More than 50 people attended a League of Women’s Voters forum for the two candidates running for Montezuma County, but only incumbent Steve Nowlin, a Republican, attended.
Unaffiliated candidate Odis Sikes did not attend or submit a statement to be read aloud. Both candidates were invited and were provided questions in advance, said moderator Connie Fox.
Nowlin is seeking a third four-year term for sheriff. He gave an opening statement, answered a series of questions from Fox and took questions from the audience.
Nowlin emphasized his 45 years as a certified peace officer in Colorado law enforcement. He said he runs his department professionally with officers who are carefully vetted for good character, ethics and a willingness to serve the public.
Before serving as sheriff, Nowlin has served with the Cortez Police Department, the county Sheriff’s Office and 21 years with the Colorado State Patrol as a Trooper and a criminal investigator.
As sheriff, Nowlin said he has improved the culture of the department and the hiring and testing process to obtain the best applicants to become peace officers.
“It is a very professional and well-trained agency,” he said. “I could not be more proud of men and women that serve this community in your Sheriff’s Office.”
Several topics were covered during the forum.
Each officer has about 100 hours of training per year, even though the minimum requirement by the state is 24 hours, Nowlin said. A step-level promotion system requires deputies to pass a curriculum that teaches management and supervision skills.
Combating the illegal drug trade has been a focus. Nowlin said Cortez has become a “drug hub,” and many other crimes are associated with the drug trade, including thefts, burglaries, and auto and gun thefts.
Nowlin said he has expanded the narcotic drug task force and plans to add another narcotics detective and intelligence analyst. He has hosted several drug awareness and education classes in the community.
The drug problem is tied to demand and supply, Nowlin said.
“We need to stop demand in order to stop supply,” he said. “The U.S. society is hungry for drugs, and we need to stop addiction. We all know people addicted. They need help. We need to provide that help, and also stop drugs from coming in through aggressive prosecution. You need both to have an impact.
Nowlin said he manages three budgets totaling $6 million annually for the Sheriff’s Office, detention center, and Law Enforcement Authority, a special mill levy. The Sheriff’s Office is awarded about $500,000 in public and private grants every year for equipment and training.
A rigorous grant program is essential because it helps pay for critical equipment, such as the full-body scanner at the jail, which prevents contraband from being smuggled in.
On the issue of addressing volatile situations, Nowlin said deputies and detention officers go through de-escalation training. Supervisors in the field help to make the right decisions.
One of the biggest challenges is keeping up with the evolving laws of the state, Nowlin said. Also, funding and recruitment and retention of staff is difficult for a rural department.
Keeping salaries competitive is also difficult, Nowlin said. He has increased salaries, and is working on improving health benefits for law enforcement dependents.
“We have a fairly young staff who are raising families or plan to, so we need this to stay competitive in hiring,” he said.
Two audience questions were about the Extreme Risk Protection Law, also known as the "red flag law.“
As required by the state, Nowlin said he created a policy for carrying out the law. The law sets forth procedures that could result in a court order to remove firearms from somebody who is at risk of harming themselves or others.
Nowlin said he will comply with the law, but has been outspoken about his skepticism of it, citing potential for abuse by people making false claims against someone. He said the Sheriff’s Office has always had procedures in place to work with families, and provide resources for people in distress, in order to prevent gun violence.
An audience member asked how he differs from his challenger.
“Day and night,” Nowlin said. “I am an experienced peace officer of 45 years. I have the knowledge and skills, and have been able to show what we can do by working together.”
Effective law enforcement requires public assistance and trust, he said.
“Working together made our community stronger and safer,” Nowlin said. “That is how can solve so many crimes because of public relations in the community, they will call and talk to us because they trust us, that is what all about, we are held to high standard.”
His closing statement was to read the law enforcement code of ethics that guides him and his department.
Audience members commented afterward they expected to have Sikes present at the forum so they could ask questions and learn about the candidate.
Sikes is a rancher, Vietnam veteran and plays in the country music band Vanishing Breed.
During a meet-and-greet Aug. 12 in Cortez, he said he has no experience in law enforcement, but would be able to learn. He also said he has leadership experience.
The Journal has reached out to Sikes for an interview as part of an upcoming candidate profile.