When retiring Pagosa Springs Police Chief, Don Volger, first began work as an officer here, the department had no portable radios, and certainly no cell phones. If a citizen needed police assistance they would call Town Hall and leave a message, the message machine would activate a circuit that illuminated a light bulb mounted on the roof of the building. The cops on the beat would see it lit up as they drove by on their rounds, and they’d go inside, listen to the message, then respond to the caller.
As you might imagine, a few things have changed in Chief Volger’s 30 years of service with the police department. Volger, who will finally hang up his hat in retirement at the end of the year, has held the position of police chief in a single town for longer than almost anyone else in the state of Colorado. Only one other police chief in the state has had a longer run. With that kind of history behind him, we at The SUN thought he’d have some interesting stories to tell about his years on duty. And, sure enough, he does.
In his early years as a patrolman, Volger told The SUN, the department didn’t even have a standardized system of documentation. “When something would happen on duty, you’d look at your partner and say, ‘You think we ought to write something down about this?’ And the other guy would answer, ‘Yeah, we probably should write something.’”
Now documentation has become so much more important, Volger explained. “With all the evidence we collect and store we can do so much. And yet, the more sophisticated the technology gets and the more involved it is, the more questions can be raised. Our court system now is interesting; back in old days, if a case went to jury trial, people weren’t influenced by what they thought the system should be, there weren’t all these shows with real judges and shows like CSI. The television people watch today has these story lines that solve all the problems of a case within an hour or two. People in this day and age expect something like that; they know it’s not real, but they still expect law enforcement to perform at that unrealistic level.
“That may raise doubt in the jury’s minds, and they imagine that if they have doubt, it’s reasonable doubt. And, of course, there can be no conviction if the jury imagines there’s reasonable doubt. It has made being a police officer much more complicated than it used to be. Our system is based on the premise that it is better to release 100 guilty people than to convict an innocent person, and that is very important,” Volger said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. However sometimes we know without a doubt that someone is guilty of a crime, and because of some hangup we can’t submit a piece of evidence. A lot of times people are released when they shouldn’t be, and there has to be a balance. Of course,” he added, “we don’t want a draconian, Nazi society that says that just because a group of people says this person is guilty then it’s true, but we also need to find a way to balance the burden of proof with what we know really happened.”
Talking law enforcement with Chief Volger, is fascinating. It quickly becomes clear that his 30 years in the business have made him a philosopher as well as an officer. “Our system will always be flawed,” Volger said, “because all we can do is judge a person’s actions; we can’t ever truly establish the intent and motive behind an action, and in order to have true justice, we would have to be able to analyze that. Sometimes there may be a reason someone did something that would mitigate the circumstances, or there may even have been a more sinister motive, and the criminal was caught for a lesser crime before carrying out the whole plan, for example. But since we can never really judge the motive, the system will never be perfect,” said Volger.
“In fact, according to our symbol of fairness, Lady Justice, our system doesn’t seek after the truth, which is a nebulous concept. It seeks instead after a balance of facts,” said the chief. “Lady Justice holds a scale in each hand, and she weighs the evidence of guilt and the evidence of innocence; she’s blindfolded, she only weighs the evidence. On the surface that is a very fair way to look at it, but you can’t find truth unless you have your eyes open.”
While Volger can delve deep into the unanswerable questions about justice and truth, he maintains a sense of humor about the more absurd side of being an officer of the law. He’s earned his rank through both honor and error. “I found out early on in my career that you don’t want to put a dead skunk in your trunk,” said Volger. “I saw a skunk one night in front of the high school, and so I got out of my car and shot it. Then, I said to myself, ‘Well, it’s gonna be a school day tomorrow and I can’t just leave it out here, it’ll end up in a teacher’s classroom, or something.’ I thought, ‘I gotta get rid of it, maybe I can take it and dump it in the river. Maybe if I drive real quick it’ll be okay.’ But it wasn’t okay. When Chief Gallegos came in that morning he was not real pleased that his car smelled like skunk. We spent the whole day fumigating the trunk.”
And then there was the time Volger locked himself in the back of his patrol car. “We had cars with back doors that locked automatically. My partner, Steve Orr, and I took a guy we’d arrested to jail, and while Steve was doing some paperwork, he asked me to go check the back seat. Whenever you take a prisoner out of the back seat, you’ve got to make sure they didn’t leave anything, like a knife or an explosive. Well, the highway where the car was parked was kind of tilted to one side and when I got in the car on the upside and started searching, I heard the door close. After about a half an hour Steve came out, took one look at me and just started howling with laughter.”
Chief Volger can really keep the stories coming. After these two gems, he proceeded with his best all-in-the-line-of-duty story of all. “The day we caught the bank robber back in the ’90s was really memorable,” he said. “That was when the department was still housed over at the old Town Hall. The young robber had gone into Citizens Bank and went up to Jenny Bell’s teller station. The kid took out a note that said he was robbing the bank, slid it across to Jenny and then pulled out a butcher knife. Jenny looked at note and then at the knife and then she just stepped back so the guy couldn’t reach her with knife.” Chief Volger laughed as he remembered the incident. “ Well, then the guy got confused and took off. We got a description, and then just as I was leaving the police station, I see a guy that fit the description. So I said ‘Hey! By any chance were you just over at the bank?’ The guy takes off running down the alley; he ran into the back yard of the gas company which had a fenced-in yard. He runs through the gate and climbs over fence. So now he really had the advantage, then he ran across the street. But I saw that Cody Ross (owner of Buckskin Towing) just happened to be walking along on the other side of the street, and I said ‘Cody, grab him!’ So, Cody just takes the kid and slams him against the building, and Cody says ‘Got him.’ I ran over huffing and puffing and arrested him,” concluded Chief Volger, laughing again.
The best part of the story came next, though. After telling this hilarious story of crime and luck, Volger went on to reflect about what ever happened to that kid who robbed the bank. “The guy was essentially a good kid,” said Volger. “He came from the midwest somewhere. He’d had a talented career wrestling in high school, and he did fine in school, but he was just going through a tough time. He and his friend had watched a movie about a bank robbery, and he decided he was going to go rob this bank, have an adventure, see if he could do it and get away with it. But it went awry. They kept him in juvenile detention for a while and then he was released. I’d be willing to bet, knowing what I know about him and his life, that he hasn’t gotten back into trouble since.”
Volger’s ability to relate to offenders like this is at the heart of his career. “I consider Pagosa and Archuleta County home; the residents of our community are family. We’re like an extended family, sometimes, not very functional, sometimes extremely dysfunctional, but when the chips are down in this community, individuals will pull together,” Volger reflected. “When we hold someone accountable as law enforcement officers, the person is not just a number; we often know more about the situation than a cop in a big town would. It’s both a blessing and a curse. It forces us to treat people with more respect and compassion. The person is not just another job, it’s someone we will see again at the post office or the grocery store. We can treat people like people and still maintain objectivity, but also compassion and care for individuals. We can hate what they do, but care for the person.”
If you haven’t already guessed, the next part of this article is the mushy, “aw shucks” section, so be warned, because people have a lot of nice things to say about Don Volger, and vice versa. For example, that part up above, where we quoted Volger as saying he considers Pagosans his family? He wasn’t kidding, according to Jim Saunders, the assistant police chief who will take over for Volger in the new year. Saunders wasn’t in the room when Volger said that, and yet one of the first things Saunders had to say about Volger and his work was this: “The guy actually views every single offender and victim he works with as family. He is so committed to this community. And his work ethic is incredible. None of it is perceived; he actually lives like that all the time,” Saunders said.
The family feeling seems to stem from the way Volger runs the department from the inside. “What stands out most about the chief is that he’s not just your boss. Everyone in the department considers him a friend. Some of the guys even call him ‘Dad.’ He’s a very intuitive guy. There’s no fooling him. If you’re having a bad day, he’ll sit you down and have a sort of father-son chat with you. He always gives good advice, too. He’s very wise,” said Scott Maxwell, a detective with the police department.
But, according to Volger, the wisdom runs both ways. “I’ve learned something from every single person I’ve worked for and from every single person who has worked for me,” Chief Volger told The SUN. As for what he’s learned in his thirty years on the beat, Volger said this: “I would hope I’ve become more of a realist, but I also hope I’ve become more compassionate. I understand at a deeper level the frailty of humanity. We all struggle, we all make mistakes.” And Volger is the first to admit that he himself has made plenty. “My career, none of this, would have been possible without people supporting me, taking a chance on me, sticking by me, even when I made big mistakes. Support from the guys I work with, support from my family, my wonderful wife Melinda, (you just can’t say enough about her, she’s just wonderful) support from the mayor, from Karl Isberg, from so many people who have taken a chance and supported me … it wouldn’t have happened, I couldn’t have done it on my own, they deserve the credit.
Perhaps the best way to sum up Volger’s long career in service to this community is with the words that Jim Saunders and Scott Maxwell agreed to use to define Volger an officer of the law. “He’s a cop’s cop,” they said. “He’s walked down the same paths these guys came from. And he’s never forgotten working his way up, never forgotten being the new guy. Even though he is an excellent administrator, he’s also always one of the guys, willing to help with any part of what needs to get done. He’s just a cop’s cop.”