Summit County sheriff hires civilian commander to oversee police reform measures
The Summit County Sheriff’s Office hired a new civilian commander to oversee the implementation of police reform measures passed by the Colorado Legislature earlier this year.
The Sheriff’s Office swore in Christopher Walton on Nov. 18 to serve as the commander of the new Support Services Division, a post tasked with handling the changes outlined in Senate Bill 20-217, the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis this summer.
While Walton does have significant law enforcement experience, he’ll be serving as a civilian in his new role, which officials called a deliberate choice to improve oversight within the office.
“Having an outward-facing civilian commander be accountable for the implementation of this bill is vitally important,” Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “That’s the trend you’re going to see moving forward as we see requests and demands from the public for more civilian oversight. This is a first for the Sheriff’s Office, but Chris comes with a vast amount of managerial and command experience. Combined with his education, training and personal accolades, he’s an ideal commander to move this implementation forward.”
The law outlines a number of far-reaching changes to police operations in the state over the coming years, including requirements for body-worn cameras, the loss of qualified immunity for officers, new data-tracking stipulations, use-of-force restrictions and more.
Walton’s job largely is writing the policy for how the office will implement the bill’s mandates over the coming months and years. Walton spent most of his career with the U.S. Army, ending his service as a lieutenant colonel-deputy provost marshal in charge of operations for Multi-National Corps — Iraq, essentially serving as the primary military police planner for all of Iraq until about 2011.
Walton said he has three major skills: jumping out of an airplane, squeezing a trigger and writing. His job in Summit will require only the last, and he’s already started analyzing the bill and penning new policies to begin improving deputy training and to get the necessary equipment in place.
“Part of what I’ll be doing here is professional standards, including the implementation of the bill and ensuring our compliance with it over time,” Walton said. “My experience as a police officer in a different setting is really going to help me as a civilian in the oversight of the new laws. … This bill is a reflection of what the people desire. Through our Legislature, people are asking for some changes in policing, and I think we’re very much on the right track to doing that, especially here.”
The top priority for now is the acquisition of body-worn cameras and patrol vehicle cameras for deputies. The requirement doesn’t kick in until 2023, but with local governments facing potential liabilities now, Walton said sooner was better in an effort to protect deputies and the office at large.
Officials emphasized that all body cams aren’t built equal, and Walton is recommending a contract with Axon, which provides cameras that automatically activate whenever a deputy draws their Taser or firearm, or unlocks the patrol rifle from their vehicle.
The Sheriff’s Office is scheduled to bring the contract proposal to the Summit Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, Dec. 8 — a $360,000 ask that would fund the entire digital camera package for deputies and vehicles, along with the necessary software to properly store and add the footage into evidence, according to FitzSimons. Walton said he’s hopeful deputies will have body cameras in place, along with training on the new equipment, within the next six months.
In addition to overseeing changes in professional standards like policy writing and training, Walton said he’ll also be involved in the management of records and evidence, along with any internal investigations, if necessary. He’s the only employee of the Support Services Division right now, but the team is expected to expand over time.
FitzSimons said once body cams are in place, new evidence technicians would have to be brought in to help carry the extra load. The Sheriff’s Office also recently swore in two new sergeants, meant to provide better supervision and take pressure off deputies having to make tough decisions while on patrol.
But staffing remains a concern despite the recent hires, especially as some deputies leave the profession altogether as a result of the loss of qualified immunity. FitzSimons said at least three deputies have left the office because of the bill since it went into effect in June, and the office is currently short-staffed by nine deputies.
While changes are coming to training and operations, Walton emphasized that the office already exhibits an exemplary culture and philosophy that would help to support the reforms. He lauded the Sheriff’s Office’s Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team as an example of the office’s already progressive approach to community policing.
“You often hear the term ‘law enforcement officer,’ and I think that really detracts from the overall role,” Walton said. “Colorado law calls them peace officers, and that’s how I see what we’re doing here. A significant part of that is enforcing the law, but it’s also community assistance and doing the right thing by the members of our community. … People want greater accountability in policing, and they want different philosophies and mindsets in terms of how we deal with certain situations.
“I think we’re well on the road to getting where they want us to be.”
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