Sheriff Joe Pelle and staff discuss strategy during a wildland fire exercise in the Emergency Operations Center, May 20, 2016. Left to right: Operations Division Chief Robert Sullenberger, Sheriff Pelle, OEM Deputy Director Amy Danzl. (photo courtesy Sheriff's Office)

If you put 10 people in a room and asked them who they thought would make the best sheriff, hands down they’d all pick Joe Pelle.

Sheriff Pelle embodies the personality, character, awareness and compassion needed to be sheriff in our unique community. His steady hand has helped us deal with myriad natural disasters and social issues during his 14 years in office.

Pelle, who grew up in Boulder and attended Fairview High School, has had a lifelong career in police work.Elected sheriff in 2003, Pelle previously served with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department and Boulder Police Department before running for office. Pelle lives on a small farm north of Longmont with his wife, the former Stephanie Booton. They have two grown children and two grandchilden.

Tom Brock interviewed Sheriff Joe Pelle in Pelle’s office on July 18, 2016. The two previous weeks had seen containment of the Cold Springs Fire, and the shooting of 12 police officers in Dallas.

Boulder Magazine: I know the past couple of weeks have been just crazy for you, so thank you for making the time to speak with us. You’ve been in law enforcement for more than 35 years. Why did you decide to make it your career?

Joe and Stephanie Pelle at Joe’s police academy graduation June 1980. (photo courtesy Joe Pelle)
Joe and Stephanie Pelle at Joe’s police academy graduation June 1980. (photo courtesy Joe Pelle)

Joe Pelle: When I was a kid I got involved in the cadet program that the sheriff’s office had, and I got to spend a lot of time with deputies and dispatch. It was exciting, different. I was attracted to the fact that you really never knew what was going to happen next, and it was fresh, and it wasn’t a routine by any means. I decided early on, in high school, that I wanted to do this. As soon as I got out of high school I went to college and got a degree as quick as I could and got to work.

You graduated from Fairview High School in 1977, and by 1980 you were with the sheriff’s department. You then served with the Boulder Police for many years before coming back as sheriff. What are some of the priorities that this community faces when it comes to law enforcement?
Well, the police department and the sheriff’s office are really two different animals. I enjoy the sheriff’s office a lot because we police primarily in the rural areas, the mountain areas, small towns, and so the priorities are different. It’s a big geographical area and it’s very diverse. It just depends on where you are in regard to priorities. Last week, during the tragic funerals in Dallas, we were fighting a fire, which is one of the responsibilities of the sheriff—to coordinate wildfire suppression. So, while the rest of the world is focused on the whole urban issue of racial relationships and the police, I’m dealing with a community that’s evacuated, afraid, concerned, very upset about transients and camping and fires, and all of the issues that are going on around Nederland and the mountain areas.

That’s very different than the east part of the county, where we deal with more people, more suburban and urban issues, different ethnic groups and their issues. It really depends on where you’re at.

Have the issues you face changed much in the years you’ve been on the force?
Oh yes, things have changed a lot. For instance, the issues we’re having in the mountains with residents and recreational users of the forest and transients. Those things were not as intense [in the past] because there was less recreational use, shooting, ATVs—all the things that happen when a whole bunch of urban people from the Denver area rush to the mountains to use the forests at their pleasure, which rubs the mountain residents the wrong way. Over the years those conflicts have intensified tenfold.
Give us an idea of the breadth of the responsibilities that your officers deal with on a given day or week.

We have such diverse responsibilities here. The sheriff’s office is responsible for everything from running the jail to patrolling the rural areas and small towns outside the city of Boulder and Longmont to our responsibility for wildfire management. We have a responsibility for search and rescue, plus we are officers of the court. We have to do all the court security and deliver all of the court documents, restraining orders and writs of garnishment. We have to do, unfortunately, all the writs of restoration, which most people call evictions. About 400 people work here and they do a really wide variety of stuff. The interesting part of that for the sheriff is you have to know a little bit about all of those things in order to manage it.

Pelle briefing media during the Nederland Cold Springs Fire in July. (photo courtesy Sheriff's Office)
Pelle briefing media during the Nederland Cold Springs Fire in July. (photo courtesy Sheriff’s Office)

One of your more public faces is dealing with natural disasters. Give us an idea of what your officers do during something like the Cold Springs Fire, or the floods of 2013.
The sheriff is responsible by statute for coordinating search and rescue and wildfire suppression. Largely it is coordinating the efforts of a lot of different people. No mountain fire department has enough people to deal with those things by themselves. We have deputies who establish manned posts and communication efforts, ask for mutual aid from other departments, coordinate people coming and going, and manage everything from logistics to the actual rescue or suppression of the event. My job, too, gets more complex as I become financially responsible for all of those things. I’m trying to make sure that we get disaster declarations and state assistance and apply for federal assistance.

That has to go through your office?
It starts with us. Commissioners are the ones that sign the local disaster declaration. We get that going to them right away, and we call for the state fire-management officer to respond. I sit down with him, actually. We work through a complexity analysis and we decide if this has got financial responsibility; then we sign cost-sharing agreements.

You handle that while still in the midst of everything else?
Yes, it has to be fast because we’re literally spending tens of thousands of dollars an