At the excellent recent League of Women Voters Forum, it seemed like the most closely-followed debate was that of the amendments to the county charter proposing to eliminate the office of sheriff and to transfer all its duties to the police department. Speaking in favor of the amendments was former county councilor Robert Gibson, and opposed was Undersheriff John Horne.
Mr. Gibson had some recurring themes he alleged in support of the amendments: consolidation of the offices will save money, the “greater professionalism” of the chief of police (the “chief”), and the claim that “(allowing the chief to run the department) has always worked well in the past”. Let’s examine these closer.
In the first instance, the savings are questionable. Since the transfer of civil duties from the sheriff’s office to the police department, the cost to taxpayers has quadrupled from what was being paid to the sheriff’s office. Moreover, savings could also be realized through the sheriff taking over all law enforcement, since the costs of recruiting and hiring would be eliminated, along with possibly paying a chief a higher salary. This argument is likely negligible at best.
As for the greater professionalism issue, the evidence for this is also questionable. Certainly an outside hire could bring a diversity of experiences, but that is not the same thing. New Mexico law now requires sheriffs in the state to be certified law enforcement officials, thus raising the level of professionalism required of this office. Sheriff Lucero has proven himself a professional who wants what’s best for the community.
The claim about how well things have been run in the past is also questionable. Recent incidents in the police department in the last few years have led to careers lost and millions of dollars lost in legal fees and settlements. The sheriff’s office has had no such problems.
Some of the incumbent county councilors have written some opinion pieces in favor of the amendments. Please allow me to offer a different point of view.
As I pointed out in the debate, currently the chief operates under two levels of management – the council and the county administrator. The chief is beholden to his superiors. This creates some issues for the police department which have not been discussed. For one, how much latitude does the chief really have to question those above? Can the chief truly contradict them (publicly) in, say, matters of budget and staffing? Also, should a councilor or the administrator be suspect of wrongdoing, could the chief be coerced to conceal or squash the matter? Neither I nor anyone I know of mean to question the integrity of Chief Sgambellone or any other chief; but the possible conflict of interest does exist under the current structure.
And, how does the current structure add value to law enforcement in the county? Typically most councilors are not law enforcement professionals, and neither is the administrator. Yet they are in charge of the chief. Exactly what do these other folks add to the operations of the law enforcement agency?
On the other hand, the sheriff is directly under the people of Los Alamos County. The sheriff answers only to them. He/she is free to run the department as best they know, and to advocate for improvements. Oversight is also provided by the State Police, District Attorney, and the Attorney General.
Should the amendment pass, the council and administrator would maintain and even increase their control over local law enforcement. It would have been far better had council given the citizens another choice: Should all law enforcement be consolidated under the office of the sheriff? This, too, would eliminate the alleged duplication of services, save money, and, best of all, increase the independence of law enforcement.
Since these charter amendments were rushed through, and no alternate choice was made available to the citizens, I urge voters to VOTE NO on all of them.
Thank you League of Women Voters, to the debaters, and to the people who turned out to hear both sides and for your excellent comments and questions. Regardless of which side you’re on, remember to exercise your right to vote.