The Arbitrator camera mounted in a Montrose County Sheriff’s Office Patrol unit

The Arbitrator camera mounted in a Montrose County Sheriff’s Office Patrol unit, is capable of recording everything in front of the vehicle. A side camera is mounted in the back. The MCSO is looking at possibly phasing out the in-patrol cameras in favor of body cams. 

The Montrose County Sheriff’s Office is seeing growth in tax revenues brought in through the county public safety sales tax — a “godsend” for the agency’s work, Sheriff Gene Lillard said.

On tap for 2020 are an updated study of existing crime-mapping capabilities, a possible shift from in-unit cameras to body cams and adding a K9 to the West End.

The 0.75-percent sales tax, passed after a citizen-driven initiative in 2007, allocates at least 75 percent of revenue to the MCSO and splits up the rest between other county or judicial district public safety agencies, such as the coroner’s office and district attorney’s office.

For 2019, the MCSO received 80 percent of the pie. Public safety sales tax receipts (revised) stood at $5.87 million and the revised net revenue is about $5.51 million. Projected for 2020 is $6.16 million, with net revenue estimated at $5.78 million.

The money is in addition to the MCSO’s general fund allotment through the annual county budgeting process. (This public sales tax predates by a dozen years and is completely separate from the city’s recently passed sales tax for municipal police operations.)

“It’s been a real godsend to the sheriff’s office and law enforcement that we have that,” Lillard told Montrose County commissioners Thursday. Although tax revenues dipped during the recession, they have since steadily climbed.

Lillard attributed some of the increase to the county now collecting taxes on online sales; he said it accounts for a substantial increase.

The money has on-the-ground impact.

“We utilize the public safety sales tax for whatever equipment and needs we deemed necessary to make the sheriff’s office operate,” Lillard said later on Thursday.

The agency is looking at implementing body cameras and possibly phasing out the existing cameras onboard patrol units.

“We do not have body cams. We have in-car cameras so you can see in the backseat of a vehicle and everywhere in front of you, too,” Lillard said.

This equipment runs between $6,000 and $8,000 per unit; body cameras cost far less, ranging between $500 to $1,000.

“It’s a substantial savings if we end up going to body cameras,” Lillard said.

Each option has drawbacks and advantages. The advantage of body cams is they go along with deputies even beyond their vehicles; the in-car cameras can provide limited audio once a deputy steps out of a patrol unit.

For now, the MCSO is researching the best options and conferring with other agencies that have body cams. Lillard said the intent is to retain the car-cameras until they reach the ends of their useful life. These might be replaced, although it is more likely the agency will shift entirely to body cams, he said.

“We’re looking for better ways, more coverage for deputies and citizens, and to lower the cost to taxpayers,” Lillard said.

Cameras increase accountability for both deputies and citizens, he also said.

“It will actually tell the story a lot of the times. A lot of courts and juries like to see video, rather than strictly rely on the testimony of a deputy.

“This will be a double-edged sword. The officers know they are being recorded and the general public does not (necessarily) know they are being recorded. A lot of times, they don’t realize that.”

Lillard also wants to bring a K-9 program to the West End, where in 2020, he intends to have a dog and handler, Deputy Mimi Savage.

The MCSO has had good success with its new K-9, Tigo, who works primarily on the east end of the county. When a dog is needed for a drug investigation or missing or wanted person search, time is of the essence, yet it can take up to two hours to bring Tigo over to the West End.

“There is definitely a drug problem in the West End,” Lillard said. “We know for a fact that it is a direct pipeline out of Utah and New Mexico, right into Southwestern Colorado, right up into Montrose County. We also know it’s a gateway into the West End, which goes into Telluride and then into the Four Corners area. We’ve had reports coming out of Grand Junction and right up through Unaweep Canyon.”

The MCSO has even looked into reports of people dumping their drugs along the highway to avoid being busted, he said.

“This is going to enhance the West End,” Lillard said, of adding another K-9 to the toolbox. He said the MCSO might eventually be able to assist parts of San Miguel, Dolores and Montezuma counties with K-9 work. “That’s a longterm goal, but the primary concern is residents of Montrose County,” Lillard said.

Earlier Thursday, during the presentation, Commissioner Roger Rash, whose district includes the West End, thanked Lillard for deciding on a second K-9.

“They’re concerned about their children, and the drugs and nefarious activities that are going on in the West End. That is such a needed tool in the West End,” Rash said.

The MCSO also intends to complete comprehensive study of existing crime-mapping to better cover higher-risk areas and know where to apply staff best. The crime-mapping system, established under the previous sheriff’s administration, is an electronic mapping system that takes the place of yesteryear’s pin maps, Lillard said.

“We can concentrate our efforts on those areas that seem to need attention for intervention, or the need for educate for crime-prevention,” he said.

Prevention efforts will include more traffic enforcement on the highways, he told the Montrose Daily Press.

“We are going after aggressive drives and speeders,” Lillard said, adding that texting drivers and road rage are also targets. Although the Colorado State Patrol enforces traffic laws on highways, deputies have authority to do so, also.

“Our main concern is safety and getting compliance; getting people to slow down, quit texting and driving, and stopping the road rage that goes on,” Lillard said.

Slowing down can also reduce collisions with wildlife; even within city limits, there have been severe crashes involving deer, he said.

“Drivers need to really be aware and slow down a bit, look out for wildlife,” the sheriff said.

Lillard also furnished yearly stats as of November. Most numbers were roughly on par with last year’s, but vehicle thefts dropped dramatically, while the number of warrant arrests increased. The sheriff attributed the latter numbers to the launch of the High Impact Target Team (HITT), which since July has made about 22 arrests and has begun regular checks of sex offender registrants’ addresses.

“We’re going after some of the hardened people,” Lillard told commissioners. “We’ve seized a lot of dope.”

He also said a number of people suspected in burglaries are behind bars and, when Commissioner Sue Hansen asked about the nexus between property crimes and drugs, he said about 95 percent of such crimes can be attributed to drugs or alcohol.

“We’re seeing methamphetamine. We’re seeing quite a bit of heroin in our neighborhoods. Once again, the HITT … they’ve done a wonderful job,” Lillard said.

Hansen said she hoped state money for behavioral health will help inmates receive treatment for substance abuse. Lillard then spotlighted a jail behavioral health services grant of more than $600,000, which he said will benefit all counties in the 7th Judicial District, as well as jail inmates who need mental health services. Alma Avery has been hired as the program administrator.

Rash said he was pleased to see the cost-savings realized by bringing emergency dispatching services back under one entity.

The City of Montrose and MCSO, along with dozens of other agencies, had traditionally been part of a single dispatch center, but that relationship soured over costs and other disagreements a few years back, leading to the establishment of a new dispatch service.

In 2018, the former sheriff and others agreed to bring services back together, under the newer Western Colorado Regional Dispatch Center, or WestCo. The dispatch center operates under a board of directors, but leases facilities from the county.

Lillard said the move has saved taxpayers $700,000 — and brought agencies back together.

That’s huge, not just on the money end, but for safety purposes, Rash said. He also said the MCSO and Montrose Police Department appear to be working together more. (Lillard was previously a commander for the police department.)

“That’s another safety thing I think is just huge,” Rash said. “ … It’s a huge improvement.”

Rash went on to thank the entire MCSO and county employees involved in its success. “It’s so much better when we all work together and pull in the same direction,” Rash said.

Montrose County Commissioner Keith Caddy — also a former police commander — thanked the people of Montrose who passed the county’s public safety sales tax.

“Without that public safety sales tax money that the people allowed you to have, and this county (to have), this would not be possible,” Caddy said.

MCSO puts porch pirates on notice

’Tis the season — for scams and thefts, including the purloining of packages honest citizens have paid to have delivered to their doorsteps.

The Montrose County Sheriff’s Office recently implemented an investigatory tactic involving high-tech tracking by satellite and were able to track one porch pirate at two homes from which parcels went missing, as well as to stores where the same person allegedly shoplifted, Sheriff Gene Lillard told Montrose County commissioners.

The investigation is not complete, but he issued a warning to those who think the season is a reason to be sticky-fingered.

“We’re going to use that (technology) a lot. The people picking packages off people’s porches should be aware. We are onto them,” Lillard said.

MCSO stats

Sheriff Gene Lillard presented the following information concerning agency stats for 2018 and 2019. The numbers for 2018 are listed first, followed by the 2019 numbers as of November.

Traffic contacts: 1,794; 1,517

Model traffic code citations: 464; 273

DUI: 42; 37

Civil matters: 542; 37

Domestic violence: 73; 78

Civil process: 2,088; 523

Agency assist: 1,782; 1,741

Warrant arrests: 1,782l; 1,741

Criminal mischief: 53; 63

Homicide: 1; 0

Death investigation (in-home deaths unattended by physician or similar professional): 32; 41

Assault: 107; 110

Theft: 132; 120

Sex offense: 21; 19

Burglary: 73; 61

Criminal trespass: 217; 166

Child abuse: 24; 36

Motor vehicle theft: 27; 9

Equipment updates

• New Tasers, enough for all sworn officers; previously, they had to share via a check-in, check-out system.

• New, 9mm firearms, capable of firing less expensive ammo and having better accuracy than the older guns.

• Vests capable of withstanding rifle fire; drones, through the Department of Local Affairs black/gray marijuana market grant funding, which the county previously opted into.

• Replacement of older patrol units with new Chevy Tahoes.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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