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Tighter rules for ski area drug raids; dog’s use questioned

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A supervisor’s review will be required and there will be more communication with Taos Ski Valley before future U.S. Forest Service drug raids like one that took place at the height of this past ski season, an agency report on the controversial raid says.

Under “lessons learned,” the report says Forest Service officers “should have considered the impression that a muzzled police canine may have had in a heavily populated ski lodge area.”

“Was it necessary to take the canine to the most populated area of the lodge?” asks an “After Action Review” on the Feb. 22 raid released by the Forest Service on Thursday.

The report also says that the initial plans for the raid included officers on skis hitting the slopes in search of illegal drug use or distribution.

The raid by four heavily armed officers and their dog on the ski valley parking area and nearby roads on a busy Saturday – events that day included a breast-cancer awareness fundraiser and a competition for teens – provoked outrage from visitors, employees and management at Taos Ski Valley.

They questioned the behavior and attitude of the officers in the operation, and its impact on the ski area’s image and business. The raid netted 13 violation notices for possession amounts of marijuana or prescription drugs, speeding and reckless driving, and six warnings for cracked windshields, not wearing seat belts and other traffic-related violations.

After the raid, one Taos Forest Service employee was called a “Nazi” as she walked into a local grocery store.

Originally, the raid was planned for six officers, with two “patrolling the mountain on skis looking for violations of distribution, possession, and use of illegal drugs,” said the review. That didn’t happen because the two additional officers were assigned elsewhere.

In the future, the priority should be reducing crime “that may compromise public safety,” said the Forest Service’s report.

The officers were acting legally but “training will be given that will focus on improving the level and tone of communications in future activities,” and to “help them improve relationships with communities,” the report says.

Taos Ski Valley vice-president Chris Stagg responded to the report in a telephone interview Friday: “I’m glad they realize it could work better with coordination with the local community and the ski area operators.

“We appreciate that they have taken these steps to have less of an impact on our skiers and our guests.”

Forest Service emails previously obtained by the Journal suggest that a 100-citations-per-year quota had been set for the agency’s law enforcement officers. Thursday’s report does not address that issue.

Community relations

The report says that having Forest Service law enforcement supervisors get involved in “community relations would help to build rapport and trust, and provide insight to officers of social needs and expectations,” the report says.

It says agency supervisors working with Taos Ski Valley government and management, local law enforcement, businesses and others in the community “would generate potential solutions to reducing criminal activity in the TSV area.”

The report stands by the Forest Service’s responsibility to provide law enforcement. Officers “are responsible for upholding the law and should retain the discretion to determine areas of focus based on observation and experience,” it says.

“I don’t think we ever disputed their right to do checks and do law enforcement on federal land,” said TSV’s Stagg.

The officer assigned to the Questa Ranger District planned the raid because “he had observed many violations in the area, including reckless driving, speeding, driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol, and possession of marijuana and other illegal drugs,” the report says. The officer was identified by the Forest Service as Tommy Barrs.

Former Gov. Gary Johnson – a past Libertarian Party presidential nominee, advocate for drug legalization and Taos Ski Valley resident – has disputed that there’s a crime problem, saying crime was virtually non-existent at the 9,000-foot elevation resort. The ski valley operates on federal land under Forest Service jurisdiction with a special use permit.

Negative publicity

The report notes “there was a considerable amount of negative media coverage” after the raid, adding that the raid was the also subject of two complaints via “Congressional inquiry.” It also says many of the complaints came from people who’d had no direct contact with the officers.

“Many of the complaints were focused on officer demeanor and officer appearance,” the report states. It says that use of “personal video recording devices” such as lapel cameras by officers “would have assisted the Forest Service in responding appropriately to complaints.”

Under recommendations, the report says regional Forest Service supervisors will communicate with agency officers on “the expectations for professionalism, communicating with our partners, local sensitivities, overarching regional priorities, and general law enforcement issues and areas of concern.”

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