Sheriff Denise Vigil
Valencia County Sheriff’s Office

After a year of careful consideration, Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil, who campaigned successfully as a Democrat two years ago, changed her party affiliation to Republican last week.

“It’s been a decision I’ve been contemplating for about a year now,” Vigil said. “It’s very difficult to do that because I ran as a Democrat for sheriff.”

The day she made the final decision to switch parties, she said, was the day she finally felt liberated, saying being an advocate for law enforcement has been her mission for 19 years.

“The reasoning behind my decision is the climate surrounding law enforcement and, unfortunately, the Democratic Party is pushing legislation against law enforcement to some degree,” she said. “I know their intensions are for the good, and I don’t doubt what their agenda is but we, as a law enforcement agency, have not been given the opportunity to give our own opinion why certain things won’t work.”

When Vigil initially registered to vote, she did so as a Republican but later in life switched to Democrat.

Vigil says what sealed the deal this time was when she learned of proposed Democrat-led legislation that could financially hurt law enforcement officers and government entities who employ them.

If signed into law, Senate Bill 17, which will be introduced in the 2021 legislative session, would open up individual officers to lawsuits if they violate citizens’ civil rights in the course of their duties. Individual officers are currently shielded from civil lawsuits unless it can be proven they knowingly violated a statutory or constitutional right under what is known as qualified immunity.

The sheriff says law enforcement is under an enormous amount of pressure, not only in their day-to-day jobs, but they would now have to be concerned about losing everything they have.

“There’s a system in place for officers who do wrong, whether it’s a small issue and we deal with it internally, or a few days off and retraining, and we do that,” she said. “When a higher degree of discipline is required, we send them up to the Department of Public Safety in Santa Fe.”

Vigil says a lot of people view all law enforcement under “one umbrella,” and that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do.

“Well, we are doing the right thing here in Valencia County,” Vigil said. “You shouldn’t put everyone under one roof. We’re not perfect people. There has been law enforcement across the country that has crossed the line, and deserves to be punished. But to put us all under one umbrella is wrong.”

Vigil said the bill would also financially strain the department with a stipulation that sheriff’s departments would be required to pay for investigations of officer-involved shootings in the county, regardless of which agency is investigating.

This legislation could compromise the law enforcement profession, Vigil said, saying few will want to join the ranks and those who already are officers are fearful and might contemplate leaving.

The Valencia County Commission recently approved a resolution opposing the bill, saying it would lead to increased insurance premiums that could potentially bankrupt the county.

Another issue led by Democrats that she’s had a hard time with is the unfunded mandate approved during the special session this summer that requires all law enforcement agencies in the state to purchase and use body cameras. Vigil said the 90-day time frame didn’t give her enough time to shop for the proper equipment.

Ultimately, VCSO went with a system from California-based Visual Labs, which relies on cell phones as the hardware, due to cost and needing to meet the state’s deadline. County commissioners approved a one-year contract with Visual Labs for $59,600 to provide the software and cloud storage for the cameras.

“We have had some issues with the cameras, and it’s no fault of the deputies,” she said. “We just didn’t have the time to research the equipment and get what we really wanted.”

Vigil says the Democratic Party isn’t listening to law enforcement, and sue has become discouraged with the direction of its platform. When she’s reached out to certain members of the local and state party to explain the issues, she’s received no response, she said.

“There was a time when I had a conversation about the term ‘defunding the police’ and it was horrible,” the sheriff said. “All I heard was law enforcement needed to be changed. In a closed, Democratic group on social media, I asked if anyone supported law enforcement, and I heard nothing. No one said anything.”

The sheriff says the lack of support for law enforcement from the Democratic Party has been disappointing.

“Democrats in Valencia County, in general, really don’t get involved in the party — there’s a difference,” she said. “But the party itself, should be available to every candidate and elected official, but they’re not.

“No party is perfect, but I feel you can have a voice and get a response to your concern in the Republican Party,” she said. “And you’re allowed to have opinions and receive support.”

Saying she has reached out to several local Republican officials, Vigil has been encouraged by the response.

David Gardner, chairman of the Valencia County Republican Party, said he was “a little surprised but pleased” when the News-Bulletin told him of Vigil’s decision.

“I think she’s done a good job as sheriff,” Gardner said. “I’ve talked with her in the past, and I’ve been impressed with the job she’s doing. I, and the Republican Party, supports law enforcement.”

Joan Day-Baker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Valencia County, said she too was surprised to hear of Vigil’s decision, saying the sheriff did “show up” to meetings during the recent election cycle.

Day-Baker said she did notice the conversation on the Facebook group page the sheriff had with some members of the local party, who she said shared memes and articles about defunding the police.

“She (Vigil) showed great offense to that,” Day-Baker said. “I would like to talk to her; not to convince her otherwise because that’s a choice she has to make for herself, and I wouldn’t want to impede, but I want to thoroughly understand. She’s never brought up her concerns with me, and I’d like to know what the party can do better.”

Saying the local party isn’t as connected with the state and national organizations as some might think, she understands the movement to reform the police.

“It’s unfortunate the national movement took on the statement to ‘defund’ but it’s not what they meant. It’s not the platform of Democrats here or in the state party. It’s a progressive movement done by grassroots efforts and nonprofits,” she said. “I’m new. I was elected chair two weeks before the primary. I wish (Vigil) had felt more comfortable to reach out to me.

“I’m sure this was a very thought out thing she had to do, but I’d like a better understanding so the Democratic Party can be more supportive of law enforcement and of our membership.”

When asked if she has anything to tell those who voted for her because she was a Democrat, Vigil wants them to know she’s the same person she was two years ago, with the same values and same beliefs in law enforcement.

“I want to continue to do the job, and we have a great department,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can to make sure the community is safe.

“Nothing has changed in me. My hope is that Democrats will understand. I’ve always been in the middle of the road, politically, and I hate the fact that the sheriff has to be a Republican or Democrat because we work for everybody regardless of party.”

Vigil does plan to run for a second term as sheriff — this time as a Republican — and she understands switching parties could damage her chances of reelection.

“There’s a potential people won’t like it and won’t vote for me, and that’s OK,” she said. “I have to go with my truth, and this is what I need to do for myself to have a clearer voice and not be restricted.

“I don’t have a dislike for the Democratic Party; I’m just discouraged,” she said. “I want them to know I’m not abandoning them entirely, because I work for everybody. It’s just something I have to do.”

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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.