Stagecoach When Garrett Wiggins was sworn in as Routt County sheriff Jan. 11, an immediate inventory of the evidence room would help set the tone for how his administration would be run.
When the inventory was complete, it was discovered that $300 to $400 was missing, and a bag containing a white powdery substance from an old case had been opened and the powder was gone. The powder could have been sent to a lab for testing, but there was no documentation to show that is what happened. As for the cash, who knows.
The way evidence is handled can determine whether criminals are sent to prison or set free, Wiggins said, so he assigned someone to address how evidence is processed and to modernize the room.
“It was nobody’s baby,” Wiggins said. “It was just there.”
Wiggins and his undersheriff, former Hayden Police Chief Ray Birch, said they have been putting in 60- to 70-hour workweeks since taking office.
“Basically we’re starting from the ground up,” Wiggins said. “It’s like building a new agency.”
Putting policy to paper
Improperly handling evidence can lead to cases getting thrown out of court. The same thing can happen if deputies do not follow the laws and policies that are in place to guide them.
“We can’t figure out what is a current manual,” Wiggins said. “There are like five different manuals here.”
Wiggins and Birch said they are undertaking a huge task in updating and documenting department policies. Birch said the job took him 14 months in Hayden.
The plan is to enlist the help of a company to create a new policy manual. The 49 employees then would need to be taught the policies, which is an ongoing process that would require deputies to test their knowledge daily through online quizzes.
“Writing policy is a huge issue in law enforcement,” Wiggins said. “It’s very important that you are accurate and it’s lawful.”
Some policies already have been changed, such as the one put in place by former Sheriff Gary Wall that allowed deputies to use their patrol vehicles for personal purposes. Wall said that would allow the agency to have an increased presence in the community. Wiggins called the policy very liberal and said he made it clear when he took office that using the vehicles for personal purposes was no longer allowed.
“They could use their vehicle to take someone on a date,” Wiggins said. “They would use their vehicle for personal business.”
When Wiggins entered the office, it nearly was fully staffed, and it mostly has remained that way.
Wiggins brought in Kim Gittleson to replace Michelle Kuntz as his administrative assistant, and Sgt. Miles DeYoung left to take a position in Woodland Park, Wiggins said.
With DeYoung leaving and an existing vacant deputy position, Wiggins and Birch have decided to create two corporal positions that would rank between a patrol deputy and sergeant.
The jail detention side of the Routt County Sheriff’s Office also is going to see changes. Birch now oversees the jail, but a promotion process is under way to hire a jail lieutenant.
“It’s very important to get that promotion filled,” Wiggins said.
Wiggins and Birch hope the changes bring unity to the command — a unity they say was nonexistent in the detention and patrol/investigations units.
“There was absolutely no structure,” Birch said. “I’ll just say this: very little accountability and procedure.”
Critics of Wall have said he did not play well with others outside his agency.
“When Sheriff Wall became sheriff, there was — forgive the pun — more of a wall put up between the commissioners and the Sheriff’s Office,” Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said.
Wiggins has been a welcome change, Stahoviak said.
“He’s communicating a lot with the commissioners, the county manager and the other departments,” she said. “I think we’ll have a sheriff’s department that we’ll be proud of.”
Other law enforcement officials have been pleased with Wiggins’ efforts.
“It’s nice to have a sheriff that’s more law-enforcement-oriented,” said Steamboat Springs Police Chief JD Hays, who supported Wiggins during the campaign.
Hays said he’s glad that Wiggins is looking at ways of being more active in the schools. The decision to rejoin the multi-agency All Crimes Enforcement Team has been a positive move, as well, Hays said. Steamboat police and the Sheriff’s Office also are creating a joint tactical team to respond to major incidents.
When Wiggins entered office, he became part of an existing lawsuit between the Sheriff’s Office and Routt County.
Wall had obtained legal counsel outside of the county’s, and the county refused to pay the bills. The Law Offices of Ralph A. Cantafio wanted to be paid close to $17,000 in legal bills. Lawsuits were exchanged and since have been dismissed. The county settled the case for $10,000, County Attorney John Merrill said.
“It kind of cleared the deck for a more cooperative relationship between the board and the sheriff,” Merrill said.
To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com