Taos County Sheriff’s race spurs old debates

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Staffing shortages, lagging response times and a sporadic presence in outlying areas around the county are not new concerns at the Taos County Sheriff’s Office, and they are once again at the center of debate among candidates running for sheriff this year.

In 2014, the Democratic ticket pitted current Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe, who had retired as a lieutenant from Taos Police Department in 2013, against Betty J. Martínez, with Hogrefe clinching the nomination by only 51 votes.

In the general election, the Oklahoma-born candidate went on to beat Republican opponent and fellow Taos Police Department contender Ronald G. Móntez by a landslide 3,461 votes.

As a candidate, Hogrefe promised sweeping changes at the sheriff’s office. He said he would slash call times from an average of 47 minutes to less than 10 minutes, open satellite stations in Peñasco and Questa within 90 days of his tenure and strengthen relationships with other agencies.

This year, five candidates have come to the table with their own ideas on how to move the dial.

Bonney Gabriel Medina, a retired cop turned photographer, says community policing is the solution.

Eugene Holgate III, a current sheriff’s sergeant who has also served with both Taos and Picuris Pueblos, believes in supporting deputies he says have been run ragged.

Jake Cordova, a sheriff’s deputy, wants to bring on more deputies and increase their pay.

Rick Medina, an Iraq War veteran and a lieutenant at Taos Pueblo Department of Public Safety, believes that drug addiction lies at the root of many problems in the community. He wants to designate a school resource officer to work with the schools, where addiction can start.

And Jani Davis, a former sergeant with Taos Police Department and the only Republican in the race, is also concerned with the welfare of deputies. Improving their quality of life, she said, should result in a better all-around service to the Taos County community.

Challenges and changes

Taos County covers roughly 2,200 square miles, and depending on your perspective, contains around 25 surrounding communities, many of them unincorporated, excluding both Taos and Picuris Pueblos.

As with other rural areas of New Mexico, providing service to the most remote areas calls for close cooperation with other law enforcement agencies, including tribal police departments at the Pueblos, as well as town police and New Mexico State Police.

All agencies are facing rising crime rates, particularly those related to drug use, drug trafficking and property crime, a corollary of the drug problem.

In 2015, Hogrefe’s campaign trail met with the realities the office he took on.

During his first term as sheriff, the community has seen measurable shifts in the right direction, but not the transformation Hogrefe’s campaign had promised – at least not yet.

According to Taos Central Dispatch records, the Taos County Sheriff’s Office has responded to 3,140 calls so far this year, a volume set to outpace calls taken at the office last year.

Sixteen deputy positions are currently filled at the sheriff's office, supported by four sergeants and two animal control officers. But between injuries sustained in the field, cadets still in training and criminal allegations against one deputy and two sergeants, ranks have thinned. There are usually only about two units on patrol per shift, with a period of overlap each day with a supporting sergeant.

Hogrefe said recently that it now takes his deputies roughly 15-20 minutes on average to respond to each call while others still take as long as 30 minutes, depending on where a deputy is in the county when dispatched. It's an improvement, but complaints from the community about slow response times are still coming in, especially from the county's most remote communities.

The sheriff said he came close to opening a satellite office in Peñasco during his first term, but still has not opened any substations as promised during his campaign. For this reason, deputies often remain centrally located while on call to keep response times in check.

When the Taos County Sheriff’s Office becomes overwhelmed by calls, Hogrefe said he can usually rely on the other law enforcement agencies to step in and lend a hand.

Lt. Elizabeth Armijo, public information officer with New Mexico State Police, said state police have no specific “policy” outlining sharing calls with other agencies. If they’re called, they “typically” respond, she said. According to the state Department of Public Safety, the agency doesn’t keep a record of shared calls.

Edwardo Martinez, Taos District Commander for the state police, said his office is constantly going “from call to call to call,” but also said that his officers make themselves available to assist other agencies, especially on major incidents.

During this year’s campaign, some candidates have said the relationship between the sheriff’s office and state police has been strained in the past. Martinez said it’s possible some sheriff’s deputies might feel spurned by state police investigations into criminal allegations at the sheriff’s office. But, the overall relationship has remained steady since Hogrefe took office in 2015, according to Martinez.

Taos Police Chief David Trujillo, a friend of Hogrefe’s who was appointed chief less than a year ago, said his department also maintains a strong relationship with the sheriff’s office.

“The working rapport with the sheriff’s department has been strong for many years and continues to grow in strength and respect,” he said, adding that he would like the two agencies to train together more frequently.

Inquiries submitted to both Taos and Picuris Pueblos for comment on the state of interagency cooperation with the sheriff's office went unanswered as of press time.

In terms of the financial picture, the sheriff's office will operate on a little more than $2.1 million in 2018, funds that will pay for equipment, insurance, Hogrefe's salary, extraditions and payroll.

When Hogrefe took office in 2015, he implemented what he describes as a “step plan,” with pay increases for staff members every two years they stay on at the office.

According to a 2018 county budget report, Hogrefe will make $59,699 this year.

Uncertified deputies start at $15.85 an hour. Sergeants are paid a starting wage of $22.15 an hour. Pay for detectives starts at $19.85 an hour. Every two years a staff member stays with the office, their pay increases by one dollar an hour.

Since 2014, the overall budget at the sheriff’s office has increased by at little more than $100,000.

Many of this year’s candidates are hoping to both increase the number of personnel at the office and increase rates of pay, but that will require they approach the Taos County Commission to pitch the re-allocation of funds from elsewhere in the county budget.

Ultimately, voters will have to decide which issues will have the greatest impact on the service they receive from the sheriff’s office. Many of them have already heard the same proposals year after year.

On Thursday (May 24), Hogrefe and his challengers returned to the stage at the Peñasco Schools cafeteria to elaborate on where they stand on these issues and how they plan to make improvements.

For more, check out our livestream coverage of the forum.

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