BELEN—With more than two decades of law enforcement experience, Belen Police Chief James Harris is confident he can make a difference in the lives of people living in the Hub City.

Harris was appointed to the position by Mayor Jerah Cordova last month, saying the new chief has “proven himself to be a leader.”

The lure of law enforcement happened for Harris after he left the Air Force and got a job in corrections while living in Louisiana. It was that influence that he got the bug to be police officer.

After a few years in corrections, he decided to make the move and was hired as a deputy at the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office.

“It became a passion to serve,” Harris said. “I had served in the military and I always wanted to do something that was service-based. Honestly, I was 22 years old at the time and it was the adrenaline rush of it all. It was the excitement of it all.”

During his time in Louisiana from 1994 to 1999, Harris was able to work in different areas of the department, including corrections, patrol, communications and court security.

As it often does, Harris’ life was changing and having grown up in New Mexico, he decided to return home and continue his career in law enforcement. Even before leaving Louisiana, he reached out and applied at the Los Lunas Police Department.

“They were the first one to call me back, and I drove from Bossier Parish — a nine to 10 hour drive — and I tested for the Los Lunas Police Department that morning,” Harris said. “I started work the next month.”

While Harris has worked for both the Los Lunas and Belen police departments and the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, he says law enforcement is essentially the same no matter where you go, other than the size of the jurisdiction and some laws and policies.

“Law enforcement is pretty much law enforcement,” the new chief said. “We may not have the technology, the resources or the amount of personnel some of these larger agencies have, but as a result, you end up being a much more well-rounded officer.

“When we get a homicide, we have to work that homicide. When we get a burglary, we have to work that burglary,” Harris said. “Departments, such as Albuquerque, have specialized units, but our officers have to work all the cases and it gives them more experience in more areas.”

Harris’ philosophy of law enforcement has changed over the years. He says young officers tend to look for that excitement, but as you grow into the profession, you learn you get a lot farther with talking to people rather than talking at people.

“I’ve been there; I’ve done that; I’ve been that officer,” he said. “When I worked for the Belen Police Department before, I learned a very valuable lesson from then chief (Mike) Chavez, and that was the art of tact. He told me about that over and over again, and I didn’t actually employ that until several years later. Once I did, I really learned what he meant by it.

“We’re here to protect and serve, but it goes beyond that,” Harris said. “We’re here to protect, serve, educate and partner with the community.”

He also said police officers shouldn’t abuse members of the public and, at the same time, police officers shouldn’t be abused by the public.

“Police officers are human beings. They are held to a higher standard, as well they should be,” the chief said. “But they are apt to have a bad day just like anyone else. When people see a police officer, they don’t see a person, they see the uniform. We represent authority and what is bad in their lives at that moment, and they tend to take it out on the officer.”

Harris’ plans for the Belen Police Department not only includes to reduce crime, but he wants the community to know he is dedicated to promote from within, recruit qualified officers and have an open-door policy for officers and the community.

The chief already had a department-wide meeting with the officers, and says the officers have welcomed him and the moral is improving day by day.

“What I can’t guarantee that I won’t do something controversial, that I won’t make a decision them mad or that everyone doesn’t agree with, but what I will always try to do, I will explain myself to everybody and why the decisions were made,” he said. “If I do it in that manner, at least they’ll respect that.”

Harris said he will be promoting at least two officers to sergeant positions, and is looking through several applicants to fill vacant officer slots.

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin, as well as the executive editor of El Defensor Chieftain, the News-Bulletin's sister paper in Socorro.
Clara 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.