The unaffiliated write-in candidate envisions a cadet program and a citizens’ review panel
Mike Steele and his wife, Laurie, came to Southwest Colorado five years ago to retire. But a funny thing happened on their way to a laid-back rural lifestyle.
Ten or 12 months ago, he said, he was approached by some local acquaintances who asked him to run for Montezuma County sheriff. Initially he declined, but they returned a month later, and he asked why they were so insistent. They said there was a problem in the sheriff ’s office, referring to news items such as charges against former Undersheriff Robin Cronk, who recently pleaded guilty to embezzlement and official misconduct.
“Of course I’d read the paper, but I’ve dealt with media most of my life and sometimes you have to take things with a grain of salt,” Steele said. “They came back with some documentation indicative of some serious problems. I started looking into the situation myself.”
What he found, he said, was “a lack of proper administrative skills and leadership within the department.” He began seriously considering a bid for the position. “My wife and I talked about it and prayed about it.” Finally they decided to take on the challenge.
Steele is now running as an unaffiliated write-in candidate against Steve Nowlin, a veteran law officer who defeated incumbent Dennis Spruell in the Republican primary. There is no Democratic candidate in the race.
Steele, 57, has a wealth of law-enforcement experience, having worked more than 20 years in the field, at both ends of the spectrum – small and rural, big and urban. He worked in Inyo County, Calif., smaller in population than Montezuma County, and in the San Bernardino County Sheriff ’s Office, which serves several million people and employs over 3500. Likewise, he has worked and supervised staff in two diverse jail environments – one large (about 2,000 inmates), one similar to Montezuma County’s.
While with the San Bernardino sheriff ’s office, Steel said, he worked in patrol and in supervisory positions. His varied positions included a street-gang task force, a crime impact unit, community-oriented policing, street-narcotics investigations, SWAT, and homicide investigations.
Since leaving, he has made it a point to continue his training and education. He recently completed his POST certification. He said he has lectured at the college level on criminal justice and taught extensively in the San Bernardino training academy.
Beyond his law-enforcement career, he said, he has been a businessman and has owned and operated companies with gross revenues in excess of the MCSO budget. He also worked for a decade in fugitive apprehension agencies.
Seeing the system from the other side
Steele has also experienced the criminal justice system from the other side – as one of the targets of an investigation. In 2004 he was charged with three counts of unlawful solicitation of bail and conspiracy in connection with a bail-bond company that was allegedly giving kickbacks to jail inmates for recommending their company to new inmates. Ultimately Steele accepted a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor and paid $3,000 in court costs.
Steele said he was unwittingly caught up in a situation that had been going on before he arrived. The company had been created “in a way that was less than lawful,” he said, and that drew the attention of investigators. He said he was operating his fugitive-apprehension agency when he was contacted by the owner of the bail-bond company, in San Bernardino County. “He and his wife owned four or five different offices and asked me if I would do their fugitive work for them.”
He flew to California, talked with the owner, and decided to take on the contract. He and a team then worked about four months with the bail-bond company to bring down their fugitive population “to a manageable level” while he was also doing other work throughout the country.
Steele said he did notice that “it seemed like his [bail-bond] company was doing a large volume” but he didn’t find that strange, since they were in southern California. “I saw nothing that suggested to me there was any illegal activities taking place,” he said.
Eventually he decided to move to California and work exclusively for that company, “which let me quit traveling all over the U.S. living out of a suitcase,” an important consideration since his daughter was a high school student and he was raising her alone. His work included taking incoming phone calls, some of which were from people in custody.
“Their policy regarding incoming phone calls was if a call was answered and it was a person in custody in the jail system, you would accept, ask if it were pertaining to bail, and ask who was going to help them get out [such as a family member] and then connect them with a bail agent. I was not a bail agent. I made four or five of those three-way phone calls.”
But the company was being probed for the kickback scheme, and the San Bernardino DA’s office filed felony charges on the owners and everybody else associated with the company – a total of 19 people. He said all 19 people working in that company were charged. “I think they might have felt they had something bigger than it was.”
The owner and his immediate family were ultimately held accountable, he said, and the other people were processed through the system. Steele said he was the final individual to be addressed. “I had spent $65,000 protecting my innocence. I told my attorney I wanted to take it to a jury trial. They called a week later. . . and said they wanted another $75,000 to take it to trial. I said, ‘I really don’t have another $75,000 to give you’.”
In another few days, he recounted, his attorneys said the DA’s office said the sheriff’s office was concerned about possible civil litigation over the charges and would give him a deal under which he agreed to making the phone calls, a single misdemeanor, and he would be allowed to pay $3,000 in court fees over 12 months.
“I decided to swallow my foolish pride and do what was right financially. I was never arrested or booked. There is no criminal background relative to that.” Steele said the entire episode was a learning experience.
“I spent three years assuming that just because somebody said something, that it was right. I have had my eyes opened and now have seen the other side of that system and what a clarity I have experienced as a result.”
‘Remove the paramilitary style of policing’
Steele was raised in Lone Pine, Calif., a rural area at the base of Mt. Whitney. “I’m not a big-city boy,” he said. “I enjoy hunting, fishing and rodeoing.”
He and his wife have bought the Sinclair station in Dove Creek, which his wife runs. “She’ll be responsible for it,” he said. “My objective is with administering the sheriff ’s office.”
Steel said his biggest concern about the sheriff ’s office now is “a lack of unification” with the broader community.
“There seems to be a divide there. That can’t be. We have got to start rebuilding relationships between the community and sheriff’s office.
“We have to remove the paramilitary style of policing that exists and try to redirect it to a more community-oriented type.” He wants his officers to interact with the community both on and off duty. In addition, he said, citizens need to interact with the office.
He called for the creation of a citizens review panel “which would help me better direct the agency.” The panel could address concerns such as policy, agency restructuring and citizen complaints, “so nobody can ever say, ‘They swept it under the rug’.”
He also wants to increase the agency’s involvement with local youth, perhaps by initiating a “cadet” program as one step. “I started as a cadet sheriff at 16. It gave me an opportunity to determine if I wanted to be in law enforcement and to build a friendship and respect and trust with men and women in uniform. Let’s initiate a cadet program here and bring in some of the folks who are in our public schools.”
He said that would be one way to draw more Native Americans into the agency, piquing their interest as teens and hoping it would result in them being employed in the sheriff ’s office.
“We need to evolve that agency where its staff becomes an active and viable part of the community. We want thankful, kind, and professional law-enforcement personnel that are proud of who they are and where they work. It will take some time, but with proper leadership I know it can happen.”
Steele said he is also concerned about the “massive turnover of personnel” that has been a perennial problem in the MCSO. “When a ‘seasoned officer’ has less than three years of experience, that’s scary.” He hopes to counteract that by creating “a very positive work environment for those employees.”
The relatively low salaries in the MCSO as compared to other such agencies around the state have been cited as one factor behind the turnover, but Steele said this should not be a major issue because working conditions here are far better than in large urban areas.
“If you want to make big bucks and take a 65 percent higher risk that you might not go home at night, go to work in the big city…. When I was a patrolman in the San Bernardino County Sheriff ’s Office, there were 20 to 30 deputies a shift. They started out 40 to 50 calls behind and never got caught up. There should not be any expectation of equal pay” with places like that, he said.
Officers who were raised here understand that they have to give up something in order to raise their kids in a beautiful place and work with a considerably lower risk of injury or death, he said.
He added, “Everybody would like to make a lot of money, but county government is based on taxpayer revenue and there’s only so much. You have to make things work within the boundaries provided for you.” He said the MCSO’s current budget of over $5 million for 72 to 73 employees is substantial.
Even without bigger salaries, Steele believes he can retain sheriff ’s employees by providing “a harmonious and productive environment that helps them increase their personal education.”
“Give them a path,” he said. “It is an entire career, not somebody who says, ‘You’re going to do it my way or nothing.’ You have to work as a team with you being the leader.”
Dealing with the mentally ill
One key community issue that needs to be addressed, he said, is the presence of people with mental-health issues who sometimes wind up dealing with law enforcement. Steele said some sort of facility needs to be developed locally that can work with and help them – “something where you can just take them over there and they make sure they get back on their medication, things like that.”
Currently, he said, there is a lack of resources to effectively deal with problem people. “Here in Montezuma County the resources are extremely limited. Concerns are growing on a daily basis.”
Even though such facilities are expensive to run, he said, it’s time to start working to launch one.
“The goal would be to afford law enforcement a proper facility where they can take these folks with mental-health issues,” Steele said. “Start getting them back on track where they can be coexistent and not a harm to others. Jails aren’t the answer to the mentally ill, or people detoxing.
“I believe it’s time to initiate a fundamental group of people to start securing resources for a program or facility in this area where somebody with mental issues having difficulty interacting with society can be taken. Law enforcement can evaluate the situation and they can be taken to these locations.”
Such facilities can be small or large, private or not, even part of a hospital. “It could be a very small facility, a multi-use facility for detox and mental health. It’s something that really needs some attention. I think this community is ready to start developing some answers. The sheriff ’s office needs to be a viable part of the effort.”
He said he supports the Bridge Emergency Shelter in Cortez. “If folks don’t have an opportunity to get in out of the elements they could die.”
No need for vigilantes
In addition to those issues, relations with federal agencies are an ever-present concern. During his four years in office, Sheriff Spruell became widely known for his vocal criticisms of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, mainly in regard to road closures on public lands. Spruell often said he would issue a citation to any federal officer he found closing a road in a manner Spruell thought to be illegal, though the situation hasn’t occurred so far.
Steele said the issue of roads on public lands is “anything but a simple question. It’s extremely complex. It’s being addressed all over this country.”
In his opinion, the county in which federal roads and lands exist “should have some sort of involvement in the decision-making process as to whether roads should remain open,” he said.
But he believes this will ultimately occur without the need for any vigilante action. “As resistance grows to federal actions, you will see some unity to enable local governments to help and I would encourage that type of a business approach to these problems.”
He said it’s important to remember that Forest Service and BLM workers in the area “are just employees trying to provide for their families. To hold them personally responsible for decisions being made so far removed from them is kind of ridiculous.
“I am not a supporter of vigilanteism and I don’t believe in being aggressive to the local staff who have so little to do with the ultimate decision-making here. They’re part of our community. Their kids play with our grandkids.”
While everyone wants and needs access on public lands, he said, “there are some manmade, after-the-fact, unmaintained roads up there that may not be all that necessary. I would hope the state, federal, and local get together and start making these critical decisions as a group.
“I think we need to build that bridge between us and the federal government in a professional and businesslike manner as opposed to a vigilante-type manner.”