Sheriff hopefuls debate Tasers

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By Don Pace

Three Democratic candidates for San Miguel County sheriff said the Sheriff’s Department should be able to use Tasers, which are electroshock weapons.

Another said it’s too early because the department is still an inmate transport agency, not a law enforcement one. Still another said he’s opposed to the weapon entirely, to which an independent candidate agreed.

Candidates for sheriff and magistrate judge took questions during a forum on Thursday sponsored by the Highlands University Graduate Student Senate.

On the June 1 primary ballot for Division 1 magistrate judge are incumbent Philip Romero, and challengers Ruth Trujillo, a Democrat, and Daniel Holguin Sr., a Republican. Division 2 Magistrate Judge Chris Najar is running unopposed.

Sheriff candidates include incumbent Benjie Vigil, and challengers Ben J. Lujan, Roy Pacheco, Clarence Romero and Joseph Santillanes. In addition, Rico Giron, an independent candidate for sheriff, will be on the November general election ballot.

QUESTION: What is your position on the Sheriff’s Department having Tasers and what role does the county commission have in that decision?

Vigil: As you know, I’ve been dealing with that problem for awhile, trying to get Tasers for my department. At this time, the commissioners do not want me to have Tasers, but after talking with attorneys and the sheriff’s association, I am told the commissioners really don’t have the say-so for me to carry Tasers. The only say-so the commissioners have is not giving me a purchase order to purchase Tasers. At this time, the Santa Fe Sheriff’s Department is going to donate Tasers and train us. You are the first to know that the Sheriff’s Department will be carrying Tasers after June 1.

Lujan: I think the Sheriff’s Department should carry Tasers because it’s less harmful than shooting someone with a bullet. I don’t think the county commissioners should have anything to say about carrying Tasers.

Romero: I’ve been in law enforcement for 25 years, and Tasers are a very effective tool when used properly. The fear the County Commission may have against Tasers may be removed if they were educated on the use of Tasers and the policies in place. When and how it should be deployed, it is a less than lethal weapon used in situations when you don’t have to use deadly force. So they’re an awesome tool, I have used them, and they work. There have been issues where people have died from Tasers, but there is research that says those deaths weren’t caused by the Taser itself.

Santillanes: I don’t like Tasers. I was in the Police

Department when they were being issued, and I never wanted one. I see it as a tool, but I’ve seen it used improperly many times. One reason I don’t like Tasers is because we have other tools like expandable batons, plus most of the time I’ve seen Tasers used is because police officers don’t want to get their uniforms dirty. Just recently a 15-year-old girl was Tased in Las Cruces because she was in a fight, and we all know what happened to the juvenile in Tucumcari who was Tased by the chief of police. I think the County Commission position on this is right on.

Giron: I would immediately ban the use of Tasers in the county. They’re very dangerous, and if you go on the Internet and look at the safety issues, you will find out for yourselves. If Tasers are used, it would only be after conducting an in-depth review, and if they are ever used, they should only be used on people who are endangering human life, not on teenagers, the elderly or women.

Pacheco: I do support the Taser; it is a good tool. However, I don’t think it should be used by the Sheriff’s Department right now. Right now I view the department as a transport agency, and if you are transporting someone, you do not need a Taser. I’ve taught people how to properly use the Taser, and someone mentioned that Tasers cause death, but there’s no one who can actually say that a Taser has caused a death.  QUESTION: Who are you going to pick for undersheriff?

Pacheco: He’s been a detective at at the Las Vegas Police Department for 12 years; his name is Kenneth Jenkins. I chose him, because I won’t have to babysit him, he’s got a work ethic that is amazing. We have been together in the investigations section for the last five years, and I think we make a great team.

Giron: I will take applications to see who the best qualified candidate is.

Santillanes: I think it would be premature and presumptuous for me to say whom I would name as undersheriff. First, I want to win this race, and when I do win, you (moderator) will be the second person to know.

Romero: At this point, I haven’t selected anyone, but the person I name as undersheriff will have to be a certified police officer.

Lujan: I have selected (district attorney’s office investigator) Tony Valdez because he has been a police officer and currently works for the district attorney’s office. He knows what the law is all about and would be a good under-sheriff.

Vigil: I will keep William Cruz. He has over 25 years of law enforcement experience, including administrative duties. He has also been an officer on the street. He is doing a great job right now.

QUESTION: How would you handle a deputy or former deputy who was arrested for DWI? (Recently, a magistrate judge decided against having former Undersheriff Joe Robert Urban go to jail after the ex-officer was charged with DWI. Urban was released into the custody of Sheriff Benjie Vigil.)

Vigil: Well, the fact that that did happen, and as you know my former under-sheriff was arrested for DWI. I didn’t get involved, but I was called to go pick him up and take him home. You’ve got to follow procedures and follow the law, no matter who it is. But that night, I just took him home. I didn’t have anything to do with it (investigation).

Lujan: In a DWI case, whether it’s family members, or fellow officers, you’ve got to follow procedure. You’ve got to follow the steps. No matter who it is they have to go to jail. If it’s an officer, they can be kept under seclusion.

Romero: The law says they go to jail, period. If it should be a fellow employee or friend, we have to follow procedure regarding what discipline is handed out. People are innocent until proven guilty, so as an administrator you have to hold off until the courts make a decision, but if it was a friend or something like that, the law says they will go to jail, period,

Santillanes: No man or woman is above the law, and Benjie, I’ve known you for a lot of years. I started with you 21 years ago, and I’ve got to tell you, I lost a little respect for you when that stuff happened, and how you’ve defended it again just now. We have a serious DWI problem here in San Miguel County, and law enforcement officers are held to a higher standard. Everyone involved in law enforcement should know that, and we do. The public is always watching, and when you ask for the public’s vote, consider yourself public property. In the event that anyone of my family members or employees ask for a favor, and it’s happened before, I say, ‘You’ve got to take care of it on your own.’ The law is clear in what it calls for, so that’s my position on that.

Giron: My flier says, ‘If you do the crime, you will do the time.’ Nobody is above the law, not a police officer, not a sheriff, not a judge, not an attorney. We need to be responsible for our actions, from A to Z, and the problems that are created with the cronyism, nepotism and favoritism when you start doling out favors in return for votes, and access to power or whatever it might be. The law is the law, and it applies to every single person. In this county, under my administration, if you do the crime, you will do the time.

Pacheco: Policy and procedure should tell you exactly what you’re going to do. An internal investigation should follow, I currently do internal affairs at the Las Vegas Police Department. This question was kind of geared toward Benjie, and I don’t agree with what Mr. Santillanes said as far as he (former undersheriff) has to go to jail or should have been in jail. On that night, I honestly believe that Benjie did the right thing. If I’m asleep at home and I get a call that one of my friends has been arrested and is being released by a judge, I would pick him up. But more importantly, I’m doing what I was elected to do — get people home safe.

QUESTION: Does the Sheriff’s Department have enough deputies, and if not, how do you get the County Commission to increase your budget?

Santillanes: Budgets are tight, but the way you work with the County Commission is by showing them the need. The sheriff’s failure to provide statistics on citations, traffic accidents, DWIs, burglaries, home invasions involving his department hinders his ability to obtain more money for his budget. In 2009, there was a total of over 4,500 citations that went through magistrate court from all law enforcement agencies in San Miguel County. Out of those 4,500 citations, only 122 were issued by the Sheriff’s Department. If there isn’t anything getting done by the Sheriff’s Department, how can you expect the County Commission to give you more money?

Romero: We have to transform the Sheriff’s Department back into a working law enforcement agency. We need to show county and state officials we need more resources; to get those resources, we need to show the need. Unfortunately, the Sheriff’s Department hasn't done that, and if I am sheriff, I will bring this department from what it is now, to a functional Sheriff’s Department. With my experience as an administrator, I know how to get grants and appropriations.

Lujan: We need more deputies, but to get more money from the County Commission, you have to have a rock-solid plan. You can get grants from the state and federal levels, and you can get money from other places, not just the County Commission.

Vigil: At this time I have six deputies, the undersheriff and myself. My deputies spend most of their time transporting prisoners. My undersheriff and I answer calls at all hours of the day and night. I try to work with the commissioners, but they say there’s no funds. I’ve tried to go for grants, but most grants require matching funds, and the commissioners will not pay matching funds. The only thing I’ve got with grants is equipment, I have a lot of equipment, but no manpower. I wish them luck if they get to be sheriff; I hope they get more people.

Pacheco: With the eight deputies that they have, I could run a 24-hour department, where there’s at least two people on patrol every night, and some nights three and four. In November 2009, there were only 97 reports done by the Sheriff’s Department, and I believe if our department is proactive and working for the communities we serve, the commission is more likely to listen to my requests. I’m not going to into this race saying I’m going to add seven or eight deputies, even though we do need them. I will work with what we have right now, and a year down the road when we are making progress, I will go in and ask for one or two more deputies.

Giron: It’s obvious that there are not enough deputies in the county. Currently, the situation is the county commissioners and manager are working against Benjie, and that’s why he’s so frustrated and limited in what he can do. I would look to the national and state sheriff’s associations, and network with all these guys to see what grants are available, and then tie into those sources. That would help us in essence nullify the power-tripping of the County Commission and county manager, so we could just bypass them, and run the Sheriff’s Department in a truly autonomous manner. The sheriff is the top law enforcement dog in the county, and to have the County Commission and the county manager limiting what they do is an absolute shame to the citizens of this county.