Veteran law officer Steve Nowlin believes it’s time for a change in the Montezuma County Sheriff ’s Office. Although that’s something challengers regularly say when seeking to unseat an incumbent, Nowlin says in this instance, it’s very valid.
“If we look at what’s happened with our sheriff ’s office in the past 3 1/2 years, I think that speaks for itself. I know I can do much better,” he said in an interview.
After nearly 38 years in law enforcement – 14 with the Cortez Police Department, three with the MCSO and 21 with the Colorado State Patrol – Nowlin, 57, said he has the experience to bring “leadership and professionalism” to the sheriff ’s office.
He will face incumbent Sheriff Dennis Spruell in the June 24 Republican primary.
He said Spruell’s term as sheriff has been blighted by incidents such as embezzlement charges against his former undersheriff, Robin Cronk, and deaths in the county detention center.
“Last year there was a total of 12 jail deaths in the state, and three were in Montezuma County,” Nowlin said. “And the undersheriff – long before the embezzlement, he was involved in a false arrest [that resulted in a $25,000 settlement].
“It’s just because there’s no true leadership. The public trust is what’s affected. That’s what I would bring, rebuilding this public trust.
“I want to make this the most professional, highly trained, trusted and respected agency in the state. We all want that.”
Nowlin said he’s not a politician, but campaigning is a necessity when seeking to become sheriff. “I look at this as a hiring process. The people of the state of Colorado have determined the process for being hired as county sheriff.”
When Nowlin and Spruell spoke at a meeting of the 9-12 Project in Cortez on May 19, both emphasized their conservative bona fides, pulling out pocket copies of the U.S. Constitution and stressing its importance (and that of the state constitution) to the job of sheriff.
When asked by the audience, both said they would not enforce laws they believe are unconstitutional. “I will not enforce any law that I know for a fact through my training and experience and my heart is unconstitutional,” Nowlin said. “If a law is possibly constitutional but is unenforceable, I will not enforce it. I will only do what my lawful authority is and not overreach.”
He added, “I won’t allow anything to happen to anybody in this county if I can prevent it. . . .I won’t let anybody take away any of your freedoms.”
But a difference emerged when they discussed how they determine what is constitutional. While Spruell said he reads the Constitution, relies on other sheriffs’ views, and asks other people, Nowlin said he also researches court rulings and communicates with numerous prosecutors. He told the Free Press a sheriff can’t decide on his own what is constitutional.
“A sheriff doesn’t decide that. No peace officer decides that.”
“We’re a country of laws,” he added. “I don’t agree that courts have no jurisdiction [in such matters].”
It’s more than an academic question, since Spruell as well as the current county commissioners and many local citizens have argued that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management don’t have the authority to close roads on public lands without first “coordinating with” – i.e., getting permission from – the county. Spruell has repeatedly threatened to cite federal agents that conduct any road closures he sees as illegal and to reopen roads he believes were illegally closed.
Nowlin said the sheriff ’s role in such issues, first off, is to keep the peace.
“Any peace officer has to remain neutral. There’s ways to go about handling these road closures – the right way, the legal, lawful way. “You have to have lawful authority to take any action.
“As a peace officer, we have to obey all the laws, more than anybody else. It applies to us more than anyone. We have to set the example until it is changed or repealed. That’s what we’re supposed to do whether we like it or not. The law applies to me more.”
He said he while he is concerned about any over-reach by federal authorities, he believes it’s best to try to work things out without threats. “You have to get people to communicate and talk to one another. And that would happen.”
Nowlin said he can see both sides of the road issue. “There are some roads that I understand should have never been left open, but I also understand the historic roads that should be opened by access.”
He pointed out that road closures don’t prohibit people, only motorized vehicles.
“A road-closed sign doesn’t mean you can’t go in there. You can walk in, ride a horse, ride a bicycle, or fly if you could. It doesn’t keep us from the land that all of us own.”
Communication is key to solving such disputes, Nowlin stressed, and the county commissioners and state legislators need to be involved.
“I have a good working relationship with all agencies. That’s how to prevent escalated problems. You can’t talk bad about somebody one day and then tell somebody an untruth that you have a good working relationship with them.”
Nowlin said he doesn’t necessarily agree with the viewpoint, popular among some locals, that the federal government shouldn’t own broad swaths of lands.
“There’s a view that claims that the Forest Service and BLM are unconstitutional. If we look back, I believe it was our Congress that actually enacted the departments of agriculture and interior. If we go back even further it was manifest destiny that took all of this.” And if you go back far enough, the land belonged to indigenous peoples, he said.
“The state of Colorado wanted the federal government to manage public lands because of grazing, and it worked well. I’m very thankful we had people with that type of foresight that preserved that amount of land that’s available to all of us.”
When asked about the idea of the state taking over federal public lands, Nowlin laughed. “I’ve worked for the state,” he said. “We’re trading one for the other.” He said there could be even more regulations if this were to happen.
The issue of limiting motorized use on public lands has only come to the forefront in the past 15 years because of the explosion in ATV use, he said. He agrees with the concept of multiple use, but said he’s seen damage done by off-road vehicles.
“The big question is, how do you manage people. Things change. You’re never going to get everybody to agree.
“But nobody needs to get hurt over any of this and that’s the thing I have tried to make perfectly clear.
“If the sheriff ’s office would work more closely with these federal agencies, like we used to do in the past, we would have much better understanding and communication and cooperation and coordination between everybody.”
For example, in the 1990s when he was a sheriff ’s detective lieutenant, there was an alarming increase in cattle theft. The sheriff ’s office and federal agencies had to work together to solve the problem.
“We used federal co-op money . . . to protect our ranchers’ property when they went on public land,” he explained. “We patrolled those areas, moved with cattle drives when they came up and down.”
He said that by working with the feds in investigating livestock thefts, they had been able to identify those involved and convict them. “But it takes cooperation. That’s what helped – going out there and talking to people – that’s how you solve crimes.”
Nowlin also differs from Spruell in his view about accepting federal grant monies. Spruell is loath to do so, maintaining such programs get federal funds for only a few years, then the burden falls on local taxpayers. Nowlin said simply, “We have to. There’s money out there.”
He would like to use federal funds to bring back the regional drug task force, which was dismantled because of a lack of monies.
“I’m going to work with all the agencies in the Four Corners, increase our enforcement, and try to make an impact on the importation of these controlled substances. If you reduce the addiction and the importation, you’re solving crimes, preventing crimes.”
But to solve the drug problem, he said, “you also have to provide opportunity for recovery.”
At the 9-12 meeting, Nowlin was questioned about some transcripts from an old trial that have been circulating in the county. In those, several witnesses under questioning by a defense attorney said they didn’t believe Nowlin always told the truth and that he was “over-zealous” in trying to get convictions.
Nowlin said the case in question involved organized crime, racketeering and auto theft and that the jurors evidently believed in his veracity, because the defendant was convicted and sentenced to 96 years. He said the questioning was typical of defense attorneys. “That’s the way our system works.”
He added, “I have a lot of defense attorneys that respect me and I’ve never perjured myself on the stand. There is nothing there. It was trying to put me on trial instead of a career criminal that had victimized hundreds of people.”
Nowlin said he will emphasize thorough training for employees and that he will actively seek to hire Native Americans to be on staff, something that has proven difficult for local law agencies to do. In addition, he will especially look to hire military veterans. “They are by far the best and brightest that we can gather.”
After his long career, Nowlin said he could easily have retired, but his concerns about the sheriff ’s office convinced him that he needed to run.
“When you see that it’s taken a wrong road, you have to try and do something to help.”