by Rick Langenberg:
Teller Sheriff defends track record; vows to seek seat again
Despite finding himself on the receiving end of a barrage of insults at times from a vocal group of critics, Teller County Sheriff Mike Ensminger is relaying one strong message to his detractors: “I am here to stay.” And although it’s still too early to bolt from the starting gates in the forthcoming 2014 county election, Ensminger says he will seek to retain his seat. “I absolutely plan to run for reelection,” said the incumbent GOP sheriff. “We have hit a good stride. I love it up here.”
Moreover, he strongly stands behind his current record as Teller’s head law enforcement leader. Ensminger speaks highly of his accomplishments over the last two and half years, citing a “team approach” to law enforcement and a much more transparent administration than what occurred in the past. “We have opened our doors,” said Ensminger, in a recent interview in which the sheriff addressed a broad range of issues and even briefly discussed the recent assaults from a group of critics and a Divide business owner that have targeted his office.
As one of his prime accomplishments, Ensminger said he has established vastly improved relations with the board of county commissioners and other Teller offices. “We work as a team,” said Ensminger. “That is one of the best changes that has occurred.” With this cooperation, he says the Teller jail in Divide, previously a fiscal ‘Achilles Heel’ for the county, is doing much better financially. The sheriff attributed this fact to his department’s ability to obtain more inmates from outside the area, such illegal immigrants and federal prisoners.
His predecessor, Kevin Dougherty, frequently battled with the commissioners over a slew of financial matters, and according to former board leaders, basically told several key Teller officials to “mind their own business.” With a new team approach, Ensminger says the county has made key inroads in handling emergency disasters. “We had to deal with 30 arson fires last summer and we helped make sure that none of them got out control,” said the sheriff, who describes a great pact between his office and the county’s Emergency Management agency, headed by Steve Steed. “We worked 24/7 during the Springer and Waldo Canyon fires,” added the sheriff.
Ensminger, contrary to the claims of some critics, also is boastful about the success of the sheriff’s office in investigating and solving key cases. He cites their investigation into the Black Hebrew polygamous religious cult as a prime example. Sparked by a child abuse and missing persons’ complaint, sheriff authorities made inquiries regarding this cult in the spring of 2011, when the group reportedly moved to Teller County and reports circulated about young kids residing in horrific conditions. According to Ensminger, sheriff authorities played a pivotal role in the prosecution case against several members of this cult for murder and other serious crimes in North Carolina. Cult members were accused of killing a mother and a young black child. “We were instrumental in finding the murder weapon that they used,” said the sheriff.
The sheriff also mentions the crackdown against a major identity theft ring. This resulted in the arrest of four individuals, who were reportedly part of a bizarre counterfeiting ring in Teller County, which tried to victimize local businesses. He also cites the successful apprehension of an Air Force escapee, who eluded authorizes in Colorado Springs and stole an ATV vehicle.
In addition, Ensminger is optimistic about pending progress regarding a homicide investigation in the Holiday Hills area, dealing with the unusual death of a Colorado Springs man in 2011, who was house-sitting at a local residence.
Plus, Ensminger has been on the public forefront of a lightning rod issue in Colorado and the United States: gun control. He has especially been a vocal proponent of the anti-gun control position, endorsed by the Teller commissioners (see related story), requesting a delay in any proposed laws that may clash with the Second Amendment gun ownership rights. “If we are going to continue to discuss gun control laws, then we are going to have to change the Second Amendment,” said Ensminger, a stance that has been heavily supported by the Teller County Republicans. On Monday, Ensminger joined many sheriffs in Colorado in testifying before a legislative committee regarding this issue.
Dealing with critics
Ensminger, though, is the first to admit his debut as sheriff hasn’t been clear sailing. He has faced assaults from a vocal group of critics, who have accused the sheriff of overzealous enforcement measures, harassing certain people, including older veterans, and creating unnecessary legal expenses. “They come in here like King Kong,” blasted Deborah McKown, a representative of the Teller County Tea Party, and a staunch Ensminger critic, in questioning the tactics of the Teller Emergency Response Team, referred to as the SWAT team, in certain cases. Other critics have echoed similar sentiments and contend that the Teller taxpayers may be forced to bail out the sheriff’s office for roughing up and harassing certain people. “He keeps talking about how transparent he is, but I don’t see that,” complained Divide business owner Steve Kerrison, who co-owns the Smokin’ Q restaurant.
But the sheriff questions the motivation of his critics and whether this is a byproduct of the 2010 election. Although Ensminger captured the sheriff’s seat by a convincing margin over Mark Manriquez, the 2010 campaign featured one of the ugliest contests for the head law enforcement post in recent memory. “They are upset because their guy didn’t get to be the sheriff,” said Ensminger. Since he assumed the ropes of the sheriff’s office in September 2010, when Dougherty suddenly resigned, Ensminger said rumors have abounded regarding recall threats.
But to date, none of these have turned into official recall petition efforts. Kerrison said he was prepared to form a recall group last summer and even open a campaign office in Woodland Park, but opted to abandon the idea when he feared that recall committee leaders may be targeted by the sheriff. Nevertheless, he claims he had nearly 500 people who were ready to sign an Ensminger recall petition at his restaurant. Sheriff officials, though, question these claims. “We have set up a citizens’ complaint system and I haven’t heard from any of these people,” related Ensminger.
As for the touchy issue of lawsuits, the sheriff admits the county’s head law enforcement leader is a popular target. “That is the nature of the job,” said Ensminger, who maintains the current number of lawsuits targeting his office is quite small compared to other counties. Plus, he says these aren’t costing the taxpayers a cent, since these potential expenses are handled by the county’s insurance carrier. And when it comes to the county’s SWAT team, featuring a group of about 15 highly trained officers from the sheriff’s department and the city of Woodland Park, Ensminger is baffled by his critics. He cites this program as an ideal way to assure the protection of Teller citizens in a cost-effective manner. “These are volunteers. They are training on their own time,” said Ensminger.
Plus, sheriff officials tout the success of the Teller Emergency Response Team. The group has competed in national competitions, finishing in the top ten among leading law enforcement agencies from around the country and world.
While saying he is not deterred by his critics, the incumbent sheriff admits he is definitely worried about the pending financial challenges facing the county. In fact, he mentions this as the premiere issue for his agency. “We are operating at 2005 budget levels,” said Ensminger. And unfortunately, he doesn’t see this financial scenario getting any better due to the state’s economy.
Ensminger says the county sheriff’s department is already down by three deputies. The sheriff believes his agency must get more aggressive in trying to obtain grants. Last week, the Teller commissioners unveiled a bit of good news on the fiscal front. The gaming impact fund, which plays a major role in funding the jail and patrol operations of the sheriff’s department, is expected to increase this year.