Denise Vigil has been in law enforcement for nearly 20 years, and she starts 2019 as the first female sheriff of Valencia County.
When voters went to the polls in November, the name Denise Romero was on the ballot. But a month later, days after she found out she officially won the election, she married her now-husband, Michael Vigil.
With a new name and a new job, Vigil is more than ready for the challenge. She has goals she wants to accomplish while making sure the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office continues to run without a hitch.
“I’m really excited and grateful because we worked really hard,” Vigil said of being elected sheriff. “I’m really grateful of the outcome because I’ve never worked so hard for anything in my life.”
Before being elected, Vigil worked in the professional standards division of the sheriff’s office, ensuring all procedures and policies are being followed by the deputies, keeping up with the departments accreditation, background checks and some recruitment.
She worked for Los Lunas Police Department for 14 years, leaving as a detective sergeant in 2014. She left Valencia County to move back home to Taos, but returned and began working with the sheriff’s office in 2015.
With 13 vacant deputy positions, Vigil says her No. 1 priority is to fill these much-needed slots, while trying to retain the current deputies along the way.
“First and foremost, we need to get fully staffed — we’re really understaffed,” she said. “The shifts are being run by one sergeant and four deputies. One shift might have five deputies. It’s just not enough to give the attention to victims of crime.”
Vigil says the goal is to recruit as much as possible, but the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office is competing with other agencies that pay more and offer better benefits, such as Albuquerque Police Department, New Mexico State Police, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and BNSF police.
“It’s my understanding that one deputy is in the process (of being hired) with State Police, and four others are possibly in the process with other agencies,” she said. “I hope once I meet with everyone, that I can find out if that’s true or not.”
While trying to recruit deputies, Vigil is also working on retaining current deputies, including working on getting them a salary increase.
“I want to ensure (the deputies) are taken care of,” she said. “We don’t have a whole lot of extra things they can get involved in.”
The VCSO does have a SWAT team, but Vigil wants to establish a Traffic/DWI Unit. She also wants to enhance the department’s specialized teams, that deals with drug enforcement and violent crimes. Because the department is currently understaffed, Vigil said the team has been dormant.
“Once I get my numbers up, I think we will be able to do it,” she said. “The Traffic/DWI Unit will be very interesting to a lot of our deputies.”
Vigil is also wanting to meet with the community and Neighborhood Watch groups, so they’re better informed about procedures and correct information about crime in the county.
“I want to go out to speak with members of the community, as well as business owners, who have their concerns and we need to know what those are,” she said.
Vigil is also exited to reach out to other law enforcement agencies in Valencia County to work together in solving crimes as well as crime prevention.
“In talking with all the other agencies … I think we can probably utilize our deputies and police officers to do warrant roundups and work saturation patrols together,” she said.
Vigil is also excited to announce she has appointed Mark Kmatz, a former VCSO deputy and Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office detective, as her undersheriff.
“He’s a very honest and intelligent person,” Vigil said of Kmatz. “The deputies love him and the staff really respects him. They are really appreciative of having someone who can guide them.
“For me, I see him having a fairness with people, bringing his vast knowledge to the office, and he has a degree in accounting, which is a bonus for me,” the sheriff said. “He’s one of those people who didn’t have to be a police officer, but this is where their heart is.”
Understanding the budget difficulties, Vigil isn’t planning on major changes in the VCSO, but she said she will be working on using the department’s crime data to help prevent future crimes.
She does hope the community is patient with the VCSO as they continue to try and recruit more deputies. Vigil said she will be giving her staff the opportunity to come up with ideas to better the department.
“The goal is to get the numbers up where they have been, but we will continue to service the county as best we can,” she said. “Right now, we’ll just have to work with less to combat crime in Valencia County.”
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.