Despite a first term with some extreme peaks and valleys, Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell is eager for four more years in office.
“I can’t convey to you how badly I want another term,” Spruell said in an interview. “It really takes three years to start getting things going the way you want them, and to rip the rug out and start over again is, I think, unfair to the community.”
When Spruell won election in 2010, he enjoyed a heady honeymoon period. The self-described constitutional sheriff was enormously popular locally because of his vocal criticism of federal public-land agencies and their closures of certain roads. He was interviewed by newspapers around the state and featured on a national radio show.
Then he began hitting bumps in the road, including problems with his undersheriff, Robin Cronk, whose false arrest of a Cortez man cost the county’s insurer $25,000 and who later was charged with numerous felony counts of embezzlement for spending some $7,500 of sheriff ’s office funds on personal items. Cronk pleaded guilty to one felony and one misdemeanor count and was sentenced May 30 to 30 days in jail.
There were problems as well with another employee, Sgt. Darrin Harper, who was terminated last summer after District Attorney Will Furse publicly complained that Harper played fast and loose with constitutional rights; and headlines about three deaths in the county detention center.
“The first year I was here, it was a dream. Everything was going fantastic,” Spruell said. “Then we had Robin Cronk and [other issues], so my first term was extremely stressful, but I feel I handled everything appropriately. Now that things are settled down I want to continue and improve.”
Spruell, 56, has 34 years’ experience in law enforcement, most of it with the Cortez Police Department and all but six of it in supervisory positions. He faces a challenge in the June 24 Republican primary from longtime law officer Steve Nowlin.
Spruell said he did not want to criticize Nowlin, whom he called “a great guy, a very, very good investigator.”
Instead, he wanted to focus on the accomplishments of his first term, which he said have been overlooked amid the negative headlines. His top achievement, he said, has been improving the county jail – reducing the burgeoning inmate population through a Pretrial Services program, implementing constitutionally based policies and procedures, employing an intake officer and a contract worker from Axis Health System to screen inmates for substance-abuse and mental-health problems. [See Free Press, April 2014.] He has also used funds already within his budget to give pay increases to detention deputies.
“We have made fantastic strides,” Spruell said. “The jail has come a long way.”
When he came into office, he instituted a policy in which at least two patrol deputies are on duty at all times. Previously, only one person was on duty in the early-morning hours.
In addition, he has worked to be “the most open sheriff, the most transparent sheriff we’ve ever had.” To that end, he has eliminated the automated “phone tree” at the sheriff ’s office and ensured that callers reach a live person. He has been posting condensed versions of incident reports on the sheriff ’s office Facebook page. He is easily accessible by telephone. “If people call me, I will answer – I will return the phone call.” And soon every deputy is going to be required to wear a video camera, he said.
Spruell said even while making those improvements, he also has been able to keep the budget at the 2009 level without reducing services.
Spruell and Nowlin spoke at a meeting of the local 9-12 Project on May 19, and sounded more alike than not when answering questions from the crowd. Those included whether they fly a flag at home (Nowlin does; Spruell doesn’t at home but does on a truck he drives); how they feel about marijuana (both are concerned about its abuse by youth but accept the fact that it’s legal in Colorado); and whether they would allow a federal agency to take someone’s goats away (not without proper paperwork and authority).
But Spruell said there are definite differences. For one thing, while Nowlin is willing to accept federal grants, Spruell generally opposes them, “because there’s always a catch. You can have the money for two years but then you have to take it over yourselves. We have grown enough we don’t need the federal government to help us overgrow and add more costs to the county than they can bear.”
Spruell said he also takes a tougher stance regarding gun rights. He has joined the majority of Colorado’s sheriffs in a lawsuit against the state over new gun restrictions.
The issue that brought Spruell his statewide fame – as well as considerable criticism – is his stance on road closures on public lands. He has repeatedly said he will cite Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management agents if they close a local road in a manner he believes to be illegal. He told the 9-12ers he has 354 armed citizens that he can call to his backing if necessary.
However, he told the Free Press he is not anti-federal-government, he simply doesn’t want other branches of the government encroaching on the rights of local citizens.
Early in his term, when there was a vociferous outcry and a protest march over road closures proposed in the Boggy-Glade area north of Dolores, Spruell was worried about the safety of federal agents, he said.
“I was afraid because the outcry from the citizens had gotten so loud and there’s always those nut jobs that want to go physical. I was truly afraid that someone would do something.
“I am still afraid for them because of what’s going on across the country,” Spruell said. “I have a duty to protect all the citizens of Montezuma County. It doesn’t matter who they are. A BLM officer is a very, very good friend of mine and I don’t want to see him hurt because of some rebel or nut job.”
He emphasized that while he believes everyone should be able to voice an opinion, “Physical violence doesn’t solve anything.”
He was present at the protest march against the Forest Service and agreed with the protesters, he said at the 9-12 meeting, but he was there to keep the peace. “I am not a rebel, not a conspiracy theorist.”
Spruell told the Free Press that there are Forest Service and BLM roads that need to be closed, “but it needs to be done in coordination with the county, and they shouldn’t arbitrarily close roads without a discussion.”
Spruell said he was instrumental in persuading the Forest Service to quit de-commissioning old roads by tearing them up. “I don’t believe destruction of the earth was the way to go about fixing the problem,” he said, “which was people using these roads that should not have been used. Don’t take a ripper and rip it and build berms 4 feet high with stinking mosquito-infested water-filled holes.” He noted that after he and others complained, the Forest Service brought in experts who agreed the methods were probably too drastic and began gentler practices.
He admitted that his relations with the agency still are not cozy, however. “They don’t call me. They’re better with the [county] commissioners.”
Spruell said his biggest mistake in office was “the crooked undersheriff that I hired.” At the time, however, Cronk seemed the right choice. Since then, he has implemented stricter accounting practices. “There is not one bill that goes through this office that I have not seen. I am looking at oil changes now. If somebody buys a $1.39 light bulb, now it comes to me. I review everything.”
Cronk’s replacement, Undersheriff Lynda Carter, is “fantastic,” Spruell said. “Her risk- management skills and her knowledge of the law are fantastic.”
He added, “I make a lot of mistakes, but I try to correct them all.”
Spruell believes that press coverage of his administration has been skewed toward the negative. For instance, a recent article in the Cortez Journal indicated that there was a disproportionately high number of minorities in the county jail because half the inmates were Native American or Hispanic although those groups make up just a quarter of the county’s population overall.
Spruell said those statistics are misleading because not all the jail’s inmates are locals. Some are held for outside agencies, and some are arrested in Montezuma County but don’t live here. Those include Native Americans who come to Cortez to drink because they can’t drink on their home reservations, and are then nabbed on minor offenses because they are drinking in public rather than at home (as non-Natives are able to do).
More detailed statistics provided by the sheriff ’s office show that, when out-of-state inmates are removed from the picture, 14 percent of inmates are Hispanic, close to the percentage in the general population. Another 27 percent are Native American, a ratio higher than in the general population (12 percent) but far lower than the 42 percent cited in the Journal article.
In addition, Spruell pointed out, the sheriff ’s office doesn’t arrest many of the inmates; many are brought to jail by the Cortez police.
“This is not a racist organization,” he said. Spruell has three African-Americans and a sizeable number of Hispanic and female employees on staff; he said he’d like to hire Native Americans, but none have applied, probably because they can make more money elsewhere.
He also said it was unfair to lambaste the sheriff ’s office for the three jail deaths, which included a suicide, a death from an aneurysm and a death related to chronic drinking.
“What would you have done to prevent that?” Spruell said. “Tell people to lead a better lifestyle? There’s nothing they [jail staff] could have done. The inmates were medically cleared before they came in.”
Regarding the suicide, he said the jail staff evaluated their procedures, and one person who had been late in doing a cell check was reprimanded. However, he added, “[The inmate] was going to commit suicide no matter what.”
Spruell emphasized that he wants more time to finish the work he’s started in what he sees as the sheriff ’s broad role. “I feel that a sheriff is much more than a bureaucrat who enforces laws. The sheriff is the protector of his community. His No. 1 responsibility is to protect its health, safety and welfare. It’s also very important that he look to the big picture and the entire function of the government.”