The City of Centennial has retained former Arapahoe County Sheriff David Walcher as a consultant to study whether the city, which contracts for law enforcement service from the sheriff's office, should cut ties and form its own police department.
Leadership at the sheriff's office saw change after the November election, when Democrat Tyler Brown took the sheriff's seat from Walcher, a Republican with more than three decades of law enforcement under his belt. Brown, 36, has worked as an officer in Northglenn, Aurora Public Schools and the small Town of Mountain View near Interstate 70 and Sheridan Boulevard.
While county sheriffs are elected, chiefs of police departments are generally appointed by city officials. Allison Wittern, Centennial's spokeswoman, said the city has received more questions about its law enforcement service since the election.
“There has been an increase in citizen inquiries regarding the continuity of policies and practices for law enforcement operations,” Wittern said. “This feasibility study allows the city an opportunity to review our current model and ensure it is in alignment with the community's best interests.”
Walcher declined to comment for this story, including on the question of whether the election, and the insulation of police departments from electoral changes in power, influenced the study being carried out now.
Centennial's contract with the sheriff's office allows city council time to “evaluate the leadership and policing philosophies of the person charged with managing that service,” Wittern said. “It's a 10-year contract, and the makeup of city council can change during that period. The council seated when there is a transition in leadership with any service contract should have the right to review.”
Citizens have asked about the city's model of law enforcement periodically before the election, too, and the city hasn't decided to create a police department, Wittern said.
Centennial, a city that prides itself on contracting for service with outside entities — both public and private — pointed out it has completed similar studies when evaluating other contracts for service, such as public works and animal control.
City councilmembers need more information to have informed discussions about the city's current approach to providing law enforcement service, Wittern said.
In 2013, the city conducted an assessment of its agreement with the sheriff's office for service, but it didn't carry out a fully study to compare the contract model with running its own police department, Wittern said.
“Results of the previous assessment and a comparison of law enforcement services with a local peer city showed Centennial receives a higher level of law enforcement services at a lower cost,” Wittern said. “However, that assessment did not provide a cost estimate for what it would take to (establish) our own police department.”
The city in its 2019 budget allocated $29 million for the sheriff's office, but it's unclear how much a police department would need. Among many other factors, the study will consider what building a police facility would require, including items like square footage, real estate cost or renting as opposed to owning, Wittern said. Walcher would have to engage others to determine that information, she added. The study is expected to be submitted to the city in early March.
The sheriff’s office is aware of the study and is providing information to the city to support the process, said Glenn Thompson, public safety bureau chief for the sheriff’s office.
“For the past 18 years, the (sheriff's office) has provided the highest level of comprehensive public safety services to the citizens of Centennial,” Thompson said. It “believes this combination of personnel and resources working together seamlessly provides the community with an extremely high level of service at a cost which is less than comparable police departments.”
While the office “respects and understands that Centennial must be able to answer to those who question” why a city of its size doesn’t have its own department, Thompson said without the city’s contract, the office wouldn’t be able to retain some portion of the 175 positions that serve Centennial.
“The greatest issue of concern for the sheriff’s office is related to the welfare of those men and women who currently serve the citizens of Centennial and are paid through the contract,” Thompson said.
The sheriff’s office referred to the city the question of whether those personnel would be able to work for the potential police department. The topic is premature, Wittern said, and the city "is not at a point where we’ve thought that far ahead."
Walcher's retention was made by City Manager Matt Sturgeon, in compliance with the city's purchasing policy and with council's knowledge — as is customary for such a consultant, Wittern said.
“He obviously knows the community very well, and he's been sheriff,” Wittern said. “If we would have hired someone else, it would have taken them months to get them to understand” the city.
The city entered into the contract with Walcher Jan. 8, Wittern said. That's the same day Brown and other elected officials in the county took their oaths of office. Walcher's hourly rate is $250, and the city anticipates 320 hours of work for the study, Wittern said.
Walcher's loss in the election came amid the much-mentioned “blue wave” washing over Arapahoe County, with Democrats also defeating incumbent Republicans in the county clerk and assessor races.
Brown applied in 2012 to be a sheriff's deputy in Arapahoe County but didn't get the job, he said in a previous interview with Colorado Community Media. As sheriff, one of his focuses is on community partnerships and being more approachable to the public, he said.
“I think change instills a little bit of fear in everyone, but this transition has been smooth,” Brown said. “When people realize not much has changed, they're going to be very pleased with the law enforcement services we provide.”
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