Sheehey: Why Los Alamos Needs A Sheriff

Los Alamos County Councilor

The County Council recently voted 5-2 to put a proposed change to the County Charter on the November 2016 general election ballot to eliminate the office of Sheriff. I have no objection to the voters deciding on this issue, but I voted against the motion because eliminating the Sheriff is a bad idea. We have a Police Department with a multi-million dollar yearly budget, led by an excellent Chief. Why then should Los Alamos County also have an elected Sheriff with a small budget and staff?

Elected Sheriffs are a very enduring tradition in this nation and state.  In my opinion, the main reason for this is that it preserves some checks and balances against the possibility of wrongdoing in the rest of local government.  Citizens who have concerns can bring them to a locally elected Sheriff, a member of the community who can investigate and, if needed, take these concerns to appropriate state or federal authorities. The local Sheriff is an important bridge between citizens and the sometimes intimidating bureaucracy at state and federal levels.

Out of the 3,143 counties and equivalent units in the United States, 3080 have sheriffs. The vast majority of these are elected officials. It is not uncommon for sheriffs to have limited roles, such as in Los Alamos, where the Sheriff has had mostly civil law duties: process service and lien enforcement. Some state constitutions explicitly require sheriffs. The New Mexico constitution mentions elected sheriffs: (Article X, Section 2B) “In those counties that prior to 1992 have not had four-year terms for elected officials, the assessor, sheriff and probate judge shall be elected to four-year terms.” Regardless of whether or not our Constitution requires it, every county in New Mexico has an elected sheriff.  

Article X, Section 5 of the New Mexico Constitution authorizes a county the size of Los Alamos to incorporate and adopt its own “home-rule” charter. The citizens of Los Alamos did this in 1968, and specifically amended the charter in 1975 to define the duties of the Sheriff, Police Department, and Peace Officers (Section 304.3). Article X, Section 5 also authorizes a home-rule county to choose which offices will be elected and which may be appointed. There are more than 40 combined city-counties like us in the United States, of which some have retained elected sheriffs (such as Lexington, KY, Butte, MT, or San Francisco, CA), while others have gone to appointed sheriffs or police chiefs.

If a county like ours chooses to retain a small Sheriff’s office, with part-time employees, there is a concern that the Sheriff and his employees may not have the training or experience to do even a restricted set of jobs safely.  California and other states have passed laws that require candidates for election to Sheriff to have substantial law enforcement or related experience. New Mexico has an excellent Law Enforcement Academy that can provide the training at a reasonable cost to insure that Sheriffs and Deputies are properly trained and certified.

When retired policemen, or former officers who have chosen to take other jobs, are willing to continue with the Sheriff’s office on a part-time basis, their training and certification can be maintained for a low cost. New Mexico-certified part-time officers are covered by the county’s law enforcement liability insurance. In these days of terrorism and sometimes horrendous individual violence, I certainly value the presence in our community of a few additional trained law enforcement personnel, who can be called upon in exceptional situations.

Los Alamos for many years has had a small Sheriff’s office doing process service, lien enforcement, sex offender monitoring, and response to citizen concerns. These services have been provided for an annual budget of about $85,000. In order to do their job more safely, Sheriff Lucero asked for authority to accept a surplus Santa Fe Sheriff’s office vehicle, with a more powerful vehicle-mounted police radio, and to buy a couple of hand-held police radios. Not only did the Council refuse these requests, it recently, against my vote, passed a resolution transferring the duties of process service and lien enforcement to the police department, and it zeroed out the Sheriff’s budget for deputies and administrative staff.

Eliminating the Sheriff’s office would be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The County government, including the utilities department, spends well over a hundred million dollars a year. $85,000 for an independent Sheriff’s office is a small price to pay for an additional check on local government operation. If the Council will support proper training and equipment for the Sheriff, he can continue to play this limited but important role of responding to citizen concerns and helping to assure that our local government is run honestly and properly.