Inside Your Sheriff's Office

The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office along with our community experienced a lot of challenges, adversity, and unique circumstances over the last year. We have all had to adapt and find new ways to go about our daily lives.  

Our community is resilient. As your Mesa County Sheriff, I want you to know this agency is as well.  As the challenges of last year altered our lives, the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office took the opportunity to foster community partnerships, leverage technological advancements, and implement new strategies to keep our community safe.  

We have had to approach things differently, but our commitment to serving and meeting the needs of this community remains the same. 

In the coming weeks, we are going to share with you how the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office is finding innovative solutions, working together with community partners, and pioneering new criminal justice programs with the goal of making our community safer. We are focused on preventing crime and reducing the number of people in our community who are victimized. 

I invite you to follow our series, Inside Your Sheriff’s Office, on CRIMEWATCH and learn more about the men and women of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office. I am proud of the work they do each and every day. They continue to lead our region with creative and inventive approaches to make Mesa County a safer place to live, work and play. 

- Sheriff Matt Lewis

 

Inside Your Sheriff's Office: Partnering with Neighbors

When David Edwards and his wife moved into their Grand Junction house, they didn't expect they would grow afraid to go out their front door.  

"There were nights I couldn't even sleep. All day long, all night long, it's traffic back and forth through there. I have literally watched drug deals go down," said David Edwards. "I was scared, really scared of the people."

Edwards lives on 29 ½ Road near a home that has generated more than 50 calls to 911 since 2017. Individuals would be arrested, but the criminal activity continued. Soon it became clear, only responding to emergencies was not solving underlying public safety issues in the neighborhood. That's where the Mesa County Sheriff's Office Crime Reduction Unit (CRU) comes in. 

CRU is a specialized team of dedicated deputies who use historical crime data, intelligence-based strategies, and community partnerships to find permanent, long-term solutions to ongoing criminal activity.

"It is not your standard approach to law enforcement," said Deputy Alexander Zwinck, one of two deputies and a sergeant currently assigned to the Crime Reduction Unit. "These cases last years, and you are constantly racking your brain and working with community partners to find a long-term resolution to whatever the problem is."

No one case is alike. Deputies spend time understanding the underlying factors contributing to the ongoing illegal activity and learning who the people involved are, their criminal histories, and their chronic struggles. It can be anything from substance abuse, socio-economic hardships, and mental health issues to a person being taken advantage of or a homeowner turning a blind eye to people using their home to engage in illegal activities. Often, it's a complex combination of several of these issues. 

Once problems are identified, then the work truly begins. Deputies approach it from multiple angles, working with the individuals involved, meeting with neighbors, notifying the property owner of the criminal activity taking place, and bringing in community resources.

"We tell them on the front end this is what is going to happen if you continue down this road. We are honest with them," said CRU member Deputy Amanda Simon. "We listen to their story, their struggles, and help where we can, but we also hold them accountable."

The Crime Reduction Unit deputies become a presence in the community. They visited Edwards' neighborhood so often, he knew them by name. 

"I felt 100% better when I saw the deputies drive-by, keeping an eye on the house; it made us feel a lot better. That team is just dedicated to it," said Edwards. "I have never seen a group of people do what Deputy Simon's team did. They did a good job. I felt safer after that. "

Deputies work to connect individuals at the center of the problems with free services in the community and partners who can help. CRU has leveraged the resources of more than 30 community organizations, law enforcement agencies, and social programs to help bring long-term solutions to these public safety problems.

One woman, who gave permission to share her story but did not wish to be named, is sober today because of their intervention. 

"What I was doing wasn't helping my situation at all. They were doing their job. It brought me to realize it wasn't worth getting high and losing everything," she said. 

For her, jail was a catalyst to a better life. CRU was able to help her get into treatment, but she was the one who chose to do the work. It hasn't been easy, but she is still committed to the process. 

"I have one of the deputy's phone number in my cell phone if I ever need to reach out. It's nice to know I have their support," she said. "I appreciate what they did for me."

The resources deputies connect people with are only successful if the person chooses to engage. If they don't, deputies look for alternative solutions to hold them accountable. That may include supporting property owners through the eviction process, writing tickets, arresting those who engage in criminal activity and with serious arrest warrants, or even restraining them from the address.

"For many, jail is not the solution. Jail is just a tool. We want to eliminate the criminal activity, not just for the duration that person is in jail. To do that, we have to get creative and use all of the resources and community programs available," said CRU Sergeant Wayne Weyler.  

The deputies build relationships with the people they work with, often requiring hours of work, answering hundreds of calls, and time away from their own family to help make the community safer. It's time, and energy deputies say is well spent.

"It's fulfilling when you see somebody who is successful in their recovery. It is very satisfying to be able to see those people transform their lives as opposed to just taking them to jail and moving on to the next case," said Deputy Zwinck. 

More often than not, illegal activity is only part of the problem. There can also be code and health violations and safety concerns for a child or an at-risk adult. CRU will engage agencies like code enforcement, the housing authority, child and adult protective services, getting them involved in the process if they aren't already. Deputies will look for opportunities to combine strategies and work together to enhance the ability to mitigate these concerns. 

"As with any community challenge, community solutions work best. It's taking responsibility for ourselves and our neighbors. The Sheriff's Office Crime Reduction Unit is an important tool to our ability to keep our neighborhoods and our loved ones safe," said Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland.

As a last resort, deputies work with the 21st Judicial District Attorney's Office to declare the property a public nuisance through the courts. It's a lengthy process that can force the homeowner to clean up the property or even restrain the people engaged in the illegal activity from the residence. The public nuisance law has only been used twice out of the more than 90 cases CRU has worked. 

"This is a long-term investment into our community. These are complex problems that require innovative solutions that take time. We are committed to seeing it through and putting in the work to create safer neighborhoods," said Undersheriff Todd Rowell.

During the height of the global pandemic, the unit's ability to operate was limited, as were many of the tools they typically use. The Crime Reduction unit took the opportunity to further refine where they can make the most significant impact and identify solutions to recurring challenges. One of those challenges was the limited availability of a specialized attorney to help with public nuisance court proceedings. As of March, a part-time attorney from the 21st Judicial District Attorney's Office is now dedicated to helping the unit.

"The criminal justice system is not set up to be the solution to every public safety problem. The Crime Reduction Unit has been very creative in coming up with solutions, which sometimes involve public nuisance actions in court," said District Attorney Dan Rubinstein. "We are committed to being available as legal counsel to any of our agency partners in civil matters to find ways to keep our community safe when the criminal justice system is not the best solution." 

It’s important to have a separate attorney in this position, as the public nuisance laws address a civil issue with regards to fixing up these houses and helping neighborhoods, rather than a criminal case against a specific person for a crime that has already occurred. Having that dedicated resource working directly with the Crime Reduction Unit expands the potential of what can be accomplished. 

“The purpose of utilizing the public nuisance laws is to proactively reduce crimes in neighborhoods,” said District Court Deputy District Attorney Shaheen Sheikh. “The benefit of enforcing these kinds of laws are almost immediate; by stopping the source of these drug related crimes, we are able to shut down the potential negative effects that would spread into the neighborhood.”

Since its creation in 2017, the Crime Reduction Unit has made an impact on more than 70 neighborhoods in Mesa County. Those residences and individuals are no longer generating the hundreds of calls to 911 they once were, freeing up patrol deputies to respond to emergencies elsewhere. With each case, CRU learns more about who is committing crime in Mesa County and how they interact. That intelligence is used in coordination with other law enforcement agencies and units at the Sheriff's Office to solve crime. As more people and locations are identified, CRU opens more cases with the goal of intervening before the criminal activity escalates further. 

"A lot of these houses we look into initially have a few mundane calls that come in, a theft from auto, a this or that, then eventually it turns into a shooting in the driveway or a homicide," said Deputy Simon. "If there is no pressure on that house from law enforcement, it turns into a huge community safety issue. If we are not here to provide that pressure and resources, it's just going to escalate." 

In January of this year, David Edwards got his neighborhood back. After deputies worked extensively with the property owner, the residents attributed to the illegal activity in his neighborhood were evicted. With the property cleaned up, Edwards now feels safe going out his front door.

"I feel comfortable washing my truck, working out in the front yard, even having people come over. I feel good about it because they are gone. The people who live there now are great. It's like night and day," said Edwards.

Once a resolution is found, the Crime Reduction Unit's work doesn't end. They continue to follow up with the people and residents they've worked with to ensure the criminal activity doesn't return. 

Inside Your Sheriff's Office is a series looking at how the Mesa County Sheriff's Office is finding innovative solutions, working together with community partners, and pioneering new criminal justice programs with the goal of making our community safer. To learn more about this series, click here.