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Nowlin looks ahead to third term after winning reelection

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin has been reelected to a third term. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Priorities include combating drug trafficking, improving staff benefits and upgrading health services at jail

Montezuma County voters reelected Sheriff Steve Nowlin by a 3-to-1 ratio over challenger Odis Sikes. It was the only contested county race during the Nov. 8 midterm election.

Nowlin will serve a third four-year term. He spoke to The Journal about some of his plans.

“I’m very appreciative and humbled by the support. It lets us know we must be doing something right,” he said. “Everyone should be congratulated. We will continue to do our very best. I work for everyone and do not care about political parties.”

Recruitment and retention of staff at the Sheriff’s Office and Montezuma County Detention Center is an ongoing priority, Nowlin said. He plans to push for improved pay and an improved benefits and retirement plan.

Changes in Colorado law allow county sheriffs to obtain a defined benefit plan to replace the county contribution plan, Nowlin said. The sheriff needs approval from the county commissioners to move forward on a separate retirement plan.

Competitive pay and benefits are in the labor market and attract quality applicants, Nowlin said.

Drug trafficking designation needed

To combat the illegal drug trade, Nowlin wants the county to be designated as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area under the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In Colorado, 14 counties, including La Plata County, qualify for the designation, which provides federal resources and pays for additional officers to combat drug trafficking.

Cortez has become a hub for opioid, fentanyl and heroin distribution, which in part are supplied by the Mexican drug cartels, Nowlin said.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, in 2021, the Montezuma Cortez Narcotics Investigation team confiscated 106,587 fentanyl pills, 13 pounds of meth, 2.2 pounds of heroin and 96 pounds of prescription medications.

As part of its drug trafficking investigations, the Sheriff’s Office seized 11 vehicles, 18 sticks of TNT, 22 guns, 5,351 rounds of ammunition and $65,460 in cash.

“With a HIDA designation, it would be easier to bring in DEA, federal and state resources to assist the Cortez PD and the Sheriff’s Office,” Nowlin said.

Nowlin said he plans to add another narcotics detective and intelligence analyst to the drug task force.

School resources officers needed

Expanding the school resource officer program also is a goal for Nowlin. The program assigns a certified peace officer to cover the schools and work with students, teachers and staff.

Only the Dolores Re-4A school district in Montezuma County has a SRO, which is provided by the Sheriff’s Office.

Nowlin said he is seeking two SRO positions for the Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1, including one officer for Cortez schools and one that would for Pleasant View, Lewis-Arriola and Battle Rock schools.

More jail medical services

Expanded medical service will begin at the jail in December as part of a new state law.

The Montezuma County Detention Center has seen six deaths of inmates in the past nine years, according to a recent lawsuit.

In July, a family sued Montezuma County and Southwest Health System in civil court, alleging that Kelroy Newman death on July 18,2021 last was because of negligent care while he was in custody by the Montezuma County Detention Center.

Nowlin said he could not speak about the specific case, citing the ongoing litigation.

He said a new medical provider, Southern Health Partners, will provide medical care for detention center inmates seven days per week, up from the current five days per week provided by one registered nurse on staff.

The expanded coverage is required starting in 2023 as part of recently passed Colorado jail reform bill, Nowlin said.

The 2023 contract with Southern Health Partners is $276,000.

The reform bill requires nursing staff seven days per week. Currently, the jail staffs a registered nurse Monday through Friday during a daytime shift.

Newman Newman, 30, died July 18, a Sunday, after being arrested the previous day on a bench warrant in Veterans Park in Cortez, police said.

His blood alcohol test at the jail registered 0.421, according to Cortez Police Chief Vern Knuckles.

Based on jail policy for highly intoxicated inmates, Newman was transported to Southwest Memorial Hospital, where he was medically cleared to return to the jail.

Newman was checked on by jail staff through the night, and was served breakfast the next morning. He was later found unresponsive in his cell and was taken to Southwest Memorial Hospital, where he died, according to Nowlin, but the lawsuit claims he died at the jail.

Additional plans

Other priorities for Nowlin are to expand mental health services for inmates, continue officer training programs that go beyond state requirements, and staffing an agricultural officer to mitigate water disputes that are becoming more common during the drought.

The Sheriff’s Office was recently awarded a $70,000 grant from the Department of Justice for a virtual training system. The computer video program puts officers through law enforcement scenarios to train on proper use of force, communication and decision-making.

Nowlin added the mounted patrol program will continue. He said expanding the jail is not practical. A detox center is needed for the county, he said, but stable, long-term funding and a location for the program have not been identified.