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New Boulder County Sheriff Curtis Johnson discusses next steps, goals

For the first time in two decades, there’s a new sheriff in town.

Curtis Johnson was sworn in as Boulder County sheriff Tuesday, replacing retiring Sheriff Joe Pelle. Johnson won the Democratic primary election over then-Louisville police Chief David Hayes in the summer and ran unopposed in November’s general election.

Johnson had already been serving as a division chief under Pelle, a role he took two years ago after leaving the Boulder Police Department.

“Yesterday was a bit of a blur, just because I couldn’t believe the day actually finally got here,” Johnson said in an interview with the Daily Camera. “I mean, campaigning and getting through the primary and the election and all that, that’s a long time to look forward to the second Tuesday in January.

“Actually getting sworn in, actually pinning on the badge that says ‘sheriff,’ it was awesome, it was exciting. It’s been a long time coming to get to this point.”

But while it may have made the wait seem longer, Pelle said being able to work alongside Johnson in the months since the election was a benefit.

“We’re lucky here because we had a transition plan, we had a great candidate who wanted to take the job, and I was able to bring him over as a division chief,” Pelle said of Johnson in an interview with the Camera prior to his retirement. “We’ve been in full-on training mode. I’ve just been trying to transfer knowledge and information and contacts, especially. When you have a problem with whatever, who do you contact in that community, who are the culture brokers?

“I’m trying to equip Curtis with all that knowledge.”

Johnson said the first thing on his agenda is to reassure employees in the wake of Pelle’s retirement.

“Most of the people here today have never worked for any other sheriff than Joe Pelle, and that creates its own challenges because they’ve never experienced a change in leadership,” Johnson said. “Leadership change can cause so many rumors and so many uncomfortable feelings with people that our first goal was to make sure people in the organization understood who I am, what I believe, why I want to take over this organization, and how we’re not going to just start making dramatic changes for no good reason.”

Johnson said following in the footsteps of one of the longest serving sheriff’s in the county’s history does present some challenges.

“They caution you to never follow a legend, and unfortunately I feel like that’s the position I’m in, but I think Joe has done a good job setting me up to succeed,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to do everything the way Joe Pelle may have done it. We are going to make some changes and advance this organization forward, but we’ll also always be mindful and respectful of the investment that he made in this organization and carry that forward with us as well.”

But Johnson also said that as a relatively newer member of the sheriff’s office, he might be able to identify changes that need to be made.

“The benefit of coming from somewhere else is I get to come in and ask a lot of questions, and ask ‘why?’” Johnson said. “The last 18 months I’ve had the opportunity to build up lists of ‘Why do we do it this way?’ and being able to maybe look at some of those items where the answer is, ‘Because we’ve always done it that way.’”

‘Do we have enough people to do the job right?’

One of Johnson’s more pressing goals is to increase hiring to get the department back to the staffing level it needs to operate, especially at the jail.

“Do we have enough people to do the job right?” Johnson said. “The challenge with that is it is a difficult place to work, it takes a special person to work in a jail setting… But I’m also not willing to lower standards, I don’t want to hire people who shouldn’t be working in this profession.”

Johnson said he wanted to keep diversity and equity in mind when hiring, and hoped to use the allure of living and working on the Front Range to attract qualified candidates.

“It’s a great place to work, so how do we sell the benefit of working in Boulder County?” Johnson said. “That is the challenge we need to figure out, is getting people in the door.”

Johnson said another of his priorities will be moving forward with the construction of an alternative sentencing facility and new intake area at the Boulder County Jail.

Pelle during his term secured the funding from voters, but did not get to see crews break ground.

“That’s not gong to be done by the time I leave unfortunately, but the fact is that it’s funded and it’s planned, so it will happen,” Pelle said.

Added Johnson, “Really shepherding those projects along and making sure we get those to the finish line is something I’m committed to.”

Another item on the minds of many residents is the continuing investigation into the Marshall Fire. Johnson, who lost his own home in the fire, said he hopes the community will get some answers in the coming months.

“I think Sheriff Pelle was hoping it would be done under his tenure, but like a lot of investigations, things come up, things drag on, and to be fair our detectives have been working a lot of other cases, too,” Johnson said. “We all agree that we want to have a good investigation, and get it done right the first time.

“As someone who was personally impacted by the fire, it’s important, I get it. I understand why people want to know. I want to know, too.”

In the meantime, the sheriff’s office will begin implementing the revenue from a new tax to support wildfire mitigation.

“i think we need to rethink what mitigation looks like and how we prepare for the next disaster,” Johnson said. “Because we know we will have one. We will have more than one.”

‘Taking control at the local level’

As for some longer-term goals, Johnson said one thing he really wants to examine is how cases involving mental health are handled in the justice system.

Johnson pointed to a lack of federal action on the matter and delays at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo that have resulted in inmates languishing in jails while awaiting evaluation and treatment.

“I’m frustrated by the lack of effort at the federal level to address mental health and mental illness,” Johnson said. “I’m frustrated at the state level that things aren’t being done to improve the state hospital situation, all of the challenges we have with our jail population and others in our criminal justice system that need some stability in their lives to help them get through the system and out of the jail.”

Johnson said he imagines dealing with mental health may require the type of approach Boulder County cities and towns have been taking with gun control, passing their own ordinances.

“They’re taking control at the local level, at the city council and county commissioner level,” Johnson said. “I think we’re going to have to think that way about mental illness in our community, and what we can do to better address the needs of our community outside of the jail setting.”

At Johnson’s side during his term will be Undersheriff Carey Weinheimer, who served alongside Johnson for many years at the Boulder Police Department. Like Johnson, the retirement of Undersheriff Tommy Sloan allowed Weinheimer to get a running start on the job.

“I think it is critically important to have an undersheriff, who is someone that I work closely with everyday, that I know and trust but that sees the world a little differently than me,” Johnson said.

“While Carey and I have worked together for many years, we oftentimes see issues or policies or any number of items with a different perspective, and we have a good enough relationship that we can call each other out on that and hold each other in check, and that’s the kind of person I wanted to work with me as the undersheriff.”

Johnson, who turns 54 in the coming days, said he doesn’t envision serving the full five terms that Pelle did, so one of his other long-term goals is to train and develop employees within the department.

“We have a lot of young, talented people in this organization, and as people retire and transition forward in their lives, we need to develop people to succeed them, myself included,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to be here in 20 years, I’m too old to work that long.”

But Johnson said the benefit of following Pelle is that he won’t have to start from the ground up in building on his vision for the sheriff’s office.

“It is really exciting to take over an organization that really is in good shape,” Johnson said. “This is not a broken sheriff’s office, this is a highly functioning organization with lots of talented people. So instead of having to fix things, I can work on advancing the organization and making it even better.”

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