Drug crimes are up and patrol stops are down in Montezuma County, and Sheriff Steve Nowlin says he doesn’t have the manpower to reverse either trend.
Nowlin attributed the trends mainly to a growing population, delayed response times, a shortage of patrol deputies and more readily available drugs.
“Criminals know that we’re short-handed and that it takes us a lot longer to respond to a certain location,” Nowlin said. “That puts people in jeopardy.”
He presented the data, covering 2013 through 2016 in unincorporated parts of the county, to the Montezuma County Board of Commissioners on May 15. He told commissioners that he plans to ask to hire more deputies soon.
The data come from the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which distinguishes between Part 1 felonies such as murder, arson and rape and Part 2 crimes such as petty theft and traffic violations. The two categories are further broken down into crimes against people, property and society.
Property crimes were the most commonly reported, with 313 cases of burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft and arson reported in 2016. Ninety-two crimes against a person, which include assault, were reported, along with 84 crimes against society, which include drug charges.
The most common violent crime in 2016 was assault, with 69 cases reported.
Violent crimes have gone up and down over the past four years. More assaults were reported in 2016 than in 2015, but far fewer than in 2014. Theft and drug crimes, on the other hand, have doubled since 2013.
Nowlin attributed the increase in drug-related crimes partly to the 2014 legalization of recreational marijuana, which, he said, can function as a gateway drug or intoxicant. However, drugs like heroin and methamphetamine, which typically come from outside Colorado, are a bigger problem. Nowlin said more heroin, in particular, has been smuggled into the county in the past year.
“Heroin is really on the rise, and that has a direct correlation with the opioid addiction that we have here,” he said.
The data showed that suspects in about 30 percent of violent crimes in 2016 were confirmed to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol when the crimes occurred. Nowlin also drew a connection between the rise in theft and the rise in drug crimes, saying many of the recent burglaries and major property crimes appear to have been committed by people looking for prescription drugs or hoping to trade valuables for drugs.
The most common Part 2 crimes in Montezuma County were property damage and criminal mischief, both of which showed a slight decrease in 2016 compared with 2015, but an increase over the four years. Traffic offenses show a much more significant decline, particularly in the DUI and DUR categories. Nowlin attributed the decrease in DUI cases mainly to stricter DUI enforcement. He also noted that there have been fewer DUI stops, and traffic stops in general, because there aren’t always enough patrol deputies to perform them. He said his staff hasn’t grown with the county’s population, in part because of a high turnover rate among deputies.
According to the sheriff’s data, more Part 1 crimes were reported in Montezuma County in 2016 than in Morgan, Summit or Elbert counties, which all have similar populations.
Nowlin said his department is severely short-handed. The county employs 15 full-time patrol deputies, in addition to two deputies and one school resource officer employed by the town of Dolores. The sheriff’s jurisdiction covers more than 2,000 square miles of land and a population of about 14,000. Elbert County, which is smaller in population and size, employs 16 deputies. Summit County, which has a larger population but smaller territory, employs 20 patrol deputies.
A deputy took an average of almost 21 minutes to respond to a call in 2016, compared with the national average of 11 minutes, Nowlin said.
Nowlin said deputies don’t have enough time to patrol the roads, and are spread too thin to respond quickly to every reported crime. For example, they won’t be able to set up DUI checkpoints three times this year as they have in the past, he said.
Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane seemed to support Nowlin’s findings.
Lane said Nowlin’s data align with what he’s seen in Cortez, particularly the drug crimes. He said it’s becoming more common to see heroin and other drugs being trafficked from Las Vegas, Farmington and other cities. But he said Cortez hasn’t had the increase in thefts that the county has reported.
The police department has more patrol officers than the county, and that makes it easier to anticipate and prevent major crimes, Lane said.
The Cortez Police Department has 17 officers and five sergeants whose rotating schedules allow two or three of them to be on patrol 24 hours a day. Officers’ jurisdiction covers just 5.5 square miles and a population of about 8,700.
“There’s more cops in a smaller area in town than there is in the county,” he said. “If you have three guys working in the city, it’s a little more concentrated than if you have three guys working in the entire county.”