Sheriff makes far fewer DWI arrests

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By David Giuliani

The San Miguel Sheriff’s Department maintains that it is focused on reducing drunken driving. But the agency is making far fewer such arrests than it used to, according to statistics.

In 1999, the department arrested 80 people for DWI, almost as many as the Las Vegas Police Department, according to a study by a state-funded consultant. Since then, the number has dropped sharply — 53 in 2000, 21 in 2001, 12 in 2002 and 4 in 2003.

The county no longer benefits from such reports because of a lack of funding.

However, the San Miguel County DWI Program reports that the Sheriff’s Department made just seven drunken driving arrests for a 15-month period from July 2006 to September 2007. No arrests at all were made from May to September of this year.

Compare those numbers to other agencies: State police in the county made 363 arrests during the 15-month period, while the Las Vegas police nabbed 96. Of the 466 total arrests in the county during the period, the Sheriff’s Department accounted for 1.5 percent.

The state police in San Miguel County have seen big increases in DWI arrests since 1998 — from 187 in 1999 to 292 during the 2006-07 fiscal year. The city police are about back to where they were: It made 87 arrests in 1999 and 83 during the recent fiscal year. But it secured larger numbers earlier this decade — for example, 155 in 2000.

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Sheriff Benjie Vigil last month asked for the County Commission’s support in getting state overtime grants, so deputies can hold DWI checkpoints. In that report, he stated, “The San Miguel Sheriff’s Department focuses its efforts on reducing alcohol crashes and fatalities within San Miguel County by enforcing DWI and traffic laws.”

He said this week that his department doesn’t have enough manpower.

“I wish they (the county) would give us more funds to hire more deputies,” said Vigil, who has been sheriff since 2005 and was undersheriff for 15 years before that.

“We need to pay deputies more to get them to stay. That’s what I’ve been fighting for with the county manager.”

The department now has seven certified officers, including Vigil, and one noncertified officer, who will be going to the state law enforcement academy in January. The department now has two deputy openings, Vigil said. The state and city police have double to triple those numbers.

Vigil said deputies are working overtime and getting comp time in exchange — which is paid time off at one-and-a-half times the extra hours worked. “But I can’t give them time off because I’m shorthanded,” he said.

He said new deputies go to the academy, but then they often leave to work for higher-paying departments, so the county doesn’t get a return for its investment.

San Miguel County and other northern New Mexico counties have smaller sheriff’s departments than other areas of the state, which have full-fledged 24-hour operations complete with detectives. As a result, the state police, which operate as a highway patrol in other areas, must respond to a wide range of calls here, including domestic violence and burglaries.

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County Manager Les Montoya didn’t comment on Vigil’s assertions, other than to release a document showing a sharply increased investment in the department over the last eight years.

The department’s budget has increased from $376,000 in 1998 to $640,000 this year — a 70 percent increase, much higher than the rate of inflation during those years.

According to the county’s information, the low range for deputy salaries has increased from $15,000 in 1998 to $25,168 today and high-range salaries have gone up from $20,000 to $27,000 during the same time.

Vigil said it seems as if his department is doing more prison transports these days, although he didn’t provide numbers. He speculates that it may be a result of an increase in crime.

He said that while salaries have gone up, they haven’t kept up with other law enforcement agencies. He said other departments get bigger increases.

“The Sheriff’s Department is always at the bottom of the list,” he said.

In 1998, the Sheriff’s Department had 11 deputy positions, Vigil said. Now, there are 10 authorized such positions.

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Wendy Armijo, the DWI Program’s coordinator, said she recognizes the lack of resources in the Sheriff’s Department, but she contended the agency could make more DWI arrests.

Armijo attributes the state police’s sharply increased numbers to Gov. Bill Richardson’s big push to tackle drunken driving. She said the city police have about as many arrests as she would expect given all the other crimes they must handle.

She said the Sheriff’s Department may want to designate someone to take the lead on DWI. A few years ago, Deputy Tom Mumford took charge of that effort and that resulted in the larger numbers of DWI arrests, she said. He’s now leading a DWI enforcement task force in McKinley County, she said.

“We really need to work together,” Armijo said. “It’s not about pointing fingers. We’ll make any changes within our means to make the system run better.”

In a telephone interview from a DWI conference in Albuquerque on Thursday, Vigil said the low number of DWI arrests could well mean that efforts against drunken driving are working.

“We’re doing our jobs, keeping people from driving drunk,” he said.