Press "Enter" to skip to content

Rural sheriffs feel pinched by new state regulations

Article by Clint Driscoll

Law Enforcement – June 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

One reason for the increasing numbers of full-time people on police payrolls throughout Colorado is recent state law which has pretty well eliminated volunteers, reservists, and part-timers.

Before the law took effect on Jan. 1, 1995, sheriffs around Central Colorado could draw on a pool of volunteers–some of them retired peace officers with years of experience–to handle chores like transporting prisoners, checking cabins, directing traffic, and crowd control.

This allowed the county sheriffs to stretch their thin budgets across thousands of square miles, and to use their full-time deputies more efficiently. Settlements distant from the county seat could still enjoy protection if a reserve deputy lived there. During busy intervals like summer and hunting season, the part-timers could assist, thus saving the expense of hiring a full-time deputy who might not be all that busy during the off-time.

But now the sheriffs won’t be able to draw on these volunteer resources–men like Roger MacDonald and Frank Hardin.

MacDonald started in police work in 1945 and retired in 1987 from the Aurora Police Department. By then he was a recognized expert in crime-scene investigation and evidence-gathering and preservation. He moved to Westcliffe and ran for Custer County sheriff as a Democrat, a venture that stood as much chance for success as the overnight comeback of the Humpback Chub.

He wasn’t a sore loser. After the election, MacDonald offered his services as a reserve deputy to the winner, Sheriff Fred Jobe, and Jobe accepted.

MacDonald assisted full-time deputies with routine patrol, checked campgrounds for the Forest Service, and provided back-up at break-ins, alarms, and suspicious calls. He faced down outlaw bikers when his closest assistance was forty-five miles away, and used his own plane to search for a homicidal escaped mental patient.

Frank Hardin was also a reserve deputy in Custer County. For fifteen years, he was the only on-site law in the Wetmore area. Like MacDonald, Hardin faced down motorcycle gangs without resorting to violence. He also searched for lost hunters, hikers, and mushroom foragers, and provided routine security patrols for the eastern part of the county. Whenever there was an escape from one of the many prisons and mental facilities in Frémont and Pueblo counties, Hardin would escort kids to and from school, and check homes before owners entered after returning from work.

One of Hardin’s last official actions came in late 1994 when he helped with the biggest drug bust in Custer County–and one of the biggest in the state–which netted $100,000 in cash; half a million dollars’ worth of cocaine, heroin, speed, and marijuana; and a small arsenal of automatic weapons. Hardin’s volunteer time, he estimates, has saved Custer County taxpayers more than $150,000 over the years.

But now, even though Hardin is capable, experienced, trained, and willing, he can’t serve as a reserve deputy.

Thanks to a state law which took effect at the start of the 1995, Hardin and MacDonald are no longer qualified to serve as peace officers.

MacDonald has been away from work too long to maintain his certification. His reserve work, no matter how much it may resemble regular police work, is apparently not considered real police work. Hardin can’t serve because he did not have the increased certification that the state now requires of all peace officers, reserve and full-time.

Custer County wasn’t the only department to lose its volunteers. Paul Ottmer, elected Park County sheriff in 1994, discovered upon taking office that he had no reserves to help his sixteen full-time deputies with enforcement and patrol duties across 2,250 square miles.

He said the county’s biggest losses were a reserve deputy who lived in, and patrolled around, the Lake George area, and another who covered Guffey. Now full-time deputies must be dispatched from the county seat in Fairplay–nearly 50 miles away–to respond to calls and to patrol in those areas.

If Park County law enforcement was stretched thin by the new state law, the Saguache County Sheriff’s Department is extended so far as to be almost transparent. Undersheriff Mike Norris has only five deputies, plus himself and Sheriff Al King, to cover all the territory between Poncha Pass and Center, between Crestone and Sargents–3,400 square miles on both sides of the Continental Divide.

Granted, Saguache County isn’t all that populated, but during tourist and hunting seasons, seven full-time certified peace officers aren’t going to be able to handle everything that might come up.

The state law that cut the heart out of the reserve forces was an amendment to the Colorado Peace Officer’s Standards and Training Act, known as POST in law-enforcement circles.

The intent of POST, when it was first enacted in 1986, was to establish uniform training standards which would apply to all law-enforcement officers in the state. The training standards were developed by the POST board which comprised sheriffs and police chiefs appointed by the governor and working under the state attorney general.

The criteria this board developed made sense. A new recruit, whether a full-time officer or a reserve, went through a local academy or the state’s Colorado Law Enforcement Training Academy (CLETA) in Golden. Everyone also underwent field training with experienced officers. After the academy and field training–usually a year–the recruit had to pass a POST certification test and have accumulated enough training hours in firearms, arrest control, and emergency driving. That 1986 POST program insured that all people, reserve or full-time, who legally carried badges and guns in Colorado were trained.

But things didn’t stay that way. By 1994, many sections of the law had been modified and the state had shut CLETA down. Big departments could still operate their own academies, but rural departments and small towns had to rely on community colleges for the classroom time to meet POST requirements.

Many reserves paid their own tuition and fit their classroom activities into their lives as best they could. They studied for, and then passed, the standardized test. As they studied, they could still provide volunteer law-enforcement services to their communities.

House Bill 94-1159, which passed in 1994 and took effect in 1995, effectively killed that practice by requiring all officers to pass the POST test and be certified before performing any police duties–no more interim field training and a delayed test.

Thus anyone interested in serving as a reserve must spend at least a year in training–at his own expense. The new law also sets new standards which severely limit the activities of reserve officers.

Reserves are now classified into three grades, based on classroom hours and field training.

The two lowest grades–Limited Reserve Certification–have passed the standardized POST test, but cannot act on their own until they have received a full 400 hours of instruction. They must always be under the direct personal supervision of a fully certified top-grade officer whenever they are performing their duties.

This means any duty: crime scene investigation, traffic control, or rounding up a stray dog.

Obviously, this requirement totally defeats the purpose of using reserves to augment thinly stretched rural departments. Your neighbor, the neighbor who used to be a reserve whom you could call when you heard strange noises at night, can’t help you now unless a full-time deputy is watching.

The new rules are also a perfect example of an unfunded mandate. The state passes the law increasing the requirements for peace officers, but it won’t be the state that pays the bill–the law specifically requires local jurisdictions to pay for the increased training, and further, the increased full-time manpower to pick up for the reserves.

Chaffee County Sheriff Ron Bergmann says the loss of reserves severely impacts his department’s efficiency. “Reserves take up the slack for our full-time deputies. They perform many of the routine tasks so the regular deputies can stay on the road.”

Chaffee County does not have a cell for juveniles, a detoxification center, or approved mental-health holding facilities, so young offenders, drug and alcohol abusers, and mental cases must be transported out of the county.

Reservists used to handle much of this transport. Now full-time deputies do, and Bergmann says this takes up to twenty-five percent of his staff’s time. His deputies also must travel to any county in the state to pick up prisoners named on Chaffee County warrants. Thanks to the new law, a line deputy is now a taxi driver for at least a quarter of his time.

Park County Sheriff Ottmer adds that “One of the best assets of a reserve was visibility. If I can have a reserve deputy perform security patrols and door checks in seasonal subdivisions at unscheduled times, then someone will think twice about breaking and entering. He’ll never know when a deputy might show up. My regular deputies just don’t have the time because they have so much else to do that takes a higher priority.”

Saguache County simply dropped its reserve program. “We’ll concentrate on training our full-time deputies. We want them to be great all-around law-enforcement officers and also have a speciality like fingerprinting,” said Bill Moore there. “We’ll just have to see what happens. If there’s an accident, we can appoint a civilian on scene to help direct traffic, but there’s lots of liability.”

Alamosa Police Chief Roy Ordent doesn’t use reserves, but he’s still not pleased with the new standards, which “prevent me from hiring locally and running an effective affirmative action program for my regular force. I have to hire a POST-certified officer because I don’t have the money to hire someone and send him to school at Trinidad [Junior College] plus pay his salary while he’s there. These rules, plus the state shutting down CLETA, have hurt us.”

None of the sheriffs and police chiefs interviewed were totally against POST. All endorse the uniform training requirements and the fact that it increases professionalism while reducing liability.

“Let’s face it, the days of the cowboy posse are long gone,” says Gunnison County Sheriff Rick Murdie, who also serves on the POST board. “Nobody can just mount up and ride after the bad guys. With POST, I know that any time I send my deputies out to help another jurisdiction, those other officers meet certain minimum requirements and won’t put my people in danger because of lack of training.”

Murdie realizes the new rules hurt small departments, and plans, as a member of the POST board, to see what can be done to help them. He does not favor exceptions, but thinks regional needs should be considered. “The whole process needs to be reviewed before it gets so cumbersome that nobody can follow it. I’ve lost my reserves because of all these restraints and constraints.”

Murdie says the POST rules must be modified to make it possible for individuals to join reserve organizations. As a member of the state POST board, he has been lobbying hard to lower the number of classroom hours required by POST and to allow local sheriffs to set their own standards beyond that. “It’s not acceptable for the Eastern Slope to be dictating policy for rural areas,” he says. “The liability is on each department, so let them train to meet their specific needs. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be minimums; I won’t put somebody on the road who can’t do the job. But the responsibility should, in the end, be mine.”

Murdie expects POST rules to be reviewed and modified within the next few months. Fortunately, a legislative change is not required to modify the POST standards.

Lake, Park, and Chaffee counties have developed a training course under the guidance of retired Buena Vista Police Chief Chuck Campton and Marie Truitt, Colorado Mountain College assistant campus dean. According to Joanne Jackson, CMC administrator, about a dozen reservists have completed the classroom part of the course.

Some former reservists are not happy with the new situation. They would prefer to see the sheriffs challenge the new law, rather than sponsor new academies.

“Basically, the state took away our county rights,” says Roger MacDonald. “The citizens of Custer County elected a sheriff to run law enforcement here. If he uses incompetent personnel, then the citizens can vote him out. They [POST] keep using liability as an excuse in all this. Well, the sheriff takes on the liability, so let him decide how he wants to handle it.”

John Kammerzell, executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, Inc., says there have been objections to the new rules, but no one has challenged them in court. The sheriffs and police chiefs want to try working with the POST board first. There were no legislative efforts to solve the problem this year, and so, for the moment, reserves must follow the new rules.

In the meantime, only a few reserve officers are sufficiently certified to continue their service in Central Colorado. Frank Hardin plans to get his required hours at Pueblo Community College, and get back to serving Wetmore even though he’ll need to coordinate classes with his family and job. Others are waiting for the planned regional programs–there’s plenty of interest, but at present, not many can take off and drive to Pueblo, Trinidad, or Glenwood Springs for classes.

Some sheriffs are stretching the regulations by declaring that radio contact constitutes “direct personal supervision” of deputies who aren’t fully certified. Nobody seems to know whether this will solve the problem, or just lead to more trouble down the road.

But there’s one officer the POST rules haven’t affected: Woody, the Twin Lakes mannequin traffic cop. He should be gearing up for duty now, ready to intimidate speeders bound for Independence Pass on Highway 82 after the highway is plowed.

Unfortunately, somebody stole Woody in the fall of 1994, and he hasn’t been seen since. If he had one, Lake County Sheriff Duarte could send out a reserve to round up the usual suspects.

Clint Driscoll is a retired firefighter who now lives in Buena Vista. He met Roger MacDonald when they both worked in Aurora. Roger’s crime lab was in the basement of Clint’s firehouse. One day Clint opened the refrigerator and found a pair of human hands inside–murder evidence that Roger had stored.