It is unfortunate that the community discussion about the role of the Sheriff in Los Alamos County has reached the point where we are considering abolishing the position altogether. If we consider the history of the position during the last 40 years, until the current tenure of Sheriff Marco Lucero, there was hardly any controversy. His immediate predecessors, Bruce Takala and William Verzino, seemed comfortable in the historical and legally settled role played by the Sheriff in Los Alamos County, namely serving certain processes and maintaining the sex-offenders registry. If Sheriff Lucero had continued this tradition, I am positive there would not be any talk about changing the responsibilities of, much less abolishing, the position. This is why I find it distressing that the County Council is being accused of a power grab, even though for the last six years we have tried repeatedly to support and maintain the role of the Sheriff as previously practiced.
Why is it, then, that we need to finally abolish the position of Sheriff in our county? Why can’t we go back to the way things were? I believe that Sheriff Lucero has found a flaw in our Charter that demands change. First of all, the position of Sheriff has become politicized into a never-before prosecutorial role for which it has neither the power nor resources. The consensus interpretation placed primary law enforcement functions, including investigation, patrolling and arrest, in the Police Department. This is appropriate because the boundary of the “County” of Los Alamos, and the “City” of Los Alamos are identical. Denver, Colorado is a similar City/County entity and also places these primary responsibilities in the Denver Police Department, not the Denver Sheriff‘s Office. Furthermore, the argument that the position of County Sheriff is an integral part of government in the United States is completely false. For example, in Hawaii and Rhode Island, Sheriffs are state, not county, positions, essentially part of the State Police. In Connecticut and Alaska, there are no Sheriffs at all.
Supporters of an expanded role for the Sheriff in Los Alamos want to make the position responsible for the investigation of possible wrongdoing by public servants such as police officers themselves or even elected officials. Let’s think about this. Even if one thought the Sheriff could do that, how would this happen? How would the Sheriff’s Office conduct investigations, gather and secure evidence, interrogate witnesses, etc. without a fully equipped department and the cooperation of the Police Department itself? If there is evidence of wrongdoing in these positions, the responsible response is to contact State or Federal authorities, as any citizen could do, or maybe even approach this newspaper with the scoop. And do we have a history of such wrongdoing, or do we need a Sheriff to sit in his office, like the Maytag repairman, waiting for someone in Los Alamos County to do wrong?
The second flaw is that there has to be a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities between the sheriff and police so the two offices can work as a team. When that delineation breaks down, there is the potential for tragic consequences. During the last county budget session, Sheriff Lucero expressed concern for his and his deputies’ safety when process serving, as he was concerned that someone may react violently while being served. Under such circumstances, the right thing to do would have been for the Sheriff to request support by the police, not to act alone or just be supported by his deputies. If there is a “turf battle” about the responsibilities of the Sheriff vis a vis the Police Department, it opens up the prospect of the Sheriff deciding to act without support in a dangerous situation, placing himself, his deputies, and the public, in harm’s way.
Sheriff Marco Lucero had an exemplary career as a Deputy Sheriff in Santa Fe County which not a joint City/County entity and thus he held a very different role from the one he holds now. There is no doubt of his dedication to service to his fellow citizens in this community. Unfortunately, his zeal and devotion to his previous position has led to his and his deputies’ misunderstanding of the differences between the two counties, and this has exposed the potential for tragedy not envisioned by the authors of our County Charter. To avoid this, the Council recently transferred the role of process-serving to the Police Department, a role it has performed for several months without incident. The residual responsibilities of the Sheriff can also be handled by that department. Without a role for the Sheriff, there is no need for the position itself. This is why we should abolish the position altogether. Please vote YES on Question #1.