Minorities compose half of jail population

But only a quarter of county’s residents are Hispanics, Natives

Questioned last month about the disproportionate number of minorities incarcerated locally, both candidates for Montezuma County sheriff indicated that there was no inequality.

“I have not observed a disproportionate number of minorities being incarcerated,” said Steve Nowlin, the Republican front-runner, who is seeking his first term as sheriff.

“The belief that there is a disproportionate number of minorities is not entirely correct,” said Sheriff Dennis Spruell, who is running for a second term in office.

Spruell and Nowlin answered a Cortez Journal questionnaire on March 24 and 26, respectively.

By the numbers

The facts, however, show that Native Americans and Hispanics represented half the jail population in 2013, while representing less than 25 percent of the county population.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the total population of Montezuma County was estimated at 25,642 last year. At 74 percent, whites made up the local majority, followed by 12.3 percent who identified themselves as Native American and 11.9 percent as Hispanic.

According to a 2013 Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office report, 46.8 percent of the county jail population was white, nearly equal to the 42.3 percent identified as Native American. Hispanics made up an additional 8.3 percent of all inmates in 2013, meaning the total minority population at the jail was more than half.

Presented with the statistics last week, Nowlin said he’d like to further examine the charges that were filed against minority inmates before making any further comment.

“The figures are kind of alarming,” Nowlin said.

Offered the same opportunity to reply to the data last week, Spruell confirmed the numbers were correct. Spruell said he thought that the majority of Native Americans housed at the jail originated from arrest made by the Cortez Police Department.

“We house inmates arrested by the City of Cortez,” Spruell said. “I don’t dictate who they arrest.”

“Unfortunately, I’m not surprised by the disproportionate number of minorities that are incarcerated in Montezuma County,” said Nicole Mosher, executive director of Compañeros: Four Corners Immigrant Resource Center, a non-profit Latino advocacy organization in Southwest Colorado.

“I think there is a disproportionate number across the country, and the local stats are just a reflection of what’s happening on a national level,” she said.

Reaching out

Mosher said she has received reports from the Montezuma County Latino community that they have felt intimidated by law enforcement, saying that officials from the Cortez Police Department, Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Marshals Office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have all responded to single incidents. That show of force, she said, has resulted in fear and distrust of law enforcement from minorities.

“The fear is not unwarranted,” Mosher said.

Although Mosher said that her Durango-based office hasn’t received complaints of unjust enforcement or racial profiling, she said that the top two concerns she receives are about what to do when a family member is detained or arrested.

Mosher said she has a good relationship with the Cortez Police Department but that the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t reached out to her organization. Such an effort may build trust in the Latino community, she said.

“I think it would behoove the sheriff’s office to reach out to agencies like Compañeros, which means ‘friends,’” Mosher said.

Ernest House, Jr., who heads the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, echoed the sentiment, stating that partnering with law enforcement and other local governmental agencies for cultural awareness could alleviate future disparities, not only in public safety, but in education and health care.

House said he hasn’t received official complaints regarding inequality at the Montezuma County jail. The numbers were difficult for him to dismiss.

“It’s obvious a disparity exists,” said House, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe who grew up in Montezuma County.

Cultural differences

Tribal laws differ from laws off the reservation, and House said the differences often create confusion for tribal members.

Southwest Intertribal Voice, based in Cortez, was formed in 2006 to address education, health care and public safety disparities in towns that border reservations. Art Heskahi, who leads the nonprofit organization, could not be reached for comment.

When asked about what efforts each would take to ease minority concerns, Nowlin noted in his questionnaire response that laws prohibit racial profiling, and he’d provide arrest data for public inspection.

“Any and all concerns or problems could be addressed by developing good working relationships with groups and entities, and having regular or continued contact, along with providing annual training for deputies,” Nowlin said.

Asked to expand on his original comments last week, Nowlin said he would like to meet with established minority groups to hear their ideas on improving relations and services.

“I want to have a good open relationship, and try to understand where they problems may lie,” Nowlin said. “We have to work together.”

Spruell, in office since 2011, replied in his questionnaire that his administration has continually reached out to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

“Our officers are trained in cultural awareness,” Spruell said. “The sheriff’s office works with tribal members to address problems that affect all of us.”

Last week, Spruell declined an opportunity to provide additional details on his department’s outreach efforts.

Multiple telephone messages left for Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart went unanswered.

tbaker@cortezjournal.com