GREEN MOUNTAIN FALLS, CO — A spate of worldwide news stories since Sunday might have you believe this little mountain town, almost overnight, could become a lawless, post-apocalyptic Fury Road.
The headlines, from cable news to outlets in Washington D.C., to some as far away as the United Kingdom, were nearly identical, based off of little or no original reporting. CNN: “Colorado town’s entire police department resigns.” London’s Daily Mail: “Green Mountain Falls’ police force in Colorado suddenly quits.” The Washington Post: “Residents of Colorado town baffled after entire police force suddenly quits.”
For the record, the “police force” in Green Mountain Falls had consisted of just one full-time officer and three volunteer deputies. They had resigned in the days following an April 14 closed-door meeting of the outgoing town board and mayor, just weeks after a town election. The marshall, or police chief — the titles are interchangeable — was given $12,000 in sick leave, vacation and overtime on his way out, according to the town’s new mayor, Jane Newberry, who officially took office April 19.
On Monday, despite the national media attention, locals seemed impervious to the changes in their police department. Indeed, some who live and work here hadn’t even heard the news. There was no mass hysteria, no rioting in the streets. Life in Green Mountain Falls— a village tucked into the Rockies about 20 minutes from downtown Colorado Springs— seemed pretty much normal.
“No one is looting the town right now,” said Melissa Nord, who owns Stones, Bones & Wood gallery with her husband Ken.
Asked why the police quit in the town she now runs, Mayor Newberry told The Colorado Independent, “I don’t know.”
From a cowboy to a SWAT team
When Ken Nord first moved to Green Mountain Falls 13 years ago, the town’s one-member police department reflected its quiet Western charm.
“Our marshall was a cowboy with a cowboy hat and one gun on his side,” Nord said from behind the counter of Stones, Bones & Wood gallery, where he works with his wife Melissa.
But over the past decade, like in much of the United States, the local law enforcement image morphed from a know-your-neighbors beat cop to a more big-city-style Robocop.
For Green Mountain Falls— a town with no stoplight, a population of fewer than 700, and a summer tourism industry geared toward city slickers looking for hiking trails or a stroll around the picturesque duck pond— the transformation was perhaps more noticeable.
“A (lone) cowboy turned into a SWAT team-type atmosphere,” Nord said about how the police situation changed over the years. “We had drug dogs at one time … they turned into flak-jacket wearing, gear all around here … more of an intimidating sort of marshall.”
‘There’s nobody here’
The town’s new mayor, who works in the athletic department of the nearby Colorado College, has been besieged by reporters her first week in office. The story about the mass resignation of Green Mountain Falls’ little police squad was going viral.
Indeed, when speaking with The Colorado Independent Monday, Mayor Newberry said she’d just gotten off the phone with one national reporter who had shouted at her because the reporter couldn’t believe the mayor didn’t know why her police chief had quit.
It is true that on Monday doors to the Green Mountain Falls police station just off I-24 were locked with two empty police SUVs parked out front. A sign above the door directed anyone with an emergency to call a dispatcher at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
“There’s nobody here,” said a clerk in the municipal office next door.
But it is also true that life in Green Mountain Falls had not ripped apart at the seams.
Down a dusty road toward the center of the town, which includes a bar, a tavern, a couple cafes, some shops— and perhaps the cutest liquor store you’ve ever seen— is a town bulletin board outside the post office. Among some flyers advertising help for “varmit control and removal,” a missing cat, and a chimney sweep service, was a hand-written note.
“Congratulations Jane!” it read. “And good riddance to Timmy + Lorrie. They were both parasites. What a waste of $12,000.”
Tim is Tim Bradley, the former police marshall, and Lorrie is Lorrie Worthey, the recently unseated mayor of Green Mountain Falls. The message was a sign of the drama in the wake of this town’s recent elections, which unseated four incumbents.
Working inside an ancient-looking upholstery shop, an older woman named Kat who didn’t want to give her last name hadn’t yet heard the worldwide news about her town’s police situation.
“Un-freaking believable,” she said. She had voted in this month’s election and wasn’t fond of the results.
“I cried when I heard that this other gal got it,” she said of the new mayor. She then offered up some colorful adjectives to describe Newberry, including the word “cutthroat.”
“And that’s being nice about it,” said an older man inside the shop.
Green Mountain Falls is so small that Kat’s granddaughter once dated the new mayor’s son.
‘Kind of boring’
Obviously not everyone in this little town feels like the pair in the upholstery shop. During the recent town board and mayoral election, a slate of four candidates including Newberry had run together on a platform called “Smoother Roads Ahead for GMF,” and all but one of them won.
An early April post-election piece in The Colorado Springs Gazette summed up the major battles of this epic election: “Whether the town needs a marshal has been a topic of dispute, as well as whether the public should be allowed to feed ducks and geese in the park.”
Now, thanks to social media and desk-bound news aggregation, outsiders might think the town is in a state of anarchy.
But outside the Blue Moose bar, a sports-bar-slash-ski-mountain-lodge-themed local watering hole in the small commercial strip on the main corner, bartender Mike Jakubowicz said he hadn’t seen much trouble in the few years he’s worked there. He’d never really needed a quick response from the cops.
“I mean, more often than not they’re just here to enforce the speeding laws,” he said, adding he knows people who have been stopped for driving just a few miles over the limit. “That’s mostly the biggest thing that they would really enforce.”
The bartender says it’s not often, but if he has to he’ll just pretend like he’s calling the cops, which usually settles down any potential incident. So he’s ambivalent about what is perhaps the biggest news in town since a popular goose named Roy was killed by dogs at the pond.
“It’s really not the end of the world that they’re gone,” Jakubowicz said of the marshall and his three volunteers. “It’s kind of nice to have them around in case some shit did go down, [but] it’s a pretty quiet town.”
Down the main street, across the duck pond and past a building where an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was just wrapping up, is the Green Mountain Falls/Chipita Park Fire Department. On Monday around noon, fire chief Steve Murphy was shaking his head about the recent shakeup in the little town in which he has lived in since 1986.
“They say ‘police force.’ I mean, we’ve always had a marshall’s office,” he said. “It’s just a term.”
He thought Chief Bradley had done a fine job as marshall and he said it’s nice to have local backup from time to time on a call, but the police departments in nearby Manitou Springs, Woodland Park, Colorado Springs, even the state patrol all have come through to help at times. Even when the marshall was on duty Murphy would sometimes see an El Paso County sheriff’s deputy rolling by on patrol.
Murphy’s view on the international headlines about his town: “Oh, way out of proportion. Big time.”
So it’s not the end of the world for Green Mountain Falls after the sudden police resignations?
“No,” he laughed. “I don’t understand it. They quit at the last election.”
Murphy, a trim, mustachioed man with a shaved head and pale blue eyes, had paid close attention to the April 5 election. He didn’t see it as contentious as in years past. Sure, he said, the question of whether to keep an officer on the town’s payroll had come up. People argue about the cost versus the low crime rate all the time.
“There’s always two camps — the we-don’t-need-cops and we-do-need-cops,” he said. “And they always swing.”
About the job of police chief, he had this to say: “I would think it would be kind of boring.”
A challenge and an opportunity
From her office at Colorado College, Newberry sounded exasperated Monday from dealing with inquiries about her phantom police department.
“This isn’t unusual,” she said. “There’s a lot of small towns in Colorado that have no coverage as a matter of course, and somehow they’re still fine.”
Because the former mayor and board members had held a meeting in executive session, she says she’s still in the dark about why her town doesn’t currently have a patrolling in-town officer whom she says made about $50,000 per year with benefits. She said during her campaign she promised to reappoint Bradley once she was sworn in.
Newberry confirmed this wasn’t the first time Green Mountain Falls was without its own beat cop.
“When Tim left employment before we had the same thing, El Paso County and Teller County [sheriff’s offices] stepped up to cover us, as well as the Colorado state patrol,” she said.
Asked what she plans to do now, Newberry said it’s to be determined.
“We’re going to look at the budget and make sure where we’re at because, you know, now there’s 12k out of there, and we need to look at what exactly do we want,” she said. “Do we want the model to remain exactly the same? Do we want it to be more of an interface with the counties? What exactly do we want? As much of a challenge as this has been it’s also an opportunity to decide what best suits the town.”
‘Come on, you guys’
Back at the Stones, Bones & Wood gallery, the Nords couldn’t get enough of the media sensation about their town.
“We kind of think it’s kind of funny, all the headlines that have been in the big papers,” Ken said. “It’s kind of silly … We look at the headlines and we go ‘Oh my goodness, come on, you guys.’”
It’s doubtful the Nords will miss the police chief or his volunteers or the Humvee he brought to the town under a federal program that allows local police to obtain surplus military equipment.
Says Ken Nord about Green Mountain Falls: “It’s a small mountain town, beautiful place to live, a wonderful place to be, but fractured.”