Deputy John Watts turns onto a gravel driveway in Ellicott. He's here to meet with the property manager of a mobile-home park, the victim, he says, of felony criminal menacing.
It started as an investigation into possible stolen property. Unhappy about that investigation, and her ensuing eviction, the suspect allegedly went on a tear, leaving broken doors and a busted air conditioner in her wake.
Inspecting the suspect's former residence on this Thursday afternoon, Watts finds the refrigerator toppled, lying face-down with the door splayed open. Not satisfied, apparently, the suspect went into a neighboring mobile home and sent that refrigerator tumbling into a wall.
The property manager says the suspect is a small woman, but frightening. She's worried about further retaliation, and her grown son has urged her, unsuccessfully, to move into the city.
After all, she says, "If we have an emergency out here, we know that the sheriff is 20 to 30 minutes away."
Watts, a 27-year-old El Paso County native, belongs to the Crime Reduction Unit of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. At any given time, he'll be juggling seven to 10 long-term cases, though his primary function is to provide backup for patrol deputies.
He's assigned to District 4, a span of dirt roads, fields and highways east of Marksheffel Road and north of Colorado Highway 94. Having grown up out here, it's a good assignment for Watts.
From Ellicott, he drives farther into the plains, responding to a call about a runaway teen. From there, it's off to service a warrant outside of Falcon, then to Cimarron Hills to look for a rowdy, long-haired teenager in skinny jeans. In about two hours, he clocks 100 miles.
Driving back through Falcon, Watts points out that once he leaves the area, this unincorporated exurb of 10,000 or so people will have no immediate police protection. The only patrol deputy assigned to District 4 is busy with a call on the county outskirts.
According to Sgt. Joseph Roybal, eight deputies are on patrol duty this afternoon, covering the eight districts of unincorporated El Paso County. It could be worse. "There are multiple times when there are only seven deputies," he says.
This is a problem, says Sheriff Terry Maketa.
In November, county voters will be asked to support a $16 million tax increase for areas of Maketa's operational budget that he says are critically underfunded. He points to a staffing study conducted by the National Sheriff's Association back in 2006 that called for him to hire 40 more deputies within three years. Today, his deputy numbers remain unchanged. And the deputies he does have are still doing administrative work in off-hours, which the study's authors disliked.
"They said that our guys were doing reports on their own time, which subjects us to the liability of being sanctioned by the Department of Labor because we aren't compensating them for those hours," Maketa says. "And their point was accurate."
According to information Maketa gave county commissioners, 105 patrol deputies serve a population of 168,000. That's one deputy for every 1,600 people. In Douglas County, it's one deputy for every 1,293 people; in Jefferson County, one for 904 people; and in Adams County, one for 695 people.
Even opponents of the tax increase, including Sean Paige of Americans for Prosperity and Commissioner Darryl Glenn, agree that the sheriff's office could use the money. But as Glenn puts it, "I don't think that the community can absorb a tax increase right now. There's only so much tax capacity out in the community."
Maketa emphasizes that this is a matter of public safety.
"If I send a deputy to a crime in progress, a burglary, I need to send two deputies," he says. "And the response times are so spread out, that if he gets there and he encounters a hostile situation, his help is 20 or 30 minutes away."
Last year, a deputy's tussle with a Calhan man ended with shots fired. The deputy had responded without backup to a possible trespassing call.
Long way from nowhere
After a brief high-speed pursuit, Watts flips his lights off and pulls over. The suspect was driving erratically on a busy stretch of Powers Boulevard.
"It's just not worth it to get someone hurt," says Watts. "He'll get caught eventually."
While he's idling, a call comes in of a possible theft out in Ellicott. Watts responds.
Another deputy gets there quicker, and waits for him on the side of the road near the incident site.
It's nearly 30 minutes before the two pull into the field where four men are trying to cut an abandoned trailer into pieces. The property is bank-owned, and Watts suspects they're thieves who sell stolen metal.
Watts recognizes one of the men quickly: "I've been chasing you for the last two months," he says.
"Why you been chasing me?" the man asks.
"Because you've been stealing cars. I got people ratting on you."
Watts handcuffs him. The three other men stand around smoking cigarettes, watching, as the two deputies investigate the scene.
Driving back to the Springs, Watts says in the city, police would have sent five cars to that call. It can be a little unnerving, he admits, working out here by yourself. In five-plus years, he's experienced a number of close calls.
"By the time your cover gets out here," he says, "you either have the guy in handcuffs or the fight is on."
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