Commentary: Is Doña Ana County Sheriff's Office a disaster waiting to be exposed as such? [Three columns will explore that question.]
Sheriff Enrique Vigil lacks relevant experience. He was a long-time U.S. Marshal; but he hasn't dealt with state laws or the variety of situations a cop faces. He's not a state-certified law-enforcement officer.
Vigil wisely compensated for that inexperience by naming Eddie Lerma as Undersheriff. Lerma had served two other sheriffs as undersheriff, had many years of experience with DASO, and seems generally respected.
But Vigil soon replaced Lerma with Ken Roberts, a far less experienced DASO officer who reportedly told five deputies he had “axes to grind” with formerly superior officers, though Roberts has denied that. (Vigil, who's free to choose his undersheriff, announced he had accepted Lerma's resignation; when others called to congratulate Lerma, he was startled to hear he'd resigned.)
Roberts makes a great first impression but has limited qualifications. Before getting demoted, he was a police sergeant in Shawnee, Oklahoma, many years ago. He served in the military police. He failed to complete the Border Patrol training program. In 2008, he applied to DASO as an uncertified cadet. Folks in and outside DASO don't give him high marks as a detective.
Good officers are fleeing DASO. “Hundreds of years of experience have been lost,” a current DASO officer said recently.
“They'll say they're cleaning house,” said a former officer. “That we don't fit in with their philosophy. We don't. We don't fit in with a philosophy of favoritism, cronyism, head-hunting, and lying.” LCPD Chief Jaime Montoya confirms that in asking DASO refugees why they wanted to make a change, he's hearing complaints of “targeting of officers.” I've heard the same from several, have read it in formal complaints, and wouldn't be surprised by a new flurry of lawsuits.
Current and former officers paint a consistent picture: senior officers who speak up or ask questions get punished; officers are threatened, or receive written reprimands for minor offenses that go unpunished in others.
There are allegations of Whistleblower Act violations, bullying, and harassment. There are allegations that people who should be terminated are not, and that hirings and promotions are made easier for friends and allies. That sort of office politics is annoying anywhere; but with people who take guns into difficult situations, it could prove dangerous. (Some also say Roberts's relative inexperience with SWAT teams negatively affected a SWAT call-out earlier this month.)
Many officers believe (or hope!) that Vigil often doesn't know of questionable decisions by Roberts. They say they can't talk to Vigil, that Roberts always says “I've spoken to the Sheriff, and he agrees with my view on this,” but that in a couple of cases where an officer who heard that ran into Vigil later, Vigil said he knew nothing about it and would fix it. I hope they're right. I believe people close to Vigil have warned him that Roberts could bring him down.
Deputies who talk with me fear retribution. County officials say that Vigil and Roberts seem a lot more interested in identifying the complainant than in the merits of the complaints. Vigil asked Montoya which DASO officers had applied to LCPD. Montoya declined to answer. DASO set an event for the day LCPD had scheduled tests for applicants.
Vindictiveness may play a role in what's happening. (One senior officer's complaint claims Roberts said he'd retaliate against the officer.) But I'd note that neither Vigil nor Roberts knows much about running DASO. When you're out of your depth, it's tempting to eliminate anyone who might recognize your mistakes or speak up about them.
[The whole DASO situation is unfortunate. A couple of years ago, when an earlier sheriff made a bad hire and couldn't be convinced it was bad, I saw some folks who seemed like good people and good officers suffering in the workplace. That sheriff never did see the light. His friend sued me and many others, but lost badly. Some at DASO have said this situation is worse. I hope it will resolve itself in a positive way somehow. As in the earlier situation, the views I'm hearing are widely shared.]
[I've made repeated efforts to obtain comment from the Sheriff and Undersheriff. I still hope they'll articulate their views -- and, if they feel I have any facts wrong, point those oout. I have, as an expert I consulted recently on one aspect of this said recently, no dog in this fight. I voted for Mr. Vigil. I liked Mr. Roberts when I first met him; and, personally, I've had only pleasant encounters with him. However, I'm troubled by what I see, and am just trying to see and share the truth.]
[I've asked the County and DASO for documents, pursuant to IPRA. I've received some, and expect others soon. I prefer not to rely solely on what I'm told.]
[Readers will notice I haven't quoted present and former DASO officers and deputies by name. For obvious reasons, that's the way it is. Some have talked to me, others have not. I can only say that in such a situation I'm particularly careful. Thus I've spent a lot of hours researching this situation and will continue to do so.]