August 2013

Minding the store

When Sheriff Dennis Spruell was elected in 2010, he promised to enforce the law fairly and support the national and state constitutions, as might be expected from someone seeking a job that should be, at least, non-political and impartial. After all, there is no “Republican” or “Democratic” way of making sure that laws are obeyed and the county’s citizenry is kept safe and secure.

All this sounded pretty good to those of us who voted for him.

However, since then, the sheriff has been in the news for a number of reasons – not all of them positive.

He has loudly proclaimed that he won’t enforce the new gun laws passed by the state legislature. The fact is, if he didn’t want to enforce them, he could have quietly ignored them, as these new laws really are going to be difficult to enforce, and the issue of whether someone buys a large magazine clip or doesn’t do a background check for a private gun sale is not going to arise on a regular basis. But Sheriff Spruell likes to take public stances, and so he did so – raising a lot of questions among the citizenry about whether it’s up to county sheriffs to interpret whether new laws are constitutional.

Throughout his term he has continued to antagonize the federal publiclands agencies by loudly threatening to ticket Forest Service or BLM officials who close roads and to remove locks on closed roads on public lands. Recently he told the county commissioners that his “biggest pain” since he has been in office “is not crime in Montezuma County, but the federal government coming in here and encroaching on our liberties.”

Now, it’s all well and good to defend the Second Amendment, and to worry about motorized travel on national forests. But the other amendments to the Constitution deserve attention, too, such as the Fourth (that’s the one prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures, and requiring probable cause for warrants). And sometimes there are issues that ought to take priority over someone’s right to ride an ATV on an old logging route.

Most recently, there has been a flurry of reports in the Cortez Journal about one problem after another with Spruell’s administration: His undersheriff, Robin Cronk, has been charged with a felony count of embezzlement of public funds and a misdemeanor count of official misconduct; his star “drug recognition expert,” Deputy Darrin Harper, has been dismissed, and the district attorney, Will Furse, has written to the sheriff saying that he won’t prosecute any pending criminal cases that involved Harper because there are serious questions about the constitutionality of some of Harper’s actions.

There were signs of trouble earlier – for instance, in 2012, as we reported in the Free Press, when the county had to pay $25,000 through its insurer to settle a claim with a local man for an illegal arrest made by Cronk. Some attorneys we spoke to told us privately that the man probably could have gotten a bigger settlement had he not been representing himself in the lawsuit.

At the time, Spruell said he didn’t believe the case should have been settled, but also that Cronk’s actions were indeed wrong and that he had been told so. “When we screw up, we’re going to take the blame for it, and that was a screw-up, no doubt about it,” Spruell told us. “We’re not going to pretend we didn’t do anything wrong and it shouldn’t have happened.”

He said there were “consequences” to Cronk – though he did not specify what those consequences were; Cronk was not dismissed at that time. “It’s been taken care of,” Spruell said. “It will not happen again.”

But, apparently, similar problems then occurred with Deputy Harper, causing the DA to send Spruell an extraordinary letter (which was leaked to the Journal) stating, in part, “My office has engaged in this way because Deputy Harper’s deeds have had grave consequences to our criminal cases. Detrimentally affecting community safety and undermining the Constitution, Deputy Harper’s acts have forced the dismissal of serious criminal charges against numerous defendants.”

DA Furse deserves a great deal of credit for being willing to state his concerns to the sheriff and to stand up for people’s constitutional rights in their dealings with law enforcement.

Yet some of Spruell’s supporters have been complaining in letters to the editor that all this is the fault of the “media” for publicizing these incidents.

Spruell has said that he wants to be sheriff for the full three terms allowed by local law, and that he loves law enforcement and believes it to be an honorable profession. In fairness, he has some qualities that are good in a sheriff – one of the most important of which is his zeal for his job. In addition, we have always found him to be easy to reach by phone, and forthcoming in his statements. We haven’t known him to dodge the media or avoid tough questions. When he or someone in his office makes a mistake, he has been willing to say so. And the number of incident reports coming out of the MCSO to the press has gone up since he took over.

But all these problems with employees of the Montezuma County Sheriff ’s Office give the impression, rightly or wrongly, that Spruell is so busy worrying about the Forest Service and the Second Amendment that he isn’t minding the store at home. Talk about the federal government and gun laws plays well with a particular constituency, but dealing with crime and overseeing his office ought to be the sheriff ’s main focus, not grandstanding. The sheriff ’s office needs to be above reproach.

One of Spruell’s concerns (as stated in a interview with the Free Press when he was running for the job) was that the employees at the MCSO had been “micro-managed to death” under then-Sheriff Gerald Wallace. After this spate of recent problems, it appears a little micro-management might be needed. If Spruell wants to keep his job and be re-elected in 2014 – and despite the recent unfortunate occurrences, he stands a very good chance of doing so – he needs to start paying more attention to the people in his own office than he does to the Forest Service.