by far the most lethal method. Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger testified in favor of the law this year and last.

And following mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio in early August, President Donald Trump called for a national red-flag law. Since then, following conversations with the National Rifle Association, Trump seems to have cooled to the concept, along with the possibility of passing widely popular universal background checks for gun purchases.

In the wake of the early August mass shootings, van Beek, via his ghostwriter, seemed to parrot Fox talking points on mental health and racism, questioning the motivations of the El Paso Walmart shooter, who was determined to kill Latinos he felt were invading the country.

Walmarts clearly are targets for white supremacist domestic terrorists, and mental health is the go-to excuse Republicans use for the nation’s growing gun-death epidemic. In fact, people with mental health issues are far more likely to be victims of shootings than the perpetrators.

And other countries have people with mental health issues who watch violent movies and play violent video games, but they don’t have nearly the same rates of gun deaths. The difference? The United States is awash in firearms, especially semiautomatic, military-style assault weapons.

Despite his denial of the gun-death epidemic as anything more than a mental health crisis, Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security finally seems to be taking guns and white supremacy seriously after several Hispanic DHS employees were killed in the El Paso terrorist attack. Trump continues to deny or even defend the actions of white supremacists.

While Sheriff van Beek has been great at reaching out to Eagle County’s LatinX community and trying to provide them with official reassurances, he seems to have consumed some of the Fox News Kool-Aid on guns and immigration. As the county’s sole elected Republican, he would do well to remember his primary constituency in Democrat-dominated Eagle County.

And the Vail Daily would do well to delve deeper into all of these questions, especially on jail safety, before publishing another column from van Beek, or whoever it is who does his writing.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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