Legalization of marijuana in Colorado has created "almost no impact on law enforcement" in La Plata County, Sheriff Sean Smith told Pine River Rotary Club members on March 16. "We haven't seen a significant increase in DUIDs (driving under the influence of drugs)," he said.
Smith has focussed heavily on staff training. He said they will do sessions with people who are high, to provide deputies with training on how to interact with them. He stressed that if you are age 21 or older, you can have marijuana on you, but you can't use it in public. He indicated a lot of users haven't gotten that detail.
While legal marijuana may not have increased county DUID cases significantly, it is an apparent factor in the growing number of panhandlers or homeless people in the area, Smith said. "The population is growing. A lot came to Colorado for legal marijuana, according to the Cortez Homeless Shelter and the Homeless Coalition in Durango. There are huge challenges. At the Soup Kitchen, they report the people who are economically challenged and the people who come here with other intent."
He continued. "Are they creating crime problems? There's a lot of public perception that makes people uncomfortable. I can't tell you that a lot of my crime has gone up. It might be petty theft in Durango Municipal Court."
So why not chase them out of town? "That moves them from one jurisdiction to another," Smith said. "Many don't have the means to leave."
He reiterated, "A lot of them self-report that they came here for legal marijuana." It's not just street people, he said, citing a marijuana shop at Denver International Airport, where people fly in, buy their goods, and fly out.
"A lot of people look at the negative aspects" of legalized marijuana, he said, but his department got $379,000 last year and is getting $450,000 this year from marijuana taxes to address mental health issues. He has contracted with Axis Health Systems for that.
Smith said heroin use is a growing problem. There is a regional drug task force with federal funding and participation from local law enforcement agencies and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. "It's to take down drug trafficking organizations, not small-time users," he said.
He cited a drug bust in May 2014, referred to as the Fitapelli case, that happened between the airport and County Road 318. Around 15 people were arrested, some from the Bayfield and Vallecito areas. That bust involved methamphetamines and came out of a year and a half investigation by the drug task force, he said.
Smith took over the Sheriff's Office in January 2015, replacing Duke Schirard who had run the office for 20 years.
"We had a busy first year, a focus on the cultural change," he said. He hired Phil Bryson, who does personality and communication style workshops, to help with the process. "We were his first law enforcement team," Smith said. "We had a nine-member reinvention team to focus on the change process and be our connection to the community."
He said a lot of new sheriffs "come in and whack heads and put their own people in place. Phil and I worked on a leadership process. Every division had leadership as their top priority. We had department leaders compete for their jobs and brought in an outside board to eliminate bias" in evaluating them.
With that outside board, he said, "I got a lot of great ambassadors out to the community and seven division leaders."
The process also involved questionnaires to staff. The longest response was 42 pages, Smith said. "The new team is very motivated, some are learning. It takes three to seven years for an organization's culture to change." Some people from the Patrol Division left in the transition, and four people were terminated for cause, he said.
In 2015, the traffic department "more than doubled their traffic contacts," he added.
He noted the department's new vehicles, black with gold emblems and the words "To serve and protect" on them. Smith said he wanted "To serve" first because he wants "a service-first mentality, positive engagement with the public."
He noted places in the U.S. that became known for bad engagement with the public, such as Ferguson, Missouri and New York City for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police.
"Bad things can happen everywhere, but if you have the foundation of trust, you can weather the storm," he said. "Body cameras are a tool. I'm investing in training. I hope the body cameras will capture a lot of people doing good things."
The Sheriff's Office has 136 staff members and a $15 million annual budget, Smith said. It's the second largest sheriff's office on the Western Slope after Mesa County, where Grand Junction is the county seat.