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Santa Fe has new sheriff in town

February 4, 2019

For Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza, wearing gray is more than a style choice.

He suits up each day in the same uniform as his deputies as a matter of solidarity. While field deputies wear radios and body cameras, Mendoza cinches his collar with a simple black tie.

“When I came in and decided I was going to run for sheriff, I wanted it to be a team effort,” Mendoza said in a recent interview. “I wanted to lead by example. Because everybody else is wearing uniforms, I thought it was important that I do, too.”

The clothing choice is a small but telling sign of the way the new sheriff runs the show.

Mendoza, a career sheriff’s deputy and former major in the local agency, has spent his past few months meeting with deputies, division heads and leaders of other law enforcement agencies to formulate a path forward for the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office.

Only a few weeks into the job, he has started to make some small changes. He got rid of Sheriff Robert Garcia’s mandatory hat policy, for one, and ordered new uniform pants with a “hidden side pocket.”

“Even though those are small changes, I think everybody was appreciative,” Mendoza said.

He’s just starting to tackle the bigger-picture questions: How can the sheriff’s office stay competitive with other agencies that have been increasing their pay? What tools do his deputies need to succeed? Should he revive a practice of cross-commissioning deputies from other departments?

“Right now, we’re taking a look at all of the divisions, and we’ve been doing a lot of outreach to the other law enforcement agencies,” Mendoza said. “That’s been our concentration over the last few weeks, is just building those bridges.”

Mendoza took office in the middle of what’s become a bidding war between short-staffed law enforcement agencies across Northern New Mexico.

Albuquerque police are getting wage and benefit hikes as that department works aggressively to add hundreds of officers to its ranks. Other agencies have followed suit. The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office bumped its starting salaries and longevity pay late last year, and the city of Santa Fe is offering signing and retention bonuses.

At the moment, Mendoza thinks the county sheriff’s office — which had only a handful of vacancies on its force of 100 or so deputies as of mid-January — is competitive with other agencies when it comes to pay. But he intends to talk with county officials about ways the Sheriff’s office can continue to retain deputies.

“We want to be proactive,” Mendoza said. “We don’t want to be put in a situation where we’re 20 percent of our workforce down, and then trying to do something.”

In interviews with different public safety divisions under his purview, Mendoza discovered a number of other challenges to address.

He plans to push for better training for animal control officers, for instance and said his records division has become inundated with increasing numbers of requests for reports and records. Records custodians are overwhelmed by the demand, he said.

And, as the sheriff’s office has put more deputies on the streets, Mendoza said, investigators are handling a higher number of serious crimes and starting to feel the strain of the bigger burden.

“One thing that’s important to me is that deputies in our divisions have the tools that they need to do the job,” Mendoza said.

One of his top priorities, he said, is connecting with surrounding law enforcement agencies.

Española Police Chief Louis Carlos said it was encouraging that Mendoza came to sit down with that department after he took office.

“Unfortunately, there has not been very good communication between a lot of the sister agencies,” Carlos said. “… We’re going to move forward and get away from that.”

Among the topics the agency heads discussed, Carlos said, were opportunities for officers to train together and to work better across jurisdictional boundaries.

One possibility for that interagency collaboration is cross-commissioning deputies, a practice that former Sheriff Robert Garcia ended in 2015 because of liability issues.

In the past, Santa Fe County commissioned tribal police and officers at other agencies to help enforce state laws in the county. That meant that a tribal officer could handle a case involving a nontribal member on tribal land, acting under the authority of the sheriff’s office.

But Garcia called off most of the county’s cross-commissioning agreements in 2015, after the state Supreme Court ruled that Santa Fe County was liable for the actions of an officer with the Pojoaque Tribal Police Department who was sued by a Texas man alleging a civil rights violations during a traffic stop.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Juan Ríos said the practice has remained on hold since May 2015.

Now, Mendoza explained, officers from other jurisdictions have to ask Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputies for help with an arrest if they are policing within the county’s jurisdiction.

Mendoza hasn’t yet made a promise to bring back commissioning, but he’s mulling it over.

“It’s a very delicate issue and a very important decision,” he said. “I’m not taking it lightly, but it’s something that I’m looking at. It can be a benefit to response times. It can be a benefit for responding to crimes outside of jurisdictional lines.

“But,” he added, “then comes a question of liability and other things that come along with that.”

Carlos is hopeful that Mendoza will bring commissioning back, even if only for a few officers on the Española force.

“We’re excited, I can’t say enough how appreciative I am that he’s considering it,” Carlos said. “We’re optimistic that he’s going to make it happen.”

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