To serve and protect

Law officers like jobs, minus tragedy

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Craig Police Department Chief Walt Vanatta decided he wanted a career in law enforcement at age 21. Thirty-five years later, he still loves his job.

"I still enjoy going to work every day," he said. "It's one of those jobs where every day is a little bit different.

"Sometimes, at the end of the day, you can look back and think you make a positive contribution to the community."

Vanatta's 22-officer force covers all calls inside the Craig city limits. The Moffat County Sheriff's Office and Colorado State Patrol cover Colorado's second largest county, spanning 4,742 square miles.

And, while law enforcement officials put infinite miles on their vehicles patrolling the county, Cpl. Courtland Folks of the Sheriff's Office said most of his time is now spent in the office.

He estimates for every one hour of contact he has with the public, he spends another 10 hours doing paperwork related to the incident. He also spends a lot of time with his dog, Czar, who is a member of the K-9 unit.

"It's kind of nice to have a partner with you," Folks said.

Trooper Roger Kendall of the State Patrol started his career with a Sheriff's Department in Louisiana. He held other jobs but had always had an interest in justice.

"I like to help people, the excitement," Kendall said. "It's kind of an adrenaline rush."

Now, he responds mostly to traffic calls with the State Patrol because that's what the troopers are trained for.

"I don't miss going to a suicide," he said. "I don't miss going to domestic problems."

But he still sees some of those situations.

"We're now handling more domestic issues on the highway -- in-car disputes," Kendall said. "Criminals have to drive, don't they?"

Domestic issues and violent crimes are the kinds of calls Folks and Vanatta deal with regularly. Most of their incidents are traffic stops, animal complaints, harassment calls and noise violations.

"Roughly 80 percent of what we do generally has nothing to do with criminal activity," Vanatta said.

But the calls that they carry in the back of their memories are the tragic ones.

"Everything kind of sticks with you," Folks said, "especially suicides or car accidents -- personal injury to people. You see things you'd prefer not to, but that's part of the job."

Folks aims to help before those situations escalate to injury.

"I like to be involved so maybe I can intervene," he said. "Unfortunately, that's not usually the case. Some type of crime has usually been committed by the time law enforcement gets involved."

The most troubling incidents are ones that involve children, officers said.

"Anytime you find a child who's a victim, who either gets injured or killed, that's always difficult," Vanatta said. "It's not always their fault. Somebody else put them there."

Kendall recalls an accident north of Craig more than a decade ago that has stuck with him over the years.

"Two kids were killed because of stupidity on adults' parts," he said. "That one kind of bothered me."

Of the 3,600 accidents the State Patrol investigated last year, 56 included fatalities. Kendall used to notify families after fatal accidents, but now, he said, the coroner has that responsibility.

Kendall served in the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, and knows about 58,000 were killed during the conflict, a number that's close to the population killed in traffic accidents each year. He wonders why people do not question these numbers.

"More people are killed in one year than were killed in the whole 10 years of Vietnam," Kendall said. "We've accepted it as a fact -- if you drive, you die."

What frustrates Kendall most is the way drivers do not learn from others' mistakes and seem to not pay attention when they are on the road.

"The death and destruction that's out there, they don't see it," he said. "They just read about in the paper. Their driving behavior is not affected until an officer stops them.

And since he started his career, a number of aspects of the job have changed.

Now, instead of making accident drawings by hand, Kendall's department uses computers, and each patrol car is equipped with a mobile data computer.

"It does save a lot of time," he said.

Kendall is close to retirement, and likely will miss many aspects of his job. Vanatta, with 35 years in, said he still feels too young to retire.

"As long as I still enjoy the work and feel I'm making a contribution, I'll keep working," he said.

It's little things that make his job worthwhile, and it's those things that keep him around.

"There's a lot of times where people tell you, 'thank you,'" Vanatta said, "and they really mean it."

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