By Gail Binkly
After 45 years in law enforcement, Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin is seeking four more years at the helm of the Sheriff’s Office. He was first elected in November 2014 and re-elected in 2018.
If re-elected this November, he will be serving his third term, the final one allowed under the county’s term limits.
Nowlin, a Republican, is facing a challenge from the unaffiliated Odis Sikes.
The sheriff’s job is a complex one. Nowlin believes his long and varied experiences make him well-qualified to remain in his position. Before becoming sheriff, he worked in the Cortez Police Department, the Colorado State Patrol, and as a sheriff’s deputy. Now he is responsible for overseeing both the MCSO and the county detention center.
“The job is administration, budgets, detention, grants, LEA [the Law Enforcement Authority, a special tax only on properties in the unincorporated parts of the county that provides additional revenue to the MCSO],” Nowlin said in a phone interview with the Four Corners Free Press..
“There’s over $5.5 million I’m responsible for. I have 25 budgets I manage.”
Though $5.5 million sounds like a large amount, it isn’t enough to meet all the needs of the MCSO. One big issue is how to provide adequate compensation for employees, especially in a time when law-enforcement agencies are competing for skilled officers.
“Recruiting and retaining is one of the biggest things I’ve had to tackle,” Nowlin said. “The big thing is pay and benefits. I’ve worked all these years with the commissioners, who provide funding for the MCSO.
“They have really helped improve the pay, but benefits are a problem. We have to improve. If we can increase the benefits it helps, especially the younger officers. They’re creating families and the insurance costs for dependents are expensive. We need help paying their dependent coverage.”
Nowlin said many municipalities offer better dependent coverage for their officers.
“All the law-enforcement agencies are competing.”
Having deputies leave after they have been with the MCSO only a short time is an expensive problem, he said.
“It costs roughly $10,000 after they go through selection and backgrounds and training. If we don’t retain those folks we’re just throwing money away. So it’s very important to find the right applicants and provide for them and their families.”
Nowlin said the MCSO is finding good people.
“I hire by character first. Moral and ethical values. We can build on that but you can’t teach somebody that. it has really improved the applicants we have.”
The MCSO now has a reputation as an agency with a professional, well-trained staff, he said. “We’re setting an example for the state. A lot of applicants want to come here but we can only hire the right people.”
Nowlin has implemented a “step level” program to boost morale and incentivize the deputies. It has three levels, he said. Deputies do considerable reading and studying, all voluntary, and as they gain knowledge they can go on to the next level.
Every time they move up a level, they get a small financial boost (a one-time bonus of $300) and receive a ribbon showing their accomplishment.
“I’m so proud of what they’ve learned,” he said. “It’s been a neat program.”
He is working to prepare the future leaders in the sheriff’s office, he said.
Certain employees who are not certified as peace officers are selected to go to one of more than two dozen POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) academies in the state to become certified. “These are vetted employees,” Nowlin said. “They are here 1 ½ to 2 years before they can apply. Then they have to remain here for three years.”
Another employment issue is finding and retaining people to work in the Montezuma County Detention Center, which the sheriff by statute must oversee. “Working in the detention center is a stressful job. It’s not for everybody,” Nowlin said. He lowered the minimum age to work in the jail to 18 to attract younger people. (Individuals still have to be at least 20 before they can go to the law-enforcement academy.)
In addition, he has hired a psychologist to help his employees cope with the ever-increasing stressfulness of their jobs. The psychologist’s position is paid for through a state grant, he said.
“It’s been a life-saver. You have to do everything you can for the people that serve our community.”
Experience and knowledge are critical in law enforcement, he said.
“You have to know the law. We have to deal with civil as well as criminal law, water law, wildlife laws, livestock laws.” The sheriff’s department has regular trainings, far more than are required by state law.
Montezuma County is not a wealthy county and does not have a sales tax, so budgets are always tight. “That’s why I go after public and private grant funding,” Nowlin said. “We get probably $300,000 to $400,000 a year in grant funding to provide for services and equipment without using tax dollars.”
For instance, he was able to acquire a full-body scanner for use at the detention center to prevent contraband drugs and other items from coming into the facility. The scanner cost close to $290,000 but he was able to pay for it without using any general-fund tax monies, he said.
Yet another duty of the sheriff is to handle serious wildfires in the unincorporated areas of the county. State law says it’s the sheriff’s responsibility to coordinate fire-suppression efforts in the case “of any prairie, forest or wildland fire or wildfire” in the county outside any fire-protection district, or that has grown too big for the fire district to control or extinguish.
“I did a lot of praying this year,” Nowlin said in regard to the possibility of an out-of-control fire in this drought-stricken area. “I was really worried. Maybe we have turned the corner.”
Among the other duties of the sheriff’s office is handling security at the courthouse in Cortez and keeping schools safe. Nowlin said he has school resource officers in Dolores schools, Lewis-Arriola, Pleasant View and Battle Rock Charter School. However, he is seeking a new officer for Battle Rock as he lost the deputy who had been doing that job.
“I do not cover Mancos as they have a Marshals Office, but do assist the school when requested,” he said in an email. “We handle Safe to Tell reports involving Mancos students that reside in the County.”
“Working with the youth in the community, building early relationships to help them make the right decisions as they grow, has been a priority of mine,” he said. “They are our future.”
Nowlin emphasized that getting out into the community is critical. One way the MCSO does that is through its mounted patrols – deputies on horses. Nowlin began the mounted patrol program in 2017, working with the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Protection Program in Cañon City to obtain wild mustangs that have been gentled by selected inmates.
The mounted deputies, who received special training in horse care and crowd control, patrol in various places and at special events such as the county fair, Ute Mountain Rodeo, and Four Corners Ag Expo.
“It has been a great asset to the community,” Nowlin said. “It helps bring the public and the sheriff’s office together. These are dedicated officers in this unit. The mounted patrols are at every one of the community events and are also used with Search and Rescue.”
A major issue region-wide is drugs. “The impact of illicit drugs is affecting everybody,” Nowlin said. “Our drug distribution is what is causing the majority of our crime in the county.”
Opioids, which are more and more dangerous, with fenanyl a particular danger, are one problem. Methamphetamine is another.
“A lot of people have gone to prison for meth, which is really starting to increase,” he said. Meth comes from across the southern border of the United States rather than being made locally, he said.
And alcohol, though not illegal, is a constant concern.
“A lot of people have substance-abuse problems,” he said. “I’ve been working with that since I took office.” He said the new Community Intervention Program is a beginning and that the sheriff’s office is making progress in combating drugs.
But local detox and treatment programs are needed, he said. “We need inpatient and outpatient facilities here.”
Nowlin was pleased because of a recent seizure of $42,000 by the MCSO from drug traffickers. The funds can only be used for training or equipment in the sheriff’s office, he said, but they will be a big help. He is planning to purchase a $25,000 spectrometer that will do rapid drug field testing. Other funds will be spent on radar equipment for vehicles in the Drug Task Force, which he is expanding, he said.
”We’ve been very busy on this the last month. A lot of long days and nights, but it’s good we seized drugs and some stolen guns. It’s nice to see the drug profits are taken from these criminals.”
Nowlin said much of his job has been about rebuilding and retaining trust in the sheriff’s office.
“We have to be professional and respectful and to have compassion, and enforce the law with common sense Most laws are officer discretion. Our employees’ attitudes, behavior and appearance are important.
“Building relationships with the people in our communities is so important. We’re all in this together. If you see or hear something, say something. That’s where we get a lot of criminal investigations started.
“People will trust you if you are trustworthy. If you lose that trust, sometimes you will never be able to regain it. When we say we’re going to do something, we do it. If something doesn’t work out, we’ll try something else.
“I’m short-handed but my deputies go the extra mile helping people. That’s just what we do.”
Nowlin said he appreciates the support he has received from the community. “It’s very humbling.”