Joe DiSalvo: The frontrunner in Aspen sheriff's race

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenJuly 19, 2010

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of interviews planned with the candidates looking to replace Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, who will retire in January. A primary will be held Aug. 10. The election is in November.

Real Aspen: Why did you decide to run for sheriff and what do you hope to accomplish if you win?

Joe DiSalvo: Why I'm running is — it sounds very common — but I love my job. I love Pitkin County and I love the people who work here. I've really made this place my home. I came here on an adventure in 1981 thinking it was going to be a coupe of weeks and when it turned into a couple of years, I realized this is where I wanted to live.

Real Aspen: Where are you from originally?

Joe DiSalvo: New York. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Aspen is basically what I've learned about myself since we started dong this. Anything I learned in New York is really secondary to everything I learned here as an adult. So I care about this community. I really want our lifestyle not to change that dramatically. I really believe what we have here is working, and it's safe, and it's a good place to live. Yes, we have crime and to eliminate crime is unrealistic. But I want to continue this legacy we've had with some changes that most people won't see when they call for a cop. The way we do our business I can almost guarantee is not going to change much. But internally I need to make some changes with technology, I want our cops to be out there a little more at public events and stuff like that, I want to have a very accessible approachable sheriff's office like we've had for years.

Real Aspen: What is Bob's legacy?

Joe DiSalvo: I think Bob's legacy is he's made a real impact on all of us and how we live our lives. His style and (his predecessor Dick) Keinast's style at first was unique but now I don't think it's that unique anymore. I think police and sheriff's offices all over the country are starting to be like this. I just think that maybe they might have been a little ahead of their time in the '70s and mid '80s. I think Bob's legacy is going to be known as a compassionate, caring level headed public safety official who did everything he could to make this place a safe place to live. To have a sheriff 24 years is an unheard of record. To have term limits rescinded for him by the people, I think that's huge.

Real Aspen: If Braudis ran again would he win?

Joe DiSalvo: Convincingly. [Pause] Or do you mean if he went against me? [Laughs] Yes, I think he would beat me solidly.

Real Aspen: You have his endorsement. Do you think you need it to win?

Joe DiSalvo: I have Bob's endorsement. I need every endorsement I can get.

Real Aspen: Do you feel like you're Bob's candidate or are you Joe DiSalvo?

Joe DiSalvo: To be absolutely truthful with you, in April when Bob laid it on me he was going to retire, I said, 'OK you're going to have to teach me how to do this.' How to run, how to run a campaign, how to be a candidate. All the stuff I really knew nothing about. I know how to run a sheriff's office. I don't know about running a campaign or being a candidate. So, yes, I went right to Bob, (Mayor) Mick (Ireland), (Pitkin County Commissioner) Rachel (Richards), and some other people in this community I've been close with over the years and said, 'How do I do this?' So in that case if you want to say, yeah, early on I was Bob's candidate. He was helping me. But as this has evolved I've really learned a lot about myself. Rick Magnuson on the day I announced came to me in this hallway and said, 'Joey you're going to learn so much about yourself, as I did four years ago when I learned so much about myself.' Well as the months go on I learn more about myself: I”m frightening. [Laughs]. No, I've learned stuff about myself that I'm starting to enjoy. So I think I started as Bob's candidate but I think I'm working into my own. I'm getting more comfortable with it.

Real Aspen: How would you evaluate your competitors? Who is the most formidable?

Joe DiSalvo: I'm considering each one of them formidable. I've been telling everyone that I'm running like I'm behind. I'm not taking any chances. This is too important to me and too important to the people who live here for me to take this lightly. So I'm running like I'm behind. I take each one of the other candidates seriously.

Real Aspen: Can you elaborate?

DiSalvo: Rick Magnuson is a smart guy. He is a creative guy. I don't know a lot about his police work because he doesn't work for me but from what I hear he's a solid guy I just don't think he has the experience necessary to be our next sheriff. Hugh Zuker, another smart guy. Very successful in business. Has done a lot of things. He's been a sheriff's deputy for a year and a half. In our world it usually takes three or four years before you lose your rookie label and I don't think he's there yet. I know he's not there yet. Rick Leonard, I gotta tell you I don't know a lot about him except what I've read. I've met him here. He too seems like a nice guy. He's a New Yorker like I am and he seems like a lot of the guys I grew up with, we're about the same age. I really have nothing bad to say about any of these guys.

Real Aspen: What did you think of Leonard dressed up as Hunter S. Thompson at the Fourth of July parade?

Joe DiSalvo: I heard about it. If it's his way to express himself, fine, but I guess I'm finding it hard to link him and Hunter together.

Real Aspen: Yeah, you'd think it would be easier to link you and Hunter together.

Joe DiSalvo: Right. And I wouldn't do that to me or Hunter. But I'm having trouble with the link between the two. After the parade was over somebody said, 'Did you see Rick Leonard's float?' I said, 'He had a float?' and they said, 'Well no it was more like a motorcycle.' And they told me what it was and I questioned immediately if he even knew Hunter ran in 1970 and what that link could be. I thought maybe he was going the old and new but I don't know what he was getting at with that. It's a mystery.

Real Aspen: How would you evaluate the relationship between the sheriff's office and the APD?

Joe DiSalvo: I think we're as good as we've been in a long time. (Aspen Police Chief) Richard (Pryor) has some ideas that actually I want to implement in this department. I've actually gotten to appreciate what he's doing in his department. So I would say our relationship is excellent.

Real Aspen: The APD has certainly taken a public image hit with disclosures about its problems with evidence storage, and some of their more recent cases that haven't gone as smoothly as they would have hoped. Do you think any of that has reflected negatively at all on the sheriff's office?

Joe DiSalvo: I don't think so. I think our reputation stands alone and I don't think what another department does should affect our reputation at all unless we have had a hand in it and we haven't.

Real Aspen: How do you improve in your line of work?

Joe DiSalvo: I'm not ashamed to learn from anybody, whether it's Richard Pryor, or Lou Valario or the police chief of New York City. I don't care. I'm open to learning. We learn from other people's mistakes. And I hope people learn from our mistakes. I mean we had a guy escape from court Monday (he was quickly caught). That's a learning experience for us. We're going to make mistakes. We're going to do everything we an to minimize them. We're not going to be mistake free. There's no way.

Real Aspen: The jail is under the purview of the sheriff's office. Are you satisfied with its operation?

Joe DiSalvo: I think it's good business for anybody who takes over to pick the whole operation apart from the beginning and look at it. We'll look at the jail the same way we've been looking at the jail. We've made some changes over there already with some provisions, the chain of command, and the way it works. I think our jail staff is one of the best around. Our jail is a direct supervision jail. What that means is our deputies interact with the inmates every day. They exercise with them, they play cards with them, they take meals together and stuff like that. I think that makes for a good jail environment. It keeps hostility down, it keeps you in touch with the inmates and I think that's unusual but it's working for us. But it's a small population too we've got usually under 20 inmates. I don't know if it would work in Garfield County with 200 inmates but for us it's working and I like the jail the way it is. I don't see a lot of changes coming there.

Real Aspen: Will the jail continue to use prisoner transport services after the trouble it endured with Court Services Inc.?

Joe DiSalvo: We don't use that company anymore. That was a one-shot deal. We don't use them. What we learned from that is we need to do a little more due diligence when we select these companies. This is a budgetary dilemma. We used to do all our own prisoner transports until it got too cost prohibitive. So we started to farm these out to other companies. I would prefer our own deputies transport our own prisoners but it's absolutely insanely expensive and we're looking for ways to cut our budget and this is one of them so we went to a private transport company (CSI) and this was not a credible company, we found out later, and they're no longer used by us. To tell you the truth we don't do a whole lot of prisoner transport companies anyway, but we learned from that.

Real Aspen: Search and rescue operations are a big part of what the sheriff's office does. How would you assess the state of the county's search and rescue operations?

Joe DiSalvo: In the last year and the years previous, Mountain Rescue has been an incredible success. They've raised money, they've got a lot of backing form our community, they're a professional organization, they do a great job for us, they do a lot of stuff for us that we don't have the experience to do as far as mountaineering/backcountry stuff. We're not trained for that. They do a lot of stuff for us that we can't and don't want to do so I would say our Mountain Rescue is one of the best in the state, hands down.

Real Aspen: Aren't deputies instrumental in that process too?

Joe DiSalvo: Mountain rescue falls under the purview of the sheriff's office. When they're on a mission we oversee the mission as the primary responsible agency. We oversee it but we don't check their knots or go out there and hang on ropes with them or anything like that. We know they're professionals and do a good job. And I think Hugh Zuker from what I've heard has been a big part of making them a success at least in the last eight years or so. … I know he did a good job with them and they've always been a great organization. In my 25 years working here, back to the original Jack Gabow, who was one of the first mountain rescue leaders, those guys are dedicated to going out there and helping us out. What I admire most about them is they really work on a team philosophy. There's no one person that's any better than anybody else in Mountain Rescue. No one person gets single accolades. They get it as a team. No single person ever speaks for them they speak as a team. I think that helps when you're out in the field. Whether you're the note taker in the cabin, which is important, or the guy on the radio in the cabin, or the guy who's putting the rope up, and climbing the mountain and pulling the guy off and being the hero. They're all the same. And I think that's really admirable for the organization, I really do.

Real Aspen: Are there more deputies out on the road these days? Why are we seeing them more often?

Joe DiSalvo: Because I asked them to be out there. About four years ago when I took over as undersheriff I had heard a lot of criticism that we were not paying enough attention on Highway 82. So Bob and I talked about it and we said, 'From now on if you have nothing better to do you're responsibility is to do traffic control.' And in the last year the number one officer initiated call is traffic stop. … Our traffic stops went up considerably, our warning tickets went up considerably, that's what I asked for. ... The traffic stop is the most basic thing a cop does. It's almost the first thing he learns. It's first contact with people. It usually means your first arrest, it's always your first DUI arrest. You learn how to sell a ticket and make it feel almost good to the person which I think is important. You learn how to make the contacts which I want them to make which is friendly and social.

Real Aspen: Did you just say people actually drive away feeling good after a police stop?

Joe DiSalvo: I will pull out letters from our file of people who have gotten tickets and said this was the best ticket — I'm not saying they're happy with the ticket, I think they're happy with the way it was presented to them. It wasn't 'pay this and leave.' It was 'Listen we're trying to make the highway safer, this is an educational thing, I hope you understand.' Most people when they really start to think about it do understand.

Real Aspen: How much discretion is at play?

Joe DiSalvo: Discretion is what we give our deputies. I expect them to be prudent with their discretion. When I was a deputy, I had my own guideline. If what you were doing was dangerous enough to cause an accident or hurt another person, you got a ticket. If what you were doing was reckless, you got a ticket. If what you were doing is daydreaming at five or six or seven miles over the speed limit at 3 a.m. driving down-valley by your own, no, you don't get a ticket for that. You have to take the whole circumstance into account before you write that ticket. I think 15 over Shale Bluffs after a snowstorm deserves a ticket. I just think that's irresponsible. … I don't tell the deputies to follow my rules. We all have our own breaking point. I leave it a lot to the discretion of the officers. Believe me the community will let me know if we're too harsh or not out there enough. When we weren't out there enough, we heard it. Now we're out there and we're hearing it. Both are good. We're learning from both of them.

Real Aspen: Are you the frontrunner in this election?

Joe DiSalvo: I do feel like I am the favorite. I'm not taking that for granted. I don't think I'm entitled to this job. I don't plan on coasting in on Bob's coattails. I think the fact I'm out there, running, and learning how to run, and doing interviews like this constantly, I hope that shows to people how much I want this job and how much I'm willing to work for it. We're a few weeks from the primary and I'm working like it's November. I'm not going to stop I'm going to keep going I know it'll get harder and it'll be fine. In the end we'll win. Everyone who has been in an election tells me that after you win you realize how fun the whole thing is. Well, at times this isn't fun. But I'm going to look back and say that was probably a really good time.

To learn more about Joe DiSalvo, visit

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