Sheriff Duke Schirard will exit office Monday after 20 years at the helm, leaving behind a debatable legacy.
His department can boast a record of solid police work over the years, but he soundly was defeated, 56 percent to 44 percent, in November after impolitic actions.
In a meeting with The Durango Herald’s editorial board during the election, he admitted to threatening to issue a summons to a Durango police officer and to fire his opponent – also a deputy – for spreading what he called lies.
Earlier in the election season, his opponent leaked an email that revealed Schirard’s distaste for Durango’s culture.
As in past elections, he was dogged by 35-year-old allegations of domestic violence, which produced no arrests and his ex-wives denied.
It’s true that voters have chosen him as sheriff three times. He appealed to a faction of La Plata County residents that held his same unabashedly conservative views. During the election, Schirard liked to tout the fact that he was one of the few – if only – law-enforcement chiefs in the state to issue concealed-carry gun permits. His gun-rights platform largely is responsible for his first election win in 1994.
Despite the election outcome, many still support him and recalled an era of dependable law enforcement while he was in office.
“He is loved by a lot of people. He is a good person. He has a big heart. He has always done the best that he could, and I respect him,” said Lt. Ed Phippen, who started working at the Sheriff’s Office in 1987 and now is in charge of the Criminal Investigative Unit.
Schirard refused to talk with the Herald for this story. Likewise, several top officials in the department, including sheriff’s spokesman Dan Bender and Undersheriff David Griggs, and professionals he worked with closely in the community did not return phone calls seeking comment or chose not to go on record.
Leadership hits and misses
Under Schirard’s leadership, the Sheriff’s Office solved every murder case except one – the case of teenager Dylan Redwine who went missing near Vallecito in 2012 and whose remains were found about seven months later. The office has closed about 70 percent of felony cases over the last 20 years and expanded the jail to make it more functional, Phippen and another sheriff’s official said.
“I’m proud of our accomplishments over the years, and I know Duke is, too,” Phippen said.
Something worked, because during his 20 years as sheriff, Schirard faced competition only three times. Typically, he won elections by a landslide.
Schirard’s leadership during the 37-day Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002 was a prime example of his strengths in the minds of some supporters. He made the tough decision to allow some property owners to defend their own homes during the fire, said Butch Knowlton, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.
But while he has accomplishments during his 20-year career as sheriff, he often was criticized openly in letters to the editor and by former employees or reserve deputies.
Schirard seemed content resting on his laurels during his last campaign. He challenged voters to identify one instance in which his department didn’t meet their needs, while his challenger, Sean Smith, focused on the future and what could be done better.
With the exception of his first election against the incumbent sheriff, this was the first time Schirard faced a serious opponent. Still, he took a laid-back approach to campaigning.
“Duke, being the good ol’ boy, arrogant individual that he is, thought he didn’t need to do anything to win but be Duke,” said Wally White, a former La Plata County commissioner.
Phippen said the sheriff conducted a good campaign, but this time, Schirard had a viable opponent.
“I don’t think there was anything different as to what he did,” Phippen said.
Colleagues said they appreciated Schirard’s hands-off management style.
“He put good people in leadership positions and let them do their job,” Capt. Michael Slade said. “He always looked after his employees. He didn’t necessarily care how that made him look politically.”
Knowlton said his management style contributed to the high success rate of search-and-rescue missions.
Under Schirard, every person who has gone missing has been recovered, although some have died before crews found them.
“He gave me latitude to do all the things that were necessary,” Knowlton said.
Schirard’s hands-off style raised questions for White, who oversaw the county’s budget during his stint as a commissioner.
Schirard’s budget often was presented to the county commissioners by his department heads instead of the sheriff himself, White said.
White recalled seeing Schirard in the courthouse only when there was a problem that needed to be addressed.
“We just had to discuss with his staff what his budget issues were,” he said.
In addition, the department would request funding for more patrol deputies, and those people would end up in jail positions, White said.
“The personnel were not being fully utilized to the best extent that they could be,” he said.
A man’s man
It always was Schirard’s goal to be sheriff in La Plata County, said James “Jardi” Schirard, his son.
“He’s always loved that community, loved serving the community,” he said.
Before his father took office, there was an attitude of “them against us” between the community and the sheriff’s office. His father helped repair that relationship, he said.
Yet in an email from his official Sheriff’s Office account, Schirard lamented changes in Durango’s government and population. The email was sent March 18 to Wendy Cox, apparently in response to whether he planned to attend a meeting of the Durango Gun Club. Smith, who was copied on the email, decided to share it with Durango City Council.
“The demographics of downtown Durango has changed so drastically in the 42 years I have lived in La Plata County that I don’t even recognize it or want to go downtown,” he wrote.
He was upset by City Council’s demand that the gun club either stop requiring members to join the National Rifle Association or vacate its rent-free location on city property.
“This is purely a reaction from your liberal, democratic, gun hating, pot loving, abortionist, Obama supporting socialist who have taken over Durango City government and want it to be Aspen south (sic),” he wrote in the email.
Schirard always has prided himself on being a straight shooter.
“A diplomat is not the right word, and politician is not the right word,” said J. Michael Rodri, a personal friend of Schirard.
“He’s just a good, honest guy.”