BELEN—Belen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez is suing the city claiming he is being retaliated against for reporting violations of use of excessive force by BPD officers.
Rodriguez, who was hired in January 2019, filed the lawsuit on Dec. 9 in the 13th Judicial District Court, and claims there were “many acts of retaliation” inflicted on him, including a “groundless investigation and humiliating leave of absence imposed by the City of Belen.” When the investigation was complete, the chief was cleared of any wrongdoing.
The chief alleges he refused Mayor Jerah Cordova’s directive to “look the other way,” and reported two separate incidents of excessive force allegedly committed by Belen police officers. He claims city officials have continued to “smear” the chief, and want him to resign.
Rodriguez claims officers within the Belen Police Department were not in favor of his appointment, “as he was considered an outsider,” and many wanted someone inside the department to be appointed as chief of police.
According to the lawsuit, Rodriguez’ background check was performed by two BPD officers, instead of an independent, outside entity.
“They, therefore, attempted to sabotage Chief Rodriguez by ‘failing’ his background check by exaggerating non-alarming events, and speculating upon unconfirmed (and inaccurate) accusations,” part of the lawsuit reads.
The chief also claims the two officers who conducted the background check leaked information contained in the confidential document. When speaking with Cordova, the lawsuit claims, the mayor acknowledged the officers attempted to fail him, and that the city made a mistake in using its own department to conduct the background check.
Regarding the excessive use of force claims, the lawsuit says the chief learned about the first allegation in April 2019. The officer was placed on administrative leave while a full internal affairs investigation was being completed.
The lawsuit claims the city manager and city’s attorney ordered the chief to rescind a second target letter to the officer. Rodriguez sent a memo in May to the human resources director and city manager recommending the officer be terminated.
Later that month, the chief opened another internal investigation on another officer for excessive force.
At the end of May, Rodriguez claims during a meeting with Cordova and the city manager regarding the officers, the mayor tried to dissuade him from pursuing the violations, allegedly saying, “sometimes you have to look the other way.” The chief alleges in the lawsuit he wouldn’t “look the other way, and the reports of excessive use of force were credible.
“Honestly, I don’t remember if I said it,” Cordova said when questioned by the News-Bulletin about the statement. “If I did, those were the wrong words to use.
“At the time, we were having a conversation about accountability in the police department. Regardless of the offense, the chief seemed determined to immediately terminate everyone.”
The mayor says he disagrees with the chief’s “heavy-handed approach, especially for minor infractions.” Cordova says the chief’s actions have caused “a lot of division in our department.
“Many employees can be reprimanded and rehabilitated, and when we’re short officers, we should work to build up the department through training and mentoring, instead of tearing it down.”
The chief, according to the lawsuit, claims the city manager, Leona Vigil, asked him to sign a nondisclosure agreement so he would not disclose what she told him regarding the “wrongful dissemination of his personal information.” Rodriguez refused to sign it.
In late June, the chief met again with the city manager and the mayor, when he was told complaints had been filed against him by various officers. He claims Vigil gave him the option of resigning. He again refused to. It was then Rodriguez was placed on leave pending an investigation.
Rodriguez claims it was the mayor’s idea to place him on leave, and alleges Cordova was retaliating against him for not looking the other way.
“The details in the lawsuit speak for themselves,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview with the News-Bulletin when asked why he filed the lawsuit.
When asked if he plans to keep Rodriguez on as chief of police, Cordova said he wasn’t.
“When I selected him for the job, I really believed he would use his smarts and years of knowledge to improve our department,” Cordova said. “We got the opposite. He immediately chased good officers out of the department, he refused to fill leadership positions, and he refused to hire more officers even when repeatedly asked to do so — creating an officer shortage where there hadn’t been one before he came to our city.”
The mayor said Rodriguez argued with him about bringing in New Mexico State Police to Belen because he thought it made the chief look bad to say the city needed the help because BPD is down officers.
“But you know what? To heck with ego, we badly need the help,” the mayor said. “All in all, we’ve seen up to a 40 percent reduction in enforcement under his leadership, with fewer traffic citations, fewer warrants served and fewer arrests. We’ve even had the local courts expressing concerns about the lack of enforcement.”
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.