Q & A with Garrett Wiggins, Republican incumbent for Routt County sheriff
Bio: Garrett Wiggins is the elected sheriff of Routt County and has served in that capacity for the past eight years. Wiggins began his law enforcement career at the very young age of 19, in Quincy, Florida, and, at that time, he was the youngest public safety officer the city had ever hired.
“I was a teenager right out of high school, very young and stubbornly independent,” Wiggins said. “Having no experience, I took an unlikely gamble and applied for a public safety officer position and the agency went out on a limb and hired me. Looking back, they were the one taking the gamble.” That was over 30 years ago.
After graduating from the law enforcement academy, he worked his way up through the ranks. Wiggins said serving as the elected sheriff is the highlight and most honorable position of his career. He is also a dedicated family man — a husband, father, son, brother and Christian. Garrett has been married to his wife, Melinda, for over 26 years, and together, they are the parents of Cutter and Cody, who were both born in Steamboat Springs. The Wiggins are natural-born outdoor enthusiasts. They live on a small ranch near Stagecoach, enjoying their horses, dogs and other critters, as well as their many hobbies. Wiggins has prioritized school safety as sheriff and he said he wants to make sure kids can be kids, which means keeping schools safe. He also knows that public safety takes law enforcement and the public working together, and he firmly believes that collaboration is the key to success.
Q. Are there any major changes in the Routt County Sheriff’s Office that you plan to implement in the next four years?
A. After being elected Routt County sheriff in 2010, the Routt County Sheriff’s Office has made many positive changes. They changed the report management system in order to become more efficient operationally, have immediate access to important information, and file reports from anywhere. The Sheriff’s Office implemented the School Site Safety Assessment Team to increasing the safety of school campuses and childcare facilities. To address the opioid epidemic, the Sheriff’s Office joined the Rx Task Force and adopted the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative. The Sheriff’s Office implemented programs for inmates inside the jail in order to reduce recidivism rates, including AA, NA, GED training, the Fatherhood program, religious studies and more. A state-of-the-art training facility was built so that all law enforcement agencies in the area would have access to quality training. The next major change taking place in 2019 is the completion of the Combined Law Enforcement Facility, which will more productively allow officers of different offices to work together more efficiently and effectively.
Q: What do you consider the single biggest criminal issue in Routt County, and what would you do to deter it?
A. Evidence indicates that a very high percentage of most crimes committed in Routt County have a direct correlation to alcohol, drugs and mental illness, or a combination of the three. We live in a time where over-consumption of alcohol and drugs are not uncommon and may even be a normal lifestyle for some people. To combat this problem, the Sheriff’s Office should be more proactive in public awareness programs addressing this issue. The Rx Task Force is an organization the Sheriff’s Office has teamed with and is an excellent example of a public awareness group that has experienced success in raising awareness of Routt County’s drug and alcohol abuse problem. Citizen-motivated groups like the Rx Task Force leading these types of efforts, with government agencies as participating members, experience greater success than government-led programs. Mental illness is another major factor affecting crime rates in Routt County. Routt County is experiencing more criminal activity committed by people with obvious and apparent mental illness. Mental health resources in Routt County are very limited, and the costs for mental health services are already high and still increasing. The Sheriff’s Office has and will continue strongly support mental health organizations and their attempts to secure better access to and more affordable, mental health services.
Q. School safety is a big issue for our communities. How do you propose to make Routt County schools safer?
A. In 2012, the Sheriff’s Office developed the School Site Safety Assessment Team, with the goal of providing direction for improving school safety. I have met with school leaders, parents, students and others to discuss ideas to increase school safety. It is apparent some individuals intentionally turn the topic into a political debate, achieving nothing but dissension. As sheriff and a father, I believe the best way to address school safety is through non-political collaboration between school staff, law enforcement, parents, students and mental health professionals. Every school is unique, and there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Keeping schools safe requires community collaboration and a team effort. Communities need people involved who have a desire to address the issue, evaluate the facts — not opinions — consider all options, and most importantly, people who are willing to leave their political opinions at home. Nothing is more important than the safety of our children. The community owes it to our children to work together as a team to find out why these horrific acts happen and what we can do to stop them. As your sheriff, school safety will be my top priority, and I will continue leading efforts to keep our children safe.
Q. In your opinion, how has the legalization of recreational marijuana affected Routt County?
A. Overall, Routt County has not seen a substantial increase in crime due to the legalizing of recreational marijuana. The most disturbing incident was homicide related directly to the marijuana industry. Another very disturbing consequence is evidence from studies that indicate marijuana use by youth has increased and continues to rise. The Sheriff’s Office received more than usual complaints regarding public consumption and complaints regarding odors emanating from grow operations. Complaints about suspected illegal marijuana grow operations being operated out of residential areas were on the increase at first but seem to be reducing. We have assisted several investigations of illegal marijuana grow operations located on National Forest lands where the damages to the environment from litter, fertilizer and chemicals were substantial.
Q. What are the top three challenges faced by the Routt County Sheriff’s Office?
A. The most challenging issue currently is hiring qualified employees to fill positions. Negative publicity the law enforcement profession received recently is one contributing factor to the decline in the profession. This, combined with an average salary, high cost of living and housing shortage, means that it is difficult for officers who would like to relocate to Routt County. Secondly, school safety concerns in recent years have resulted in a request for increased presence for law enforcement in schools. Staffing these requested positions is a significant challenge for several reasons and will require the community and Sheriff’s Office to work together to develop alternative options. I have had previous conversations with stakeholders and I have future plans to continue these discussions to search for possible solutions. Lastly, mental illness and substance abuse have created a significant increase in officer calls and transports throughout the state resulting in staffing and budget issues. Mental health resources are limited in the area, making access for individuals in need of services a problem. Routt County does not have a certified detox program and operating a detox facility from the confines of the jail is not optimal.
Q. As a follow-up, how do you plan to address those challenges?
A. To attract quality applicants, I have been investigating incentives to attract future applicants. I am working with Routt County commissioners to discuss salary surveys, pay plans and out-of-the-box ideas to assure we are a competitive employer. School Safety will require a joint effort as it is a multifaceted problem. There is not a simple or inexpensive solution to keeping our schools safe, and it will require a working team of stakeholders who are willing to: A) study the proven facts and eliminate personal opinions, B) consider all available options, C) leave politics out and refrain from turning the issue into a political debate, and D) make the difficult or unpopular decisions that will effectively address this problem. I am currently working on a plan to assemble a team of professional stakeholders specifically for this purpose. Mental health demands are expensive and on the increase. I am investigating possibilities to provide these services, including contracting with local, licensed clinicians. Our detox program that is currently being operated from the jail will soon come to an end. A new plan is under development to operate a detox facility outside of the jail and will soon be implemented.
Q. What is your philosophy of policing?
A. My philosophy of policing is simple and revolves around one word — safety. With experience, comes knowledge, and with knowledge, there is effective and wise direction. With approximately 30 years of experience, I know law enforcement’s ability to maintain public safety is contingent upon the relationship with the communities they serve. In many cases, citizens are in fact the eyes and ears for law enforcement. The direction I have given my staff is that policing is not always black and white, and that discretion in officers’ decision making is, in most scenarios, encouraged and beneficial. Deputies under my leadership are encouraged to use appropriate discretion in order to reach the best outcome. Our policies state that every person be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of the situation. I encourage warnings, when appropriate, and firm action for intentional or blatant criminal acts and disregard of our laws. As a citizen and as the sheriff, I understand that we are public servants, performing a difficult and sometimes dangerous job, but we are also part of the community and that we must treat others with dignity, respect and fairness.
Q. As sheriff, you have to work with other agencies. Do you think you have established good working relationships with other departments and agencies or is there room for improvement?
A. Currently, I would rate the relationship between all our local agencies as “excellent.” Never before have I witnessed the level of cooperation and willingness to assist one another as we currently have achieved. This comes from excellent leadership in all our agencies. We of course do not always have complete agreement or share the same views, but we do all understand that we are being asked to do more with less and that we depend on each other to achieve success and that working together is far more effective and necessary than working alone. Many of our agencies have entered into MOUs, IGAs and other such agreements, in order to provide the best services possible, while, at the same time, reduce costs. Collaboration is the key to successful relationships and results. Examples of great relationships and collaboration are the current combined law enforcement facility project between Routt County and the city of Steamboat Springs, which will result in a true integration of the two agencies. The county also built the first law enforcement training facility in Routt County and now quality training classes are jointly sponsored and attended by our surrounding agencies. Our agencies may wear different uniforms and have different areas of responsibility, but we are, in fact, one team.
Q. How do you think the new combined law enforcement facility will affect the way the sheriff’s office operates?
A. One very valuable effect will be the benefit to the public, which was one of our main goals with the combined law enforcement facility. Having Routt County sheriffs and Steamboat Springs officers located together will certainly benefit our citizens, who will have direct access to both agencies, the DA’s office, courts and other government facilities with just one stop. With regard to how it will affect the Sheriff’s Office, I predict that the working relationship between the two agencies will become more effective, due to the fact that all of our deputies and officers will be under one roof, maximizing efficiency and collaboration. It will obviously improve and increase inter-agency communication and the sharing of information between agencies, as well as the development of personal relationships. The administrations will have the ability to bounce ideas and programs off of each other more freely and productively to solving area safety and criminal issues. Staff members will likely have more face-to-face conversations, in lieu of making a phone call, which can help reduce misunderstandings or miscommunication. In short, the overall effect of the combined law enforcement facility will be a very positive one.
Q. Opioid abuse is a national epidemic and Routt County is not immune from the problem. What can the sheriff’s office do to address this issue?
A. Several years ago, we joined the Rx Task Force as a participating to help address the opioid epidemic. Additionally, I adopted the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative. The purpose was to provide a mechanism for people addicted to opiates to seek help through the Sheriff’s Office without fear of facing criminal charges. Our goal is to help people recover from their addiction and reduce recidivism. If we are successful, this should help reduce Routt County crime rates and overdose deaths and benefit overall community safety. Law enforcement is significantly affected by the opioid abuse problem in many ways, and as your sheriff, I will continue working with our community, state and federal governments and agencies to help find programs that will effectively overcome this life- and family-destroying problem.
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