While representing different parties, candidates for Routt County sheriff share common ground

Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins, left, and Undersheriff Doug Scherar have worked together for about 20 years, and say that despite the campaign, there's no animosity between them.
Matt Stensland/Steamboat Pilot & Today archive

Both candidates in the Routt County sheriff’s race agree their campaigns have been modest and free of controversy.

While they can find common ground on that and many other issues, their opinions differ on a few topics, such as the criminal justice reforms recently passed by the state.

Republican candidate and incumbent Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins has worked alongside his Democratic challenger, Undersheriff Doug Scherar, for 20 years and even recommended that he run for sheriff about a year ago.

“There’s been times when he was my boss, and there’s been times when I’ve been his boss,” Wiggins said. “We just want to provide the best services we can to the citizens of Routt County.”

Wiggins is running for his fourth term, having served as sheriff for the previous 12 years. He said this will be the last time he runs for the office as he sees retirement on the horizon.

Meanwhile, this is Scherar’s first attempt for election after having served in law enforcement in Routt County for about 27 years. 

“All my training, all my experience has been earned here in Routt County, so I owe it to the community to give them back that experience,” Scherar said.

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Both candidates said that providing mental health services is a high priority. Wiggins assigned Scherar to manage resources given by the state to improve mental health treatment within the sheriff’s office, which currently partners with Mind Springs in a mobile crisis response partnership.

“What’s been very successful throughout Colorado and throughout the nation, for that matter, is co-responder programs if they’re done the right way,” Scherar said. “What works great for one community may not work great for another, but my vision for a good robust co-responder program is partnering a law enforcement officer with a mental health professional and going through those calls for service where somebody is in crisis and determining the best course of action for that person.”

“Sometimes people find themselves in the criminal justice system, and that’s one of the only places they can get treatment,” Wiggins said. “I started some 36 years ago in this profession, and that we provided, but it’s getting more and more important, and the funding from the state is helping us to be able to provide those services while people are incarcerated.”

Both candidates also support substance abuse treatment within the detention center and said they have seen success with it so far.

“It’s through grants that we can hire a specialist to come in and help people who are addicted to opioids or people who are addicted to various different kinds of drugs,” Wiggins said. “It would really be nice if the federal or state governments could come up with programs that would identify these people who are at risk and try to get them help before they enter the criminal justice system. It would make our jobs a whole lot easier, and it would help unclog the criminal justice system as well.”

“There’s the medical-assisted treatment program where people who are addicted to some type of opiates can receive suboxone while they’re in jail, so they’re not just in there cold-turkey detoxing,” Scherar said. “But it’s not a fix-all. It’s going to take a community effort to help us address the opioid crisis — getting information out there, talking to your kids, making them aware of how dangerous this is.”

Where the two candidates differ the most is likely on the recently passed criminal justice reforms. 

Various changes to the pretrial process have been enacted across the country, most of which reduce the time inmates are held before posting bail. A recently passed bill in Colorado guarantees inmates a bond hearing within 48 hours of their arrest.

Both candidates agree with the mandate requiring officers and deputies to wear body cameras. However, another criminal justice reform enacted in Colorado in January is a bill that prohibits law enforcement from recommending medical staff to administer ketamine as a sedative. That bill came up in response to the death of Elijah McClain in Aurora, who was forcibly injected with the drug, suffered a heart attack soon after and was declared brain dead three days later.

Both Wiggins and Scherar also agree that recruitment and retention of staff is a high priority for the sheriff’s office. Scherar said a recent pay raise has helped make the job more appealing to applicants.

“They gave us a pretty significant bump in pay, but pay is not everything,” Scherar said. “You need to provide a good working environment, providing the deputies with the training that they need to do the job properly.”

However, Wiggins said he thinks national trends are still stifling the hiring process.

“Because of the (news) coverage that we received in the last probably five years, it’s made our ability to recruit young people and try to get people interested in becoming law enforcement officials,” Wiggins said.

Both candidates agree that Steamboat’s high cost of living and limited housing options have made retaining and recruiting staff a challenge.

“One of the things we did to address that is we allowed deputies to reside in Moffat County, in Craig, and take their cars home from there,” said Scherar, who explained that taking work vehicles home outside the county wasn’t allowed until recently. “It’s more affordable to buy a house in Craig than it is anywhere in Routt County.”

“We really try to focus a lot of our attention on people who are already established here in Routt County,” Wiggins said. “It makes it a little bit easier to recruit those kinds of people that are already established.”

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