Routt County Prior to Routt County Sheriff John Warner's decision to stop taking "detox holds" in the county jail, he scheduled two meetings with other law enforcement agencies to discuss his concerns. No one showed up.
Colleagues from the Colorado State Patrol and the Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Oak Creek police departments were invited to discuss Warner's concern about holding in the county jail intoxicated people who had not committed crimes.
"I wanted to sit down and resolve this issue," Warner said. "I wanted for them to come to the table and fix the problem. They did not show up."
Officials from the Yampa Valley Medical Center and Steamboat Mental Health were also invited to the meetings and did attend, Warner said.
With no input from the other agencies, Warner notified the State Patrol and the police departments earlier this month that he was changing jail policy.
Starting Oct. 1, the agencies are not allowed to bring intoxicated people who are not suspected in crimes to the jail for the sole purpose of sobering up in protective custody.
"It was a hard decision to make," Warner said. "But I had to make it. The decision was made solely to protect the county's liability. We can no longer accept the sole responsibility of taking care of these people. We need help."
Warner emphasized that the jail will continue to hold people suspected of committing a crime, whether they are intoxicated or not, he said.
However, if a criminal suspect appears to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the sheriff's office may require the arresting agency to have the suspect medically cleared before being booked into the jail, he said.
Warner said he is working closely with Steamboat Mental Health to arrange a meeting with the arresting agencies to discuss what can be done with intoxicated people that need to be taken to detoxification or medical centers.
Currently, Routt County does not have a detoxification center. The closest ones are in Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction.
Steamboat Mental Health Director Tom Gangel believes Warner's policy could pose some problems.
"A hospital, a jail and the mental health center are not the best places for these people," he said. "There is no efficient way in the county to deal with this. If we had our way, we would have a detox center funded here."
Gangel understands Warner's decision.
"The sheriff's office is not in the position to handle these types of people," he said. "They have a high risk to do so."
The are numerous reasons why the sheriff's office has made this decision, Warner said. The death of an inmate last August is not one of them, though, he said. Christian Morgan Ladd, 25, of Oak Creek died in the jail. He had attempted suicide by drinking antifreeze before he was taken into custody.
"That case has nothing to do with this," Warner said. "In that case, the person had been treated medically."
Due to possible litigation, Warner could not comment further about Ladd's case, he said.
A major reason for the policy change is state statutes. The jail is not legally obligated to accept the non-criminal detox holds, he said.
Along with the statutory backing, Warner also made the decision based on medical expenses, staffing and the level of medical training deputies have at the jail.
Holding a person in jail while they are intoxicated is expensive for the sheriff's office if the person needs medical attention, Undersheriff Dan Taylor said.
On Monday, for example, the sheriff's office received an ambulance bill for a 48-year-old man who had to be transported from the county jail to the hospital on Sept. 12. The man had been brought in to sober up at the jail.
"We can't afford this," Taylor said holding up the bill for $600. "This man should have never been brought here. A jail is not the appropriate place for an intoxicated person who has not committed a crime.
"If 15 to 20 intoxicated people a year need medical attention, that could cost us as much as $80,000."
Said Warner, "I was elected to see that taxpayer money is spent wisely. I can't justify to taxpayers of spending money on people that should be taken to a medical facility."
Manpower at the jail is another reason for Warner's decision.
This year, almost 50 intoxicated people have been brought in to sober up, said Lt. Fred Johnston, who is in charge of the jail.
"This is not a personal vendetta," Johnston said. "This is problem we have identified."
Currently, the sheriff's office is down four deputies. The staffing shortage means Johnston sometimes has to call deputies off the road to help monitor the jail, he said.
"An intoxicated person needs more care than we can give them," he said. "We are not being responsible as human beings, if we accept to take care of someone we are not able to do so. The liability is great. We are liable for anyone we accept in here. We are responsible to take care of anyone in here."
Johnston worries that intoxicated people could hurt themselves in a cell.
Another reason for the policy change is the level of medical training deputies have.
"We have no ability or medical expertise to ensure that an intoxicated person is going to be physically intact in a couple of hours," Taylor said. "If anything is going on with that person, we don't know because we are not medically trained.
"In the past, we have been accepting the liability without having these people being treated and cleared by a medical doctor that they are OK to be in jail."
One instance that concerns the Sheriff's Office is properly taking care of a person who is "detoxifying" while in a jail cell.
"Some people are use to having an alcohol level in their body that they can't function appropriately when they start to sober up," Taylor said. "These people experience tremors and sometime hallucinate."
Said Johnston, "I have seen people trying to climb the walls of a jail cell because they are seeing an animal chasing them. That person requires constant supervision. We don't have the expertise or staff to deal with that type of person."
Warner is hopeful that a meeting can be scheduled soon for all parties interested in this issue.
"This is not a law enforcement problem" he said. "This is a social problem. Everyone in the community needs to come together to address this."
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