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County commissioners wrestle with Tasers

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By Don Pace

San Miguel County Sheriff Benjie Vigil told county commissioners at a meeting Tuesday that he wanted a yes or no vote immediately on standard operating procedures for using Tasers by his deputies.

But board Chairman David Salazar said he and other board members wanted to table the issue until Vigil had a chance to present his case for Tasers “fully and completely.”

“I appreciate that,” Vigil said, “But I feel your decision is going to be the same, even if I bring in professionals, other sheriff’s departments, or public members (that support Tasers) to speak about it, your decision will be the same. So, let’s just do it today, just vote yes or no,” Vigil told the board.

Salazar said he didn’t know about the rest of the board members, but he hadn’t made up his his mind on the Taser issue.

“I want to listen to both sides. The other day I listened mainly to one side, but like you said, you wanted to bring in other people who are for issuing Tasers to your department. Well, fine, let’s listen to those people also,” Salazar said. “I haven’t shut the door and said you’re not going to have them. I want to hear the pros and cons, and I think everyone else does too.”

Later in the meeting, Pat Leahan told Salazar he was mistaken about only hearing one side of the Taser issue at a community forum at Luna Community College. She said, in fact, all sides were represented.

The Optic reported that the Aug. 20 meeting was attended by the New Mexico State Police representing law enforcement; Raton resident Monica Saenz, whose brother was Tasered to death; New Mexico Association of Counties representative Bruce Swingle; and Pat Leahan or the Las Vegas Peace and Justice Center.   

As Tuesday meeting began, Chairman Salazar wondered why the commission was even looking at approving procedures and guidelines for the Sheriff’s Department and its use of Tasers, when the commission hadn’t even decided if they would allow the use of Tasers within San Miguel County.

“At this point I think it would be premature to pass standard operating procedures for something that hasn’t come before the commission. If the commission decides they are going to allow Tasers, then passing procedures for the use of Tasers is not a problem,” Salazar said.

He said the detention center has Tasers, but they are not allowed to use them at this time.

Vigil asked Salazar if he was saying his department, or the detention center, would not be able to use Tasers — “because the public can buy them and use them,” Vigil said.

“Yes the public can buy them and use them, but they are liable for how they use them. We are thinking about the liability of the county, and you (Vigil) were at the last meeting, and you saw the opposition. There are a lot of people opposed to allowing Tasers, so we need to make a decision pretty quick on whether we are going to allow the use of Tasers or not,” Salazar said.

Sheriff Vigil shot back. “We haven’t had a meeting to let my people talk. At the last meeting they weren’t allowed to speak.”

Commissioner Nicolas Leger said he tended to agree with Salazar that the commission needed to decide on the most important question first, whether or not Tasers will be allowed.

“At some point, fairly soon, we need a meeting to decide whether the county will allow the use of Tasers,” Leger said.

He said, at that point, the commission should hear from people on both sides of the issue.

“That way we can make an informed decision on what the policy is going to be. We need to give everybody a fair opportunity to present their position,” Leger said.

Vice Chairwoman June Garcia said that, after reading the sheriff’s policy, she had a lot of questions.

“The policy doesn’t say the number of times you can use a Taser on an individual. It says you can use it when someone is fleeing to avoid being served an arrest warrant. I don’t think that’s a proper use of Tasers. I have a lot of questions,” she said.

Sheriff Vigil said he compiled the Standard Operating Procedures Manuel — Advanced Taser Guidelines and Procedures For the Sheriff’s Department from the Albuquerque, Las Cruces, and Las Vegas police departments.

“The insurance (liability) for the county would be the same (as other jurisdictions). We do have the right to take down felons, we have the right to use deadly force, but I would rather use a Taser than deadly force,” Vigil said.

“How many times have you used deadly force since you've been a sheriff?” Garcia asked.

“Once in my career,” Vigil said. “In that incident, if I would have had a Taser, I think I would have used a Taser instead of using my weapon.”

Salazar said, “If you don’t mind, we will table this, and set up a special meeting.”

“It is not a simple issue,” Leger said. “It is a complicated issue, and we need to hear from everyone and make a decision. For you (Vigil) to say we are just going to do the same thing, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I want to hear the whole story before I make any decision, and I can certainly assure you I haven’t made a decision.”

With unanimous consent the board tabled a vote on the Taser policy.

Addressing the audience, Salazar said there would be a future public meeting where all sides were heard.

An audience member asked if the Standard Operating Procedures manual would, or could be made public.

County Manager Les Montoya said he would put it on the county’s website. He said it was a public record. So, those who wished could make a public records request.

Another audience member stood up and questioned wordage in the policy.

“The policy states that this is an excellent, non-deadly force tool. That’s incorrect, it’s less lethal (but) it is a deadly tool. So, to say it’s non-deadly is incorrect,” the audience member said.

Other business

In a related issue, and prior to the vote to table Tasers, it took 40 seconds for commissioners to grant approval of the 2009 Edward Byrne Memorial, JAG Programs $11,000 that will go for equipment for the Sheriff's Department.

Vigil said this was a joint grant that benefited both his department and the Las Vegas City Police.