For the first time in 20 years, Boulder County will have a new sheriff

David Hayes, left, and Curtis Johnson are vying for Boulder County Sheriff in the Democratic primary.

Friday, June 10, 2022

It has been 20 years since Boulder County had a new sheriff in town. Joe Pelle will retire in January after being in the post since 2002. His two decades in office included an extension of term limits for the sheriff that allowed him to seek a fifth term.

Two local law enforcement leaders are vying for his spot: Louisville Police Chief David Hayes and Curtis Johnson, whom Pelle recruited to the sheriff’s department from Boulder PD last year and endorsed as his successor. 

The men are vying for Pelle’s spot in the Democratic primary. There is no Republican candidate for this position, so June 28’s primary election will determine the lone candidate on fall ballots.

Ahead of that contest, here is a quick look at both candidates. Answers to policy questions were gathered in private interviews and a campaign event held by the Boulder Chamber on Thursday, June 2.

Curtis Johnson

Boulder Police Department, 1993-2021
Patrol Officer, Detective, Patrol Sergeant, Professional Standards Supervisor, Commander, and Deputy Chief

Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, 2021-present
Division Chief


Hiring and retention
Addressing mental illness in the criminal justice system
Community engagement and trust
Diversity, equity and inclusion
Restorative justice
Disaster response

David Hayes

Boulder Police Department, 1978-2014
Patrol Officer, Field Training Officer, Detective, Sergeant, Commander and Deputy Chief

Louisville Police Department, 2014-present


Addressing increasing crime
Mental health
Criminal justice reform
Examining non-law enforcement response to calls


Ashley Stolzmann, mayor of Louisville (candidate for Boulder County Commissioner)
Leslie Durgin, former mayor of Boulder

Sheriff Joe Pelle
Michael Doughtery, Boulder County District Attorney
Colorado Ceasefire, a gun violence prevention advocacy group
Stan Garnett, former Boulder County DA
Claire Levy, Boulder County Commissioner
Clint Folsom, Mayor of Superior
Hollie Rogin, Mayor of Lyons
Aaron Brockett, Mayor of Boulder
Joan Peck, Mayor of Longmont
Aren Rodriguez, Mayor Pro Tem of Longmont
Steve Fenberg, State Senator
Judy Amabile, State Representative
Edie Hooton, State Representative
Karen McCormick, State Representative
Tara Winer, Boulder City Council
Bob Yates, Boulder City Council
Matt Benjamin, Boulder City Council
Brian Wong, Lafayette City Council
Neal Shah, Superior Town Trustee
Suzanne Jones
Deb Gardner, former Boulder County Commissioner
Elise Jones, former Boulder County Commissioner
Ken Wilson, former Boulder City Council member
Ruth Wright, former State Representative

Boulder County residents feel less safe than they have in the past. What would you do to improve the situation, given the lack of jail space and repeat offenders?

Johnson: “We have a criminal justice system that has been plugged up for two years” by COVID, with a backlog of cases. Right now, 87% of people in the jail are awaiting trial. Only 13% have been sentenced to be there. It’s usually 60/40.

“The sheriff doesn’t decide who gets out of jail. That’s decisions made by judges and bond commissioners. There’s no doubt there’ve been some bad releases,” and I understand residents who “get frustrated with people who’ve been arrested getting out of jail quickly.”

“At the end of the day, the 410 or so people who are living in (the jail) are our responsibility,” as are the employees. “We have 40-50 people with COVID in the jail right now. We’ve got staff with COVID, we’ve got nursing staff with COVID. There was a period of time in the jail this spring we were down to zero” cases, and when that happened, we opened up the jail to more people.

“We’re in this pickle. It’s different than a municipal police chief saying, ‘I’m gonna drop them at the jail and I’m done.'” It’s going to take 18 months to two years to clear up the backlog in the courts. “Jail space is going to be very hard to come by” until then.

Hayes: “COVID has had a lot to do with that. There’s a backlog in the criminal justice system, the fentanyl crisis that’s literally killing people in our communities. And we do have to get a handle on crime.

“When there are no consequences — you can’t go to jail, you can’t be arrested — we keep victims from being victims. The system is centered around defendants, which the legal part of that I understand. But if you don’t have a defendant, there’s no victim impact statement” no justice or support.

“There are things we can do that I’ve suggested to our current sheriff that he didn’t want to do. We need to find a way to figure out pre-trial supervision for people even though we can’t take them into the jail. We will at least be bringing defendants in to see a judge. The other thing we can do is a transport car” to take defendants who have warrants in other communities there.

“We have people wanted on felony warrants that are just languishing in our community; not necessarily getting in trouble or reoffending, but they can’t move on with their lives.”

Would you support cash bail reform and reforming arrest standards, as Sheriff Pelle did, if it is reintroduced in the state legislature?

Hayes: “Absolutely. I work with state legislature now. I’m president-elect of Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police. Not everybody belongs in jail. The people that belong in jail, serious offenses, there is an absolute risk to the community. Those individuals can still have a bail set. The other criteria for holding onto people is danger to the community at large, to the victim, and a history of failure to appear. That’s a different discussion

“Setting the bail, though, is ultimately a discretion we want our judges to have. As the sheriff, my job is to provide the best information we can to our lawmakers. Ultimately, I think it’s discretion the judges should have.” 

Johnson: I’m curious about the data moving forward, how does that impact crime rates moving forward? I’m not sure we can fully look at that until we get through the COVID situation and get back to running normal jail.

“I also understand the perspective that cash bail can be harmful to people who are already in a disadvantaged situation. Are we harming people in additional ways?” 

What would your approach be to reducing recidivism?

Johnson: “First, you have to look at recidivism at the micro level, because each individuals has different challenges they face. The jail as it stands today has a lot of programs to reduce recidivism. A lot have been hampered by the pandemic; for example, pre-trial supervision. They were managing over 3,200 individuals (in 2021). In previous years, we’ve had rates of up to 80% where people didn’t reoffend in that time. We’re currently close to 64%. 

“We’re about to break ground on the alternative sentencing facilities. It’s not a jail. It’s work-release, etc. to maintain connections to the community which will help in their reintegration to society. To make sure that when people leave jail, they land on their feet with opportunities.

“I believe recidivism is best reduced when we can set people up to succeed by helping them find housing, employment and behavioral health services.”

Hayes: “We need to focus on prevention. Maybe a job-corps like program. I’m in favor of diversion from the system. That’s not happening at the state level. Sending people to state prisons, there’s no more room. The inn is full. And we can do a better job at the county level.

“We should be preventing crime, but once we get somebody into the system, we should be doing everything we can to help him or her transition back into the community. If we don’t provide resources for people to get on their feet again, we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re back in the system. That means food, lodging, training.

“We also need to reinforce responsibility and accountability, get law enforcement into schools to teach them about the criminal justice system.”

Sheriff Pelle brought a camping ban to county commissioners, who did not support it at this time. Would you advocate for ticketing people living on county land or in their cars on county streets? 

Hayes: “In my career at Boulder police, we dealt with camping and transients. What’s more complicated now is the state of the economy, the state of housing. What I envision as the sheriff is having the right people in the room — housing authority, sheriff’s office, the DA, etc. — and figure out what we can count on each other for, and what steps we can take.

“I don’t know that a camping ban is the answer, but with that said, we’ve also got to make sure it’s safe, sanitary, minimizing the risk, fire-wise. That seems to me something we can work on with the health department as opposed to an out-and-out ban. Even in Louisville, we have folks who go tot a church or big box stores. They’re living out of their car. Yes, we can ban that, but what are we going to do next? These individuals, then they move to Larimer County. We’re just kicking the can down the road.

“Do we need to build another shelter? Or create some safer camping areas? The economy is not going to turn around any time soon; housing is what it is in Boulder County. We have to figure out something else.”

Johnson: “I think we need to do more and better work about addressing the unhoused population in Boulder County. I’m not sure how strong a role law enforcement should play in that. This is another example of when in doubt, the community calls the police to deal with something. We’re not always the best resource. We don’t always have the best solutions but we try. Our willingness to continue to try means people become reliant on us. 

“I worked in Boulder for 27 years. Not a lot of great stuff has come out of the response to homelessness in Boulder. I’m not eager to advance another ordinance. I would like to look at other options before we start getting law enforcement involved, whether that’s safe parking areas” or other services.

The sheriff’s office has been in the news for inappropriate taser use and more than one instance of aggression from officers. What do you think this says about the culture of the office and need for change? How would you change the climate?

Hayes: “We also know we had a couple of deputies transporting a CU student” who had too much to drink. “They didn’t care for that individual, and that individual died. They were indicted and convicted for manslaughterThose incidents, though few, would suggest it’s time for a culture change. There needs to be some kind of reset.

“When we had an officer-involved shooting (in Louisville) we talked about why we were making the policy change and what expectations were. I established a values-based guidance system: Investigate beyond the obvious; leave things better than we found them; and we don’t care about race, gender, sexual preference, certainly don’t care about immigration status.”

Johnson: “I am aware of them, and after a significant policy change in the jail, the second incident (of inappropriate tasering) occurred. That employee was reported by other employees as having done it, which is a positive for the culture, that they’re willing to hold their peers accountable. That employee was terminated, the individual was prosecuted, which is appropriate. Taser use at the jail, following a policy change, has dropped dramatically. 

“I worked at Boulder PD when that van transport happened. It was an incredible mistreatment of an individual. Both those deputies are currently serving time.”

“There may be a need for culture change within the organization.” After 20 years with the same leader, “it needs a little kick in the rear, some new energy.”

After a state law change and an increase in funding, Boulder County will have more beds for people with behavioral health needs. How will you make sure people are getting into those services?

Johnson: “It’s a great step forward, but it’s also years down the road. It’s still not going to be enough to solve the problems we have right now.

“Oftentimes jail is not the best setting for people to get those needs addressed.” Despite all the resources we put into trying to help people, “it’s still a jail, at the end of the day. What can we do to move people out of the jail system?”

Hayes: “We have additional funding, but we also have a shortage of officers and clinicians. We need to continue (existing) programs in Boulder County” and pursue additional facilities and proper “oversight for people who may be struggling in the system. Expecting a person to take medication and keep themselves healthy without oversight” is not realistic.

“My vision for all this is we get the right people in the room and talk about next steps and not continue to play whack-a-mole.”

How would you improve community education around disasters and emergency response?

Hayes: The old emergency notification system “just didn’t work as well as it should have. We’re in the process of improving it. We need to get more people registered for reverse 911. We’ve teamed up with the Louisville Fire Department to do that. We discovered during the Marshall Fire that we did not have pre-drawn polygons if we need to do evacuations. We also know that we have too many cars and not enough roads.

“One of the things that came up in the Marshall Fire is why not evacuate the whole city. We were very careful and calculated. There was certainly pushback, but it was the right decision. If that fire had gone the wrong way, we would have burned people up in their cars.  

We are also hosting emergency departments from other municipalities in Louisville along with scientists from NOAA discuss what we learned and what we can do differently next time.

“Unfortunately, the next catastrophe is probably right around the corner.”

Johnson: “The Marshall Fire was a great demonstration of how we need to expand our community information across the entire county. A lot of systems in place were focused on the western part of the county. Never did I think my home in suburban Louisville would burn to the ground from a wildfire.” (Author’s note: Both Johnson and Hayes lost homes in the Marshall Fire.)

“The Office of Emergency Management that currently exists is funded by Boulder County and the city of Boulder, and that’s who it serves. Other municipalities have their own emergency managers. What I’d like to do is bring other municipalities under one umbrella. OEM is not as well staffed as I would like it to be.

“I’ve met with Boulder Rotary because they’re interested in developing a community education model, based on one in Evergreen Groups like the Boulder Chamber can help us to get the word out will also help us share the message, what people need to do.”

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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