(CORRECTION: The year-over-year percentage increase of DWI offenses was misreported in the graphic accompanying this article. The number of incidents increased 46.1 percent, from 39 in 2022 to 57 in 2023.)

Being more of a presence throughout the county, a focus on traffic offenses and changing up when deputies write reports has enabled Valencia County Sheriff’s deputies to be more productive and effective in their field, says Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil, moving the needle in a positive direction in terms of preventing and responding to crimes. 

“I feel that with more presence throughout the county we’ve been able to give more attention to higher-priority calls,” Vigil said. “Our guys are out there, doing their job and they’re doing it well.” 

Looking at investigation statistics for the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office — which serves the unincorporated county as well as the city of Rio Communities — for 2023 and the three years prior, some numbers have risen, which is actually a net positive for the community, Vigil said.  

For instance, DWI investigations have risen every year since 2020, starting at 33 and now hitting 57 for 2023. 

“We had a deputy dedicated to DWI patrol (in 2023), as well as traffic, so those numbers increased,” the sheriff said. “That’s what a traffic unit is supposed to do. We are looking at adding people because it’s been a successful program, so I would expect those numbers to increase (in 2024).” 

The sheriff’s office performed 2,033 traffic stops and citations in 2023, with a high of 385 in October. VCSO Lt. Joseph Rowland did note while there were a high number of traffic citations issued, that activity doesn’t financially benefit the department directly. 

“We do not receive any funds from the citations that we write. That goes to the state’s general fund. It may be disbursed out in some of the law enforcement grants we receive, but I’m not sure,” Rowland said. “We just want the public to understand we aren’t doing this for financial gain. We are doing it for public safety. If we were getting that money, we would hire more deputies.” 

Rowland said statistics also show that when traffic enforcement is provided the crime rates in the area tend to be lower, due to the presence of the officers. 

Another category that’s seen an increase — and could seem alarming at first read — is child abuse investigations. In 2020 and 2021, VCSO investigated 13 cases each year. That number rose to 49 in 2022 and dropped slightly in 2023 to 39.  

With the number of cases more than tripling year over year, Rowland said it can seem alarming if you don’t remember what was happening the first two of those four years. 

“2020 and 2021 were COVID years. Schools were shut down. A large part of the reporting of child abuse is through the school staff, when they see injuries on a child or a child reports something,” he said. “That starts the process of an investigation into potential child abuse. With kids not being in school those particular years, I could see that as a contributing factor as to why those numbers would be so low during those two years, and then a spike increase as children start going back to school.” 

The lieutenant said the news media has also been bringing a lot of awareness to the crime of child abuse, the state Children, Youth and Families Department and crimes against children as a whole in the last several years. 

“I think news media has done a great job of bringing more awareness to that particular issue, driving up the public’s knowledge about it and probably driving up (CYFD’s) reporting mechanisms for the public,” he said. 

Vigil added she didn’t believe the “increased numbers of reported child abuse are indicative of a greater problem within the community but rather a greater number of incidents that aren’t being under-reported.” 

Nationwide, when looking at statistics in the FBI’s uniform crime report, violent crimes have been on the decrease since the late 1990s, Rowland said, which does translate to the local level. 

“If you were to do a 20-year study, you would see violent crimes in Valencia are on the decrease as well,” he said. “What we’re doing is taking a small sampling of the last four years, which makes that harder to see.” 

But not impossible. If you look at the number of aggravated assault investigations, there’s a slow and steady decrease from 2020 to 2023 — 92, 67, 60 and 56 per year, respectively. 

“I think the slight decrease you’re seeing is due to a couple things,” he said. “One is our collaboration with federal entities. The other is we have a very robust narcotics investigative team that made large-scale drug busts of people within the Valencia County area, which has helped facilitate a lowering of those kinds of violent crimes.”  

When looking at increases or decreases in crimes, Rowland said it’s important to consider the root causes. 

In 2019, the sheriff’s office handled more than a dozen homicide investigations.  

“Just looking at those, the vast majority of them had drug involvement to some extent,” he said.  

The number of homicides dropped to nine in 2020, then six in both 2021 and 2022. In 2023, there were no homicides in the sheriff’s office jurisdiction. 

While VCSO investigates a number of deaths each year, but not all of them are homicides. In 2023, the department investigated 85 deaths, which were all determined by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator to be due to a variety of causes, including medical or “natural” causes, overdoses and accidents. 

Calls for service have been increasing steadily over the years, from 11,783 in 2020, to 21,356, 22,354 and 20,535, respectively in the next three years, while the number of reports written by deputies has actually decreased. 

Last year, there were 3,723 reports generated, down from 3,651 in 2022 and 5,895 and 5,422 in 2021 and 2020. Rowland said that decrease can somewhat be attributed to a purposeful attempt to change the department’s culture to prioritize crimes as they are happening. 

“There was a culture in the past in which we almost documented everything. If you got a call for a house alarm, we came out, looked around and everything was OK, and we’d still write a report to show that,” he said. “On average, it takes an hour and 35 minutes per call. That’s from dispatch, the time it takes the deputy to respond and investigate and write a report.” 

Now deputies are authorized to do what are called “CAD notes” rather than writing a full report. When a deputy is dispatched to a call, the dispatcher puts notes into the computer aided dispatch system — CAD — with details of the call.  

If a deputy arrives on scene for a non-crime issue, such as a house alarm, then the deputy can add notes to the system indicating no crime, rather than writing a full-blown report. 

“It’s documented what the call was, what the outcome was but it doesn’t necessarily generate a police report,” Rowland said. “The dispatchers notes are all in there, plus the deputy’s notes. We’ve encouraged that in the last few years, that way we don’t have our deputies tied up on reports for an hour. We’re trying to maximize their productivity.” 

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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.