Ari Armstrong, Criminal Justice, Exclusives, San Miguel County

Armstrong: Colorado’s longest serving sheriff on keeping the peace

“I never use the term law enforcement,” Bill Masters says. “We don’t enforce the law because there are just way too many of them. The best we can do is try to preserve a semblance of the peace.” He added, “If you call yourself a peace officer, as opposed to a law enforcement officer, you look at things differently.”

Masters, the longest-serving sheriff in Colorado history, took over the role in San Miguel County (home of Telluride) in 1980. He’s running for reelection this Fall. Years ago, when Masters and I were both Libertarians, I helped edit his book “Drug War Addiction,” a critique of U.S. drug policy. Now he’s a Democrat and I’m a Republican, but we both still share common ground about keeping government lean and focused on safety. Recently I interviewed Masters for my podcast.

Government is force, Masters emphasized. Every time the legislature criminalizes some activity, he noted, that authorizes police officers to use potentially deadly force to back up the law. When officers attempt to arrest a person for violating some law, if the person resists, officers can use necessary force to secure the arrest. Masters said that legislators “have to accept that responsibility for every law they pass. Someone may die, because we passed this law, and (someone has) decided to resist it.”

“We need to have fewer laws, not more laws,” Masters said. “We might have more respect for the law if they were fewer, and they’re laws that almost all of us could agree upon.”

During the pandemic, Telluride passed rules restricting tourism. When an official asked Masters to round up a group of Texans in town, who happened to be white, Masters asked if it also was town policy to tell black outsiders they weren’t welcome in town. He respectfully declined.

“I have tremendous discretion in determining what limited resources I have and how they’re used in the application of the law,” he said.

Masters complained that police can be held personally liable under Colorado law, but judges and legislators cannot be. He said that’s made it harder to recruit officers. “The legislature’s not held personally responsible for passing the law that officers are sent out to enforce. The judges aren’t held personally responsible for passing judgment. . . . Nobody is held responsible, except for the police officer.”

Masters brought up the Eric Garner case in New York, in which police officers killed Garner over illegal sales of cigarettes. Many point fingers at the officers, but few blame the legislators who passed the laws that the officers acted to enforce.

Masters has a point—legislators should think a lot more carefully before they criminalize something—yet I also think requiring officers to assume some personal responsibility for egregious actions is appropriate.

“Peace keeping is an honorable job,” Masters said. “I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been a great career for me. I would urge other young people to look at it as a good and honorable profession. I think we do need to stress peace keeping over law enforcement.”

Masters said there have been improvements in criminal justice over the years. Although departments of various regions of the country still use asset forfeiture laws to take money and assets from people who never are charged with any crime, Colorado at least passed some reforms years ago to try to clean up that system. (Masters and I both supported those reforms, which I think are due for a second look.) And many district attorneys increasingly look to rehabilitation rather than long prison sentences for drug abusers, Masters noted.

I asked Masters about the importance of hiring the right people and providing good training. Masters said checking out someone’s background is important. “Size up the officers by asking their neighbors about them,” he said.

Police departments sometimes reward the wrong qualities, Masters worried. Although he spoke well of the regional police academy, he noticed that the cadets best at shooting guns and driving cars can get more social status and accolades than the cadets best as mastering the academic side of the job. I suggested maybe they need an award for who can best resolve a mental health crisis.

Turning to politics, we discussed polarization. “I see a big change, certainly, in the way the two parties relate to each other, and that’s really a shame,” Masters said. “The radical or reactionary sides of both parties are the ones that end up getting their candidates chosen, and that leaves behind the moderates, who might have some really good ideas on working together to solve the problems facing us. And we don’t have that anymore. It’s all about rhetoric, and seeing how nasty you can be to each other.”

As sheriff in a Colorado mountain town, Masters said he spends a lot of his time working search and rescue operations and suppressing wildfires. He hoped access to a new helicopter will help with both endeavors. He said he works to stay fit and often mountain bikes.

Masters also recently ordered an outside assessment of his department “to see what we can do better and make sure we’re up to date in our procedures and our equipment.” He said, “I think it’s good especially for someone like me, who’s been in office for so long. I don’t want to have blinders on and not see that there’s something that we could be doing better.”

In our era in which many people see police in a negative light, sometimes justifiably so, Masters holds up a standard for virtuous peace keeping.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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