BELEN — Nearly two dozen county residents turned out in person Saturday night at Belen City Hall to ask local law enforcement leaders and prosecutors about crime problems in their communities, while many watched from home via Facebook Live.
Valencia County Commissioner Joseph Bizzell asked if agencies could work more closely to cover gaps in each other’s jurisdictions, and put together joint operations, such as warrant sweeps, to “clean up” communities through out Valencia County.
Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil said plans were already in the works for more cooperative crime-fighting efforts.
“We do work together. If Belen can’t get to a call, dispatch is good about sending another agency to that location,” Vigil said. “As far as things like warrant roundups, we are planning to meet. We are all short staffed and we’ve had special operations planned, but with the response to and volume of calls, something seems to always happen and we have to withdraw. We do need to come together … there are agencies that just don’t have the ability to do that on their own.”
Belen Police Chief James Harris, who hosted the town hall meeting, said there was a “wonderful working relationship with all departments. For example, (Friday night) our officers had to take someone all the way to (Albuquerque) to book them. We called the sheriff and had deputies help cover the city.”
A woman in the audience, who said she was a dispatcher for Belen PD in the late 1990s, said through different conversations with current dispatchers she was told it’s up to the dispatcher whether to send an officer to a call for service or not.
“Is that why it takes a long time for them to respond?” she asked.
Simona Lopez, a VRECC dispatcher and reserve deputy with the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, said dispatchers don’t make the decision whether to send officers to a call.
“When we get the call, which is time-stamped, we give the officers the calls. At that point, they decide which calls to take first,” Lopez said. “Things might be taking more time because everybody is short staffed, dispatch as well. We don’t decide which officers or if they go; we put (calls) into the system and they take it from there.”
Tommy Sanchez, the GIS administrator for the Valencia Regional Emergency Communications Center which dispatches emergency calls for law enforcement and fire agencies in Valencia County, said response times for calls could be checked and investigated but he would need specific dates and times.
“We can check the (computer-assisted dispatch) logs and do an investigation. We are happy to look into any call or concern,” Sanchez said. “If corrective action is needed, we will take it.”
Philip Sublett, owner of Paul’s Son Sign and Graphics on N.M. 47 in Rio Communities, brought up the issue of off-road vehicles and side-by-sides driving recklessly in the area, on the highways and on nearby ditchbanks.
“Is there any way the different (jurisdictions) can come together and have mutual aid if they see someone breaking the law in Belen, then they go across the river and then they’re in the sheriff’s area?” Sublett asked.
Vigil said her deputies are aware of the problem and while there were two operations planned last summer, they weren’t able to do them.
“When we have done them, people run and dart out into the bosque. I’m very strict about pursuit. I don’t want to get someone killed,” the sheriff said.
She continued, saying the county does not have an ordinance that allows off-road vehicles on county roads, and her department is working to educate the motor vehicle department about local policies.
“They keep registering these vehicles, which they are supposed to do, but they are not aware of the policies in place. We have given the rules to motor vehicle,” Vigil said. “… people on Facebook go back and forth but you literally cannot drive them on the roads. You trailer your ATV and go where someone has authorized you to ride. On (county) roadways, the only persons who can drive on them legally are farmers.”
Jose Natividad, the Belen PD deputy chief, said in regards to side-by-sides, MVD issues two license plates — one for on highway use and a second for off-road use.
To be licensed for on-road use, side-by-side vehicles must have a laundry list of safety equipment including street tires, insurance, a windshield and seat belts, Natividad said.
“There is a long list you have to comply with,” he said. “What you drive out of (a dealership) with isn’t legal.”
Thirteenth Judicial Chief Deputy District Attorney Jessica Martinez said after law enforcement is called, if charges come out of the incident, the biggest thing community members can do is follow through with the case.
“What we need after charges is you need to testify. If we don’t have your cooperation in a case, that’s how it gets pled down or worse, dismissed,” Martinez said. “Please keep in touch with our office. We need your help prosecuting cases.”
Natividad said during the prosecution phase, the biggest question officers get is why they made contact with a suspect, why they questioned and arrested that particular person.
To help establish suspicion and probable cause, the deputy chief said it was critical for witnesses to be as detailed as they can be when describing a suspect.
“Tell us they were wearing white shoes, blue jeans, a red shirt and had a Zia on their mask,” he said. “If someone is looking into windows and checking car doors, that detailed description is a starting point why we made contact. Later on, after that arrest, it makes it easier to prosecute.”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.