The Chaves County Republic Women sponsored a dinner, Tuesday, and a panel discussion so local citizens could voice their concerns to law enforcement.
The panel consisted of New Mexico State Police Capt. Dina Orozco, District Attorney Janetta Hicks of the 5th Judicial District, Chaves County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Britt Snyder, and Roswell Police Department Sgt. Tom Moody. A total of 94 people attended.
Retired New Mexico State Police officer K.C. Rogers of A.S.P.E.N. (Alternative Sentencing programs) acted as host, posing many of the questions that had been sent into CCRW by members of the public who were unable to attend.
Among the audience were Mayor Del Jurney, City Councilor Jeanine Best, Councilor Jason Perry, Deputy District Attorney Michael Murphy, Assistant District Attorney John Phinizy, Richard Lucero of Neighborhood Watch, CCSO Detective Dennis Kintigh and DA Investigator Pat Barncastle.
Each member of the panel was presented with an opportunity to explain their duties, their jurisdictions and the challenges facing their respective agencies. Manpower shortages and funding were the two most cited concerns.
Orozco told the audience that New Mexico State District 3 was the second largest in the state, covering Lea, Eddy and Chaves county with one officer per shift.
The 5th Judicial District covers the same three counties, “There is no rhyme nor reason. It’s not based on population or area … We have four offices in three different counties for an area of 14,650 square miles,” Orozco said.
She said during recent budget hearings it was announced that the District Attorney’s offices in the 5th Judicial District were the most understaffed in the state. The DA offices have half the staff required to handle their caseload. Each attorney averages 300 cases per year.
Snyder said the SO had 43 positions and were three short. The SO includes the Civil Court Division, which guards the court house, transports prisoners, and serves warrants and restraining orders. They had 20 deputies to cover three shifts and the Detective Division to investigate crimes.
Rogers spoke about complaints he had received from one irate member of the public who said it took the Sheriff’s Office a full 30 minutes to respond to a call. “What people don’t realize is that, at that time, the only deputy on duty was in Lake Arthur. It took a full 20 minutes to drive to the location.” He also pointed out that when people phone 911, they are not talking to agencies, but to civilian staff who prioritize the calls.
Moody, likewise, spoke of personnel shortages at the RPD. He said the Police Department is 16 officers down. “We have six officers on patrol for each shift, except on the swing and night shifts, that is our busiest time.” He added that of the six officers many have other duties, “At any given moment, we may have five who are waiting to testify in Magistrate Court.”
Currently the RPD detectives and supervisors are filling in to keep up with calls. Replacement is stifled because: “We have raised a generation who want immediate gratification,” said Moody. “Police work is not for those who want immediate gratification. Let’s face it not many criminals thank us for being arrested.”
The RPD and other local agencies face stiff competition for available people, from the military and from other agencies across the state. For example: Hobbs now provides a $50,000 sign-on bonus.
Another question referred to copper theft. Snyder said that it was a statewide problem, “I participate in a statewide metal theft taskforce.” He explained that local law enforcement had success in curbing the crime, “The Roswell Police Department arrested two of the people who were doing the air conditioner compressor thefts, and we have seen a drop in the crime.”
Rogers called on a representative of Neighborhood Watch, Richard Lucero, who spoke of the benefits. “Neighbors know their neighbors. They know what is going on in their neighborhood.” Neighborhood Watch was credited with providing the information that quashed a local burglary ring.
Rebecca Turner of the Chaves County Comprehensive Strategy Board, discussed the severity of juvenile offenders. “We are the worst in the state, with the highest rate for criminal youth.” The CCCSB’s goal is to intervene with families and parents before young people turn to crime. “We are trying to extend our efforts to Dexter and Hagerman.”
Neighborhood Watch Captain Pat Hittle asked what sort of information law enforcement needs for an arrest. Moody encouraged the use of surveillance equipment for evidence of probable cause.
Hicks gave the definition, “Probable cause requires enough evidence to convince a reasonable person that a crime has been committed. It is not enough evidence to prove a case ….” She said that was the difference between police and courts, “The prosecutor must provide proof to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Probable cause is good enough for an arrest warrant or a search warrant; it is not enough to get a conviction.”
Many of the panel and the audience pointed to the Legislature as part of the problem and necessary for the solution. Hicks said, “There are a lot of things illegal in New Mexico that are legal in other states. The rules are changing daily … Officers need reasonable rules to function. They work to get an arrest and then we lawyers go over the case and pick it apart.”
Snyder said a particular frustration for law enforcement is the delay between a crime and receiving information from the crime labs in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. “It can take up to two years. That’s not just here. It is statewide and nationwide.”
KBIM reporter, Tom Ruiz asked if the city and county could get together in order to set up a laboratory based in Roswell. Snyder admitted that Hobbs and Las Cruces have labs.
Hicks described the process required to open the Hobbs office. “The city of Hobbs joined with the State to build the building.” The new laboratory will be limited to drug cases and firearms testing. She said just getting the building is not enough. Qualified people were needed. She also said delays result from the fact that the laboratory personnel are called into courts all across the state.
Hicks believes that allowing the experts to testify from their offices via video conferencing rather than having them travel to courts is a potential solution. “Each court in New Mexico has video conferencing equipment available.”
When asked what people could do to convince the Legislature to face these challenges, Hicks said, “Our legislators are good. We need to get family and friends from other districts to contact their local legislators to write letters and provide them with the impetus to act.”
All agreed that assistance from the public was needed. Moody said, “We run into people who won’t talk to us because of fear of retaliation. If you see something, say something.”
Snyder concurred, “It was a nosy neighbor calling about a domestic dispute that allowed us to break a recent child abuse case.”
“We need your support. It cannot be stressed enough — we are a police agency not the highway patrol — give us a call,” said Orozco.
Hicks reiterated what Moody had said, “We need evidence and that means witnesses who are willing to testify.”
Rogers concluded the meeting that the public must act, “We have to accept that we cannot accept this.”