New chief followed unlikely path

Former Santa Fe captain leading Española police immigrated from Mexico, survived abuse and now hopes to restore community's faith in department

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During one of the many times his father had beaten his mother, Louis Carlos says, he walked outside and stared up at the sky.

"God, why is this happening to us?" he thought.

The beatings were brutal, Carlos says, and he carries some scars himself. Once when he tried to intervene, his father hit him with a boot, shattering his left elbow.

This time, he was crying in the driveway when the Doña Ana County sheriff's deputy arrived.

"He tells me, calmly, 'It's going to be OK,' " Carlos says. "I remember feeling safe. He left an impression on me."

Even 40 years later, the memory is poignant for 47-year-old Carlos. The encounter, he says, is the reason he wears a blue uniform.

It's the reason he's spent his career climbing the ladder of law enforcement administration.

It's the reason, ultimately, that he's now adorned with a badge that says "chief."

"What he did for me, I want to do for others," Carlos says of the Doña Ana deputy.

Formerly a longtime officer and captain in the Santa Fe Police Department, Carlos was sworn in earlier this month as the police chief and public safety director of the city of Española. He's the fifth person in nine months to run an agency plagued with extensive turnover -- and complaints of sordid behavior -- at the top. His mission, he says, is to reform the department: to rebuild ties with the community, limit use of force and end bad behavior.

"I'm up for a good challenge," Carlos says.

He was born in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and traveled an unlikely trajectory to the chief's job.

Some of his earliest memories are of his father taking him onto the streets of Juárez to sell Chiclets -- distracting tourists while his father picked their pockets.

When he was 5, Carlos' parents sent him to live with grandparents in a tiny New Mexico village called Chamberino, snuggled up along the Rio Grande between El Paso and Las Cruces. His parents and siblings followed shortly afterward.

His upbringing was a meager one. Some days, he would get up at 5 a.m. to harvest onions before going to elementary school.

He remembers a cycle of violence in which his father -- a heroin addict, Carlos says -- would severely beat his mother and then flee to Mexico for a while. He'd come back, Carlos says, and the cycle would start anew.

One day, when he was 8, Carlos walked out of school to find his mother and younger siblings packed inside a car piled high with clothes and belongings.

"Let's go," his mother said.

And they drove away.

They stopped in Amarillo, Texas, where Carlos later became the first in his family to graduate from high school. Education, he says, was his mother's first priority.

"No vas a ser burro," she'd tell him: "You're not going to be a dunce."

After high school, he started working as a corrections officer in the Texas prison system, and later worked for the prison system in New Mexico. In his early 20s, he obtained U.S. citizenship; in 1995, he joined the Santa Fe Police Department.

For the next 20 years, he climbed the ranks, working every position from patrol officer to investigator in the Crimes Against Children unit to SWAT team member, before working his way up the management ladder to the rank of captain.

He retired in 2015, mostly because of the state's change in retirement policies, he says.

His favorite job, he says, was working on crimes against children.

"It was tough," he says, "But there was this passion ingrained in me about helping children and being a loud voice for them when they are silent. ... I still have that passion."

Every day, he calls his mother, who now lives in Anthony, near where he grew up harvesting the fields.

"She's my lighthouse," he says. "... That woman is not going to rest until she knows [her six children] have made a difference in this world."

Carlos credits his wife with convincing him to apply for the police chief position in Española.

"She saw that I still had a service to provide, that I'm good at it," he says, "and she was the primer that pushed me."

Not that he wasn't occupied in retirement.

Carlos has eight children to keep him busy, ranging from

20 months old to 27 years. He also started a private investigation business and began teaching new recruits at the state Department of Public Safety's Law Enforcement Academy in Santa Fe.

"I make it clear to them that the community owes them nothing," Carlos says of recruits. "You're the one who asked for this position -- you're the one who owes everything to the community."

At the Española department, he plans to focus on community policing and de-escalating situations through communication rather than turning to use of force.

You don't need to use this for everything," he says, slapping the holstered gun on his hip. "We're armed with so many tools ... but there's only one that fits in all situations, and that's talk."

Well, almost all situations.

When he was a rookie patrolman in Santa Fe, Carlos says, he pulled over a driver for running a red light somewhere near the New Mexico School for the Deaf. When he approached the driver's side window, the man signaled to him that he couldn't hear.

He let the man go with a warning, Carlos says, and then went straight to a bookstore to buy a book on American Sign Language. Then he took sign language classes at Santa Fe Community College.

Other officers on the force would call him in to help in situations involving a person with a hearing impairment, he says.

Communication is something members of the lowrider community in Española hope they can establish with Carlos' police administration.

Fred Rael, head of the Low Rider Museum Coalition in town and a lowrider owner himself, says the group is trying to re-establish a tradition of cruising around town in the customized cars.

They don't often have bad experiences with police, he said, but sometimes they feel they are treated like criminals -- asked to leave parking lots where they've gathered, or restaurants or even car washes just because they're driving their lowriders, he said.

The Rio Grande Sun reported that members of the lowrider community also complained to the City Council that police were asking them to leave parking areas on Good Friday.

The alleged mistreatment on Good Friday, Rael said, brought the issue to the forefront. "Instead of this being something we're used to ... it's like, 'It's time to end this.' "

His first week on the job, Carlos sat for a meeting with the lowrider community, where he listened to their concerns. Rael said he's optimistic that Carlos and new Española Mayor Javier Sánchez will support a revival of the lowrider cruising tradition, which he thinks would help bring the community together and draw visitors to the valley.

Española police Officer Jeremy Apodaca said he's looking forward to Carlos and Sánchez bringing stability to a force that has seen five chiefs in less than a year, including those heading the agency on an interim basis.

"We've been on a roller-coaster ride," Apodaca told The New Mexican.

A leader in the police officer's union, Apodaca also believes Carlos' management skills will benefit the force.

"I haven't heard any negative feedback of him being the chief," the officer said.

Many of the city's past police chiefs have been ousted over criminal and civil charges against them.

Online court records show Carlos faced one petty misdemeanor charge of battery filed in Las Cruces in 2006.

He says he faced allegations of child abuse after an incident in which he had spanked his son. At the time, he was working in the Santa Fe department's Crimes Against Children unit.

New Mexico State Police investigated the incident, Carlos says, and according to court documents, prosecutors dismissed the charges.

He also has been named in civil lawsuits against the Santa Fe Police Department.

The latest was filed in 2015 by a Santa Fe County man who said police used excessive force and unreasonable seizure during an encounter on Old Santa Fe Trail.

The man had pulled into a residential driveway to address an emergency in his car -- his dog had defecated -- he said in the lawsuit. But an uneasy homeowner called police to report a burglary in progress, and officers responding to the call drew a gun on him, the man said, and cuffed him while they investigated.

A judge dismissed the case late last year, ruling the officers were simply doing their jobs. But the plaintiff appealed, and the case is pending.

"When you are a civil servant, a police officer, you're not immune from being targeted," Carlos says. "All of your actions are always called into question. There's a system in place for people who believe that they've been wronged, and they can enact that system."

Carlos has committed to four years overseeing the Española police and fire departments, animal control division and detention center. He is still in a "honeymoon phase," he says. The hard part will come when he starts to push the police department in the direction he wants it to go.

"My mission is to evolve," Carlos says. "... I have to show the citizens there is no such thing as a cover-up with my administration."

Part of his strategy is to get out into the field.

He's set aside Wednesdays and Fridays to get out of the office, meet people in the community and learn about the town's problems.

On a recent Wednesday, as Carlos is driving, he spots a lean woman sitting on a curb outside Wendy's restaurant, a large drink in her hand.

The perfect opportunity for a "conversational encounter," he says.

He stops the car and asks the woman how long it's been since she's last used drugs, and when she tries to deny she's a user, he points out the track marks on her arms. He takes her inside the restaurant for a cheeseburger and some fries.

While they talk, he calls dispatch to find out if there are any warrants pending against the woman. There is one. But it only applies if she's in Taos County. So, Carlos leaves her with her burger and drives away.

"A five-dollar burger got me ... a lot of great information. This is exactly what we need to be doing," he says. "You don't go buying burgers for everybody you meet. It's just a little olive branch."

Sometimes, when he's working narcotics, he sees his father's ghost. The last time he saw the man, Carlos says, his dad was strung out in a drug den in Mexico. He died four years ago.

"When I deal with somebody that fits my father's profile, this internal rage makes this futile attempt to surface," Carlos says. "Then [my mother] takes over and reminds me of my compassionate heart and why I'm doing this. I need to keep a neutral mindset and find a way to help."

Asked if he ever got a response to his question to God on the day he met the Doña Ana deputy who changed his life, Carlos answers without hesitation.

"That deputy told me that everything was going to be OK, and it has been ever since," he says. "My mom left my dad. My mom pushed us to become better, and I'm literally living the answer. This is the reason why."

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