Former Craig police chief Walt Vanatta receives state award, reflects on 48-year career
August 15, 2018
CRAIG — Retired Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta was honored with the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police’s Charles K. Steele Award at the organization’s annual conference, held June 24 through 26 in Colorado Springs.
The honor is given to Colorado police chiefs for long-term professional and ethical contributions to law enforcement and Colorado residents while serving in their position. The award was named after Loveland Police Chief Charles K. Steele, “who distinguished himself by instituting high values and ethical standards before they were common in law enforcement,” according to the CACP website.
Vanatta said he was surprised when he learned he’d been nominated for the award by Breckenridge Police Chief Nicola Erb, who made the nomination during an International Association of Chiefs of Police meeting.
“I was shocked,” Vanatta said. “It was nice of them to do that. It is nice to be recognized for all those years of service.”
Erb said she nominated Vanatta for his years of service in law enforcement. Even in retirement, she noted, he continues to serve by teaching other law enforcers about leadership.
In her nomination speech, Erb called Vanatta a shining example of all the Charles K. Steele Award embodies, having maintained high personal and professional standards and ethics throughout his long career. By actively choosing to be involved in a host of committees to represent law enforcement, he has chosen to take an active role in the development of law enforcement in Colorado, she said.
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“He has such a significant career,” Erb said. “He cares about his career greatly and was a dedicated public servant. It was my honor to have nominated him.”
During his 48-year career, Vanatta spent 22 years as a chief of police. His law enforcement career began in 1970, as an Estes Park patrol officer. He relocated to Kearney, Nebraska, then returned to Fort Collins, where he gained employment as a patrol officer and later, as a detective. He was also a part of the SWAT team, where he served as a sniper and squad leader.
He moved north to Wyoming, where he worked as a patrol captain, staff inspection bureau commander, and detention administrator for the Laramie County Sheriff’s Office, then, as chief of police in Kemmerer, Wyoming. In 1998, he was named Craig’s police chief, a position he held until his retirement in August 2017.
In total, he worked for six different law enforcement agencies across the western region.
“It was a desire to help people,” Vanatta said of his motivation for working in law enforcement. “There was an excitement to the job, and back then, it was one of the few careers that actually had a monthly salary and benefits.”
Tales on the force
One of Vanatta’s earliest memories as a police officer is of being shot at — twice — during his time in Kearney. The first time he faced gunfire, he said, was when someone “went nuts” and rode a motorcycle up and down stairs and drove into a Catholic hospital. Vanatta recalled that he and other officers chased the man into his home, where he opened fire on police. The officers returned fire, but eventually, the suspect was arrested after being gassed from his home.
His second encounter with the wrong end of a firearm came while responding to a domestic situation, Vanatta said. He and other officers were trying to persuade the suspect to come out of the house, but the man instead slammed the door, picked up a shotgun, and began firing. A state trooper tried to shoot the man through a window, but the bullet from the trooper’s gun struck the window, split it in half, and sent one half through his boot. Vanatta called it an accidental case of friendly fire, which he said he found peculiar.
He has also seen his share of tragedy. During a massive flood in Cheyenne in 1985, Vanatta recalled, one police officer drowned while attempting to rescue a mother and daughter who had been trapped on top of a car. The officer was able to save the mother but when he returned to rescue the daughter, both were swept away.
During his time as a detective in Fort Collins, Vanatta said, he worked numerous homicides, including the case of spree killer Marion Albert Pruett, who killed five people, two of whom were from Colorado. Pruett was ultimately arrested and executed by lethal injection in Arkansas.
Policing then and now
Vanatta said he joined the Fort Collins SWAT team because he thought it was appealing police work and because the SWAT team received more specialized training. He and his team were often deployed to deal with hostage situations and suspects barricading themselves inside homes.
He noted that much has changed through the years.
Today’s SWAT teams have to deal with drug enforcement, riot control, and more, Vanatta said, situations they didn’t commonly have to face during his time on a SWAT team. The tactics, equipment, and technology have changed, as well.
Modern SWAT teams have flash grenades they can use to blind a suspect before entering a room. Back then, Vanatta said, they used golf balls and M-80 firecrackers.
Asked about the perception that the equipment used by today’s police and SWAT teams are more militarized, Vanatta said he doesn’t think that’s the case.
“I wouldn’t call it more militarized,” he said. “I would say the tools and techniques have been refined and gotten better. The goals are pretty much still the same: Try to save people and leave with everybody safe without having to hurt anybody. That goal hasn’t changed.”
What has changed, he said, is the level of violence faced by modern communities and the perception of police.
Today’s criminals are more prone to use deadly force as compared to the criminals he had to deal with in his early years, Vanatta said, adding that policing today is made more difficult by modern communications. Everybody has a camera, he said, and everybody is quick to criticize.
“It used to be people respected the police for trying to do a good job,” Vanatta said. “Did they make mistakes? Yeah, everybody makes mistakes. Today, people are out looking to criticize more than to say good things.”
Plans during retirement
Every day is like a Saturday now, Vanatta said. Retirement has given him more time to enjoy camping and tend his garden, where he grows tomatoes, basil, lettuce, rosemary, peas, zucchinis, and peppers. He and his wife also have more time to spend with their four children.
Still, 48 years in a job is a long time, and old habits die hard.
“I miss being involved (with the police),” Vanatta said. “People around town still ask me what’s going on. I just tell them, ‘I don’t have a clue, nobody tells me anything anymore.’ I have to move on, and the way I look at it, God does things for a reason, and when you recognize it, it is time to move.”
Future of the department
Vanatta had high praise for his successor, Police Chief Jerry Delong, saying the department is in great hands. He said the community is fortunate to have Delong, as well as Capt. Bill Leonard, heading its police force.
Delong, too, offered praise for his old boss, saying Vanatta was a fantastic chief and a mentor to him and everyone in the department.
Noting that the Charles K. Steele Award is given to chiefs of police who exemplify ethical behavior, Leonard said Vanatta deserves the award based on that criterion alone. Besides his high ethical standards, Leonard noted that Vanatta was also very involved with the community he served.
“I enjoyed working with Walt,” Leonard said. “He has personally helped me with my career and is still an important member of this community.”
With regard to the department’s past challenges in hiring, Vanatta said this is a problem common to law enforcement agencies. Still, he said, he hopes people who are interested in law enforcement will continue to pursue it.
“This career path is all about helping people,” Vanatta said. “There is still a reward in helping others.”