Summit sheriff race: Republican Woodman says his 35-year career speaks for itself
Summit County is full of transplants, and Derek Woodman, born in Los Angeles, is one of them. But if you’re looking for the closest thing to the county’s native son this election cycle, a good start would be Woodman, a 35-year veteran of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office who is now hoping to unseat interim Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons in November.
Woodman was nominated as the Republican party’s candidate after former Sheriff John Minor announced he would be stepping down in May. But the county commissioners — all Democrats — voted unanimously to appoint FitzSimons as sheriff, who fired Woodman, citing precedent that electoral opponents of the sheriff should not also serve as his deputies.
It was a big change for Woodman, who had worked his way up from jail deputy at the ripe age of 21 to undersheriff, a post he held for 12 years. The job, he said, had become a part of his identity.
“I didn’t even have an email address outside of the sheriff’s office,” he recalled. “That was the only way a lot of people knew how to get in touch with me.”
Back when he started, he was replacing his father, a former LAPD officer who worked a stint in the jail before moving to the Breckenridge Police Department. Woodman said he always felt he was going to get into law enforcement given his father’s background, but it wasn’t because of any war stories or tales of triumph.
“My dad went through some tough times in LA, with the riots in Watts, a lot of pretty bad stuff. So he never talked about it much,” Woodman said. “But now I’ve been in law enforcement far longer than he ever was.”
When Woodman started at the jail, it was a bit of a trial by fire; the new sheriff at the time had just cleaned house, and Woodman was one of two employees running the entire jail.
“We put in 12-hour shifts seven days a week,” he recalled. “That’s probably one of the reasons I didn’t want to stay in the jail once I’d gotten it stabilized, because that was pretty stressful.”
Changing of the guard
Woodman has seen five such transitions of power at the sheriff’s office, and he said the changes have fallen along a wide spectrum.
“The underlying responsibility of the sheriff’s office is the same, but with a different flavor. Each has different priorities, different views on certain things and different expectations of staff.”
No transition, of course, has been as disruptive for Woodman as this latest one, which brought his long tenure in the sheriff’s office to an abrupt, if possibly temporary end.
“It was a shock, to be honest,” he said. “But I like to think it ended up being a blessing in disguise: campaigning is truly a full-time job. I dedicate more than 40 hours a week to my campaign, easy.”
On the trail, Woodman said he’s heard overwhelming support for the sheriff’s office — and law enforcement in the county as a whole. He said one of his biggest priorities, besides public safety, would be to give the community more ownership of its sheriff’s office.
“People say they want the ability to have their voices heard and have the ability to communicate directly with their Sheriff,” he said.
Also high on Woodman’s list is helping tackle mental illness and substance abuse in Summit County, problems that have been getting more attention lately as suicides mount and the jail is being strained by the number of inmates needing basic mental health care.
“Jail is not a place for mental health patients, but all too often there’s no other place for them that’s safe,” Woodman said. “It puts a tremendous strain on jail staff because they aren’t trained as mental-health providers. But it’s also unfair to the individual. They need to get treatment.”
Last year, Woodman sent his campus resource deputy, who serves the county’s schools, to a suicide awareness training class in Eagle. He said that she was the first cop to go, and found it to be extremely informative and useful. Woodman said it should be standard for all deputies and jail staff.
He also said that he’s been part of conversations for the past several years about getting a crisis treatment center in Summit, which could help fill the gap in psychiatric care in the High Country.
“That would be beneficial not only to Summit County, but the surrounding communities as well.”
Not finished yet
After Woodman was fired, he was not allowed back in the office he occupied for decades, and his things were boxed up and placed in the hall. Some of the items allegedly found in that office — including three guns and several thousand dollars in cash originally from evidence — were included in an audit of the sheriff’s office ordered by the county in June after the transition of power.
The audit, released last week, questioned some of the evidence-handling policies promulgated by Woodman, and a further analysis of the documents showed gaps in his accounting of funds for classified operations like drug buys and informant payoffs.
Woodman says the audit was politically motivated and biased against him, and while he confirms he kept one gun in his office, he denies any knowledge of the other two. He also stands firmly by his long record at the sheriff’s office, citing the numerous programs he oversaw, including the Summit County Drug Task Force, which operated from 1998 until funding ran dry in 2009. From his days in the field, Woodman is most proud of drug investigations he conducted.
“I thought it was fun, getting out there and being proactive on enforcing the law,” he said. “You had to create these cases from scratch, and I enjoyed the complexity of working with informants and building evidence all the way to the end.”
Woodman still hasn’t opened up those six large boxes containing the physical history of his 35 years at the sheriff’s office. He hopes to move right back in come November, and better to keep his things packed and ready for the move.
“My first day in office I’ll go back and say hi to all the people and staff I couldn’t say goodbye to,” he said. “Then I’ll be getting my command staff together and see what direction we need to go.”
For Woodman, that would be the culmination of one of his fondest memories from his long career: when John Minor was elected Sheriff in 2004 and he named Woodman his undersheriff.
“I knew I was going to be standing side-by-side with John and that we were going to lead this organization into the future — and that we were going to mold and create a great organization,” he said, after several moments of reflection.
“And we did.”
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