Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson reflects on first year in office

Jan. 26—Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson just got through with the busiest year of his life.

Not only has he spent his time outside the office rebuilding the home he lost in the Marshall Fire, but at work, he has taken on the heavy baton of responsibility that comes with taking over for longtime Sheriff Joe Pelle, overseeing the Boulder County Jail and the only county-wide law enforcement agency.

"It is a lot of work," Johnson said on Tuesday after just more than a year in office. "The complications of not only being the primary law enforcement agency for unincorporated Boulder County, and Superior, and Nederland, and Lyons, and running the jail, but having a constant fear of wildfire running through my mind — all of those things have kept me incredibly busy."

Focus on recruiting

When reflecting on the past year, Johnson said it's hard to pick one achievement he's most proud of within the office, but stressed the importance of the relationships he's built with his employees of all ranks.

"I'm proud of the fact that I feel like I've earned the trust of the people who work here," Johnson said. "They know they can count on me as their sheriff to do the right thing for them."

Along with working to gain the trust of employees, Johnson has focused on hiring more deputies to fill vacancies in the jail and on patrol — with diversity and his high standards in mind.

"Part of it is very intentional recruiting," Johnson said. "We have been able to attract people to work in the jail environment because despite being a jail, the people who work there enjoy and appreciate working there and so we've been working hard to find people who can work in that difficult environment and uphold our expectations for their character and the conduct they exhibit while they're working in that environment."

Johnson said last week he swore in 11 new deputies, six for the jail and five for operations.

"We feel like we're really getting on a path of starting to tackle some of the long term staffing challenges that we had," Johnson said. "We asked for a significant amount of staffing for the jail because we've been using overtime to cover positions and trying to get the appropriate number of employees to ensure that not only will you have a safe and secure jail, but we can support all of the programs that we think are beneficial to people in our jail."

Johnson said the commissioners approved a budget that accounts for several new positions in the jail that Johnson said his office will work to fill early this year.

Johnson explained that after the public questioned him on the diversity of the organization, he and his team pulled together one of the first reports of the demographic makeup of the office and inmates at the jail to review how they compare to the community's diversity.

While Johnson found that racially and ethnically, the office reflected the public well, the number of women in commander and deputy roles was lacking. Johnson said this finding has led him to prioritize recruiting women which he said he plans to continue doing into the next year.

"While we hire and employ a significant number of women, many of them do not work in deputy positions," Johnson said. "We want to continue to increase the number of women working in this profession, especially in the uniformed, deputy roles.

"We are significantly behind in hiring and developing women. And women police very differently than men, in a good way. I want to support and develop that in this organization."

Johnson has created a new commander position to oversee a now-combined court security and transport department. In this change, Johnson said the courts can be better supported if there's a high-profile case necessitating more security or if there's a quiet day in court but more transports scheduled.

Tasked with his first budget cycle this year, Johnson said he "deep dived" into the breakdown of where every dollar allocated to the sheriff's office goes and what areas are not funded appropriately. More so, Johnson said he worked to "right-size" the commissioner's budget for the office to ensure employees and inmates are provided for and the funding is being maximized.

"Understanding the county budget process has been a challenge," Johnson said. "There are so many competing interests for a limited amount of money."

He added, "We spent a long time really looking at our jail and what it costs to run a jail that this community would be proud of and that meets the expectations of our community."

Being prepared

Looking ahead, Johnson hopes to continue to apply pressure to the state regarding the state hospital's delays in competency hearings — which have slowed cases of inmates in the jail. Johnson said 60 people are currently in the jail waiting to go to the state hospital and he would love to see a more decentralized state hospital model that includes a facility in the north metro area.

"It is a complicated dance for us to make sure everyone is appropriately taken care of," Johnson said. "(We're) trying to increase psychiatric hours of staff in the jail and bringing in additional staff to support the mental health needs of the people in custody. It's been a challenge to get people to do that work in a jail setting and I think we're close to making some improvements."

In the past year, Johnson helped break ground on the new alternative sentencing facility and begin construction in the jail, which may be used to open up for bed space for Boulder County inmates.

Along with the mental health of inmates on his mind, Johnson said he's "continuing to advance" the mental health of his employees and is moving toward requirements to ensure employees take care of themselves.

Despite the number of responsibilities Johnson has taken on in the past year, his roots as a Boulder County resident and Marshall Fire survivor remain a fixed part of his work. Moving into his second year in the elected position, Johnson said he understands "where the climate is taking things" and the community's concern for "the next Marshall Fire."

"I'm never going to forget Dec. 30, 2021, because of the impact it had on our community," Johnson said. "We're going to continue to work on a number of areas where we can make improvements and be better prepared and better prepare our community to deal with disasters we know will someday come."