July 15, 2010 News » Cover Story

Sheriff showdown 

Candidates duel in the first Republican primary for county sheriff in 16 years

After El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa announced Jan. 20 that he wouldn't seek a third term, Monument Police Chief Jake Shirk invited him to lunch.

"I asked him, 'Why aren't you running again?' And he said, 'I lost the fire. I lost the fire in my belly,'" Shirk recounts.

Shirk soon became a candidate, but on Feb. 2 Maketa rejoined the race. (Around the same time, a third candidate, former sheriff's lieutenant Todd Evans, dropped out due to a re-emergence of cancer.)

Two months later, Shirk — a relative unknown — chalked up 44 percent of the vote at the Republican County Assembly, stunning Maketa supporters who expected the sheriff to capture 80 percent and bump Shirk from the Aug. 10 primary ballot.

Now, as the race enters its final weeks (with mail ballots going out Monday), Shirk and Maketa are scrapping for the $111,000-a-year job in the first Republican primary for sheriff here since John Anderson defeated Bill Barrett in 1994. That was an acrimonious matchup in which qualifications and integrity were decisive; Barrett fudged his résumé and misstated his military record.

The Maketa-Shirk race focuses on qualifications, operational philosophy and tactical political jabs.

Maketa suggested in an April fund-raising letter that Shirk, a 35-year law enforcement veteran with a master's degree, was ignorant and inexperienced. Maketa, who's taken college classes but doesn't yet have a degree, has spent 23 years as a lawman, all at the sheriff's office. He was reportedly hand-picked to run for sheriff in 2002 by his predecessor, Anderson, who now won't endorse him.

"It's a series of issues and disappointments, not any one thing," Anderson insists.

On June 9, Maketa's campaign issued a press release saying Shirk's candidacy "may be in question, due to his alleged violation of FEDERAL LAW [emphasis theirs] concerning various provisions of the Hatch Act," which restricts some local officials from seeking public office. Shirk says he's confident that the investigation, triggered by a complaint from a person federal authorities won't identify, will conclude in his favor.

Meantime, the sheriff has shied from Shirk's challenge to four debates. Before agreeing to one July 20, Maketa said it would be hard to find time to debate between campaigning and running a department of 630 people, noting that Shirk oversees a force of only 14. (Shirk and the Monument Police Department website state that the force actually numbers 20.)

Maketa's campaign manager, Wendy Habert, has denied the Independent's request for an interview, saying the newspaper has been biased in its previous coverage. Besides reporting on Maketa's campaign tactics, the Independent has documented questionable decisions related to personnel, including: keeping a detective on the payroll, in a jail position, even as he's faced felony charges related to a drunken gun-waving episode in Douglas County; promoting a dispatcher who poses nude off-duty with the department's permission and who's earned an Internal Affairs-related reprimand; and promoting a budget analyst and giving her a 49 percent raise within five months of hiring her. The Independent has also committed two errors of fact, both of which reflected negatively on Maketa, on our blog.

So Maketa's quotes in this story are drawn from a candidate forum and past statements.

On the stump

Maketa, 45, says he's built a nationally recognized, "world-class" department that's visited by other agencies seeking a role model.

Shirk commends the department for being populated with first-class people but argues that Maketa, who never was a patrol deputy, has shortchanged street duty, assigning just six to eight patrol officers per shift to cover the county's 1,600 square miles of unincorporated area.

Ostensibly to emphasize in-the-trenches experience, Shirk notes in an interview he's been injured 13 times on the job, working the streets as a SWAT commander, patrol officer and detective, once facing a perpetrator with boxcutters.

"I've had guns pointed at me," he says. "I've been in many fights with high, doped-up people who didn't care if they lived or died. I've disarmed people with guns and knives. I've done it. I've faced life-and-death decisions as a commander and as a street officer."

He also notes he's won endorsements from most small-town police chiefs in the county because those agencies, including his, have repeatedly sent officers to cover calls outside their jurisdictions when sheriff's deputies couldn't get there.

"I'm committed to keeping deputies and citizens safe," he says, vowing to scour the department from top to bottom to find a way to beef up patrols.

Maketa counters that response times have improved, despite successive budget cuts. Data provided by his office show that deputies got to emergency calls in an average of 14 minutes in 2004. In densely populated areas, it took them just under 11 minutes, while in rural areas it took them 25 minutes.

So far this year, response times average 12 minutes, 20 seconds, while responses in densely populated areas are two minutes faster than in 2004 and five minutes faster in rural areas. Maketa also has said through a spokeswoman that he plans to hire 20 more deputies by year's end, though he hasn't provided details.

Shirk pledges never to promote a tax increase and to post online detailed monthly spending reports, unlike current practice.

Maketa notes that he supported a $75 million sales tax increase after a citizens group asked county commissioners to place it on the 2008 ballot. And he points out that Shirk's budget isn't posted anywhere on Monument's website. That, Shirk explains, is because the town's website is controlled by the town manager to whom he reports, not Shirk himself. He says he's asked for it to be posted, but the decision was to only post the annual audit.

Guns blazing

When it comes to gun control, Maketa supports citizens' right to carry concealed weapons and has won the endorsement of the Pikes Peak Firearms Coalition. Shirk goes further, saying he'll "lead the fight for open-carry."

"I want everyone who wants, to own a gun," says Shirk, who packs a Glock .40-caliber semi-automatic under his suit jacket. Even automatic weapons? "If people want to own automatic weapons, please do."

Both support a crackdown on immigration, with Shirk approving of Arizona's controversial new law that allows officers to demand residents produce citizenship papers if the officers suspect they're in the country illegally.

Maketa touts his agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold illegal immigrants in the county jail and a program he's participating in where inmate fingerprints are shared with the FBI, Border Patrol and ICE.

They have different views on medical marijuana. Maketa says dispensaries "are here to stay," and that it's his job to enforce the law, not shape it. He's not opposed to medical marijuana philosophically. "If it improves the person's quality of life, who am I to say they shouldn't have access to it?" he asks.

Shirk says his police officers have found teenagers in possession of medical marijuana and suspects so-called patients are reselling their so-called prescriptions to others. "I think we're way out of control," he says. He adds, "I think we've stepped way over what the people ever intended" when voters adopted Amendment 20 in 2000, and supports a ballot measure to let voters ban dispensaries if they choose.

Glowing reports

Maketa is a 1983 graduate of Widefield High who worked in auto body shops and as a truck driver, and also briefly attended Blair Junior College. He was hired in 1987 as a detention deputy in the jail, where he worked his way up to sergeant in 1993. Assigned to Internal Affairs of the Professional Standards division, he was promoted to lieutenant in 1996. Within a year he was bumped to captain in administration, and in 1998 was named commander in support services. He later served as Anderson's undersheriff.

In performance evaluations, his supervisors have described him as "a total self-starter," "resourceful" and "a natural leader."

With term limits barring Anderson from seeking a third term, Maketa sailed to victory in 2002 and again in 2006 — the same year voters approved a measure relaxing limits for the sheriff by allowing one additional four-year term.

Being the first sheriff to come up through the department's ranks gives him a special understanding of duties of employees at all levels, says Teri Goodall, who served as Maketa's undersheriff and now is retired.

"Terry never forgot what it was like to be a deputy without good workable equipment, supervisory support and an office you could be proud to work for," she says. "Terry does everything he can to improve the above-mentioned areas for the employees."

As sheriff, Maketa has created several special units and taken steps to make the jail more efficient. He set up video visitation; imposed fingerprint identification for inmates' use of phones so that threats to victims can be prosecuted; revamped bail procedures for those charged with misdemeanors; and worked a deal with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has paid the county millions for housing illegal immigrants — money he used to construct a detox center in 2009 after Pikes Peak Behavioral Health Group shut its facility.

Goodall notes Maketa's ideas have saved taxpayers thousands of dollars, perhaps millions.

First, she says, he slashed the price of a concealed handgun permit to reflect actual costs. He also lobbied for a new law that exempts the county from providing medical services for inmates with pre-existing conditions, and he housed inmates temporarily in the county's evidence building (pending jail expansion), rather than pay more than $1 million to transfer them to an out-of-county facility, she says.

He serves on national boards and is embraced by the gun lobby for continuing Anderson's concealed firearms program. Maketa has issued concealed-carry permits to 15,321 people in El Paso County.

Between 2000 and 2009, during which time the population in unincorporated El Paso County grew by 59.5 percent, murders, sex assaults, aggravated assaults, thefts and cases of vandalism dropped in number, though robberies and burglaries increased. In the jail, incidents of violence among inmates and against deputies have plunged from 262 in 2005 to 58 so far this year.

Shirk, too, has scored well on performance evaluations. He started at the Aurora Police Department in the late 1970s and earned a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice and criminology from Metropolitan State College in 1987, then a Master of Arts in management from the University of Phoenix in 1991. He worked his way to captain and oversaw 200-plus employees before retiring in 2005, and has been Monument's police chief since then.

He served as a commander in Aurora's dispatch, detentions, investigations, SWAT and patrol divisions, and also trained officers at the academy in supervision, WMD and problem-solving. "I've done just about everything in law enforcement," he says.

His supervisors have praised him for "strong organizational skills, balancing numerous job responsibilities and specialized task assignments." While in detentions, he oversaw budgeting, contract negotiations, prisoner liability issues and employee management. He's been recognized for showing initiative in developing new programs and for having "a global perspective of the goals and objectives of the Police Department."

Shirk says one of his biggest joys is mentoring younger officers. "When I see that light turn on in their eyes," he says, "that's the biggest reward I can have."

God, country and family

Monument Police Sgt. Mark Owens hates the thought of Shirk leaving the department. He says Shirk has taken the agency to a higher level, providing more gear, training and pay.

"While I was in investigations, he allowed me to branch out and build relationships with other agencies," Owens says. "He let me go to do what I needed to do to track down criminals."

Shirk is also known for occasionally showing up at calls to observe officers at work.

"He doesn't come down with an iron fist," Owens says. "It's constructive criticism — how to do it better next time."

The 56-year-old chief says he's no politician and has never run for public office before. "But I know how to build relationships," he says, which he says Maketa doesn't do. After he took over in Monument, he says, Maketa never called on him.

"That's why I have so many communities supporting me," Shirk says, "because there's been a disconnect between the sheriff's office and law enforcement communities."

Shirk has met with Colorado Springs Police Chief Richard Myers, who he says likes Shirk's idea to save the city and county money by combining some law enforcement functions, such as training and dispatch.

"Why do we have a separate Colorado Springs Police Academy and a sheriff's academy?" Shirk says. "It's the same curriculum."

Attempting to emphasize the difference in perspective between himself and Maketa, Shirk says, "When I first started running, I had a deputy say he's there to support the sheriff's office. In my estimation, the sheriff needs to be there to support the employees who keep the community safe.

"I'm not afraid of somebody taking a different political view as long as they can be part of the team. A team isn't 'yes' people. A team is those who can tell me something we should consider."

Shirk often invokes God, country and family, noting he has four children and 10 grandchildren, and has been a Sunday school teacher.

There's no reason religion should affect a sheriff's race, but Shirk is Mormon, which could work against him, as some observers thought happened with presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in 2008.

"I remember a youth pastor at Radiant Church saying, 'It's not that Mormons don't worship God; it's that they don't worship the right God,'" recalls Daniel Cole, a Republican party activist. "Statements like that make me think that some evangelicals would balk at voting for a Mormon if they had a solid, conservative, non-Mormon alternative."

Of course, thousands of local Mormons could also boost Shirk, by voting for him.

Another hurdle for Shirk is Maketa's name recognition and list of endorsements from the local party establishment, although Shirk has as many names listed on his Web site as Maketa, and dozens of Maketa's supporters are Sheriff's Office personnel.

Four-year commitment

The sheriff told reporters after his Jan. 20 withdrawal from the race that his heart wasn't in it. Now he says it is, noting he and his volunteers have walked dozens of precincts this election season.

During a recent candidate forum, a citizen asked Maketa if he plans to finish a third term. It's a good question, considering Maketa earlier said he wanted to pursue other opportunities so he could spend more time with his family and make more money. He even said that if he got the right offer, he might not fulfill his current term.

But at the forum, Maketa said he's on board for four years if re-elected, just like he was four years ago when tempted by Bob Beauprez to consider being his gubernatorial running mate. He told Beauprez he felt compelled to remain sheriff.

"I enjoy what I do here, and also I've made a commitment to run again, and the voters gave me a third term," he said he told Beauprez. "I owe it to my citizens to stay."

Then Maketa explained to those at the forum his off-and-on-again candidacy.

"I did say I wasn't going to run," he said. "That was a decision with my family, after five budget cuts, working nonstop night and day. My wife would be a great witness to talk about that.

"I think just going through that decision process and seeing citizens reach out and have the confidence in me and say, 'We need you back,' is what's going to keep me going. It's re-energized me. It's got my wife and my family back behind me — not that they weren't with me, but they thought it was time to hang up and do something good where you don't get those calls all the time and maybe the job does come with some benefits. But I'm here, back in it."


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