While certain types of crimes have decreased in the unincorporated parts of Valencia County and the city of Rio Communities from 2019 to 2020, Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil said officers were still handling a large volume of calls.

The sheriff’s office provides law enforcement to areas in the unincorporated parts of the county, such as Meadow Lake, Jarales, Los Chavez El Cerro Mission, Highland Meadows and Tomé, as well as for Rio Communities. The crime numbers referenced in this article include the unincorporated parts of the county and Rio Communities.

In 2020, deputies wrote 5,422 reports compared to 6,310 the year before. They wrote 7,345 in 2018 and 7,038 in 2017.

Vigil said criminal activity usually spikes up for a few days then drops down, a pattern that repeats throughout the year.

“Overall, we’re about the same. This year, because of COVID, people were at home, so we’ve seen fewer burglaries. Businesses were closed and when they reopened, fewer people were allowed in, so I think people were watched closer, so shoplifting went down, too,” Vigil said. “Even with COVID, the numbers weren’t that far off. We’re still busy. There’s still a lot going on.”

Total burglaries of all types — forcible, non-force and attempted — dropped from 331 to 244 for 2020. Larceny reports fell from 452 to 272, and shoplifting numbers were cut nearly in half, dropping from 118 cases in 2019 to 67 in 2020.

Vehicle thefts were also down, from 173 to 120, and criminal damage reports went from 514 in 2019 to 425 in 2020.

Some violent crimes, such as assaults of all types also decreased — 879 in 2019 to 674 in 2020. However, rapes increased from 17 to 22, and there were three attempted rape reports in 2020 versus two in 2019. Robberies also increased from six to 11 in 2020.

Homicide cases investigated by the sheriff’s office decreased, with 11 in 2019 and eight in 2020. New Mexico State Police handled two homicide cases in the county in 2019, for a total of 13, and three in 2020, totalling 11 in 2020.

Of the 11 homicide cases VCSO handled in 2019, suspects have been arrested and charged in nine of them, and of the eight cases in 2020, all the investigations have resulted in suspects being arrested and charged.

Newly appointed Undersheriff Jeff Noah was frank about the annual statistics, saying they don’t really guide the day-to-day operations of the sheriff’s office.

“We look at where were homes broken into this week or this month, not over the year. Is there a concentrated area for a week or a month? Where are the hot spots?” Noah said.

The sheriff said the department relies on its sergeants, who directly supervise the deputies in the field, to identify where problems are and how to best address them.

“We put it on them to come up with some solutions because they’re on the ground; they’re out there every day,” the sheriff said. “We meet with them monthly and ask them what’s going on out there; where do you need a concentrate?”

Vigil said one challenge the department has is being proactive in the field due to the limited number of deputies.

“They move from call to call pretty quickly and the calls for service are high. A lot calls aren’t really law enforcement calls but we answer them,” she said. “For instance, there’s a lady who’s having issues with her neighbor’s dog chewing under her fence. That’s not something for us really, but we talk to her and try to help.”

Vigil continued, saying while the department’s role in law enforcement is important, it was only one step in the judicial process.

“We met with the (13th Judicial District Attorney). We’re really targeting violent crimes so we wanted to know how the DA’s office is approaching them and how we, as law enforcement, can assist them in those initiatives,” she said.

To better respond to the call volume and needs of the community, VCSO Lt. Joseph Rowland said the department is working corroboratively not only with local and state law enforcement agencies, such as the New Mexico State Police and state Game and Fish, but federal agencies like the FBI, DEA, ATF and U.S. Marshal Service.

“We now have officers with each of those federal agencies to help put federal resources down here in the county,” Rowland said.

By having federal agencies involved in cases of repeat offenders committing violent felonies, the rules change, the sheriff said.

“They have minimum mandatory sentencing, so they won’t be out on the streets committing more crimes. Their judges have strict time lines for sentencing where state courts might take longer,” Vigil said.

Sheriff Denise Vigil

For the county’s upcoming 2021-22 fiscal year, the sheriff has asked the Valencia County Commission to add four new positions to the department.

Noah said one of those positions could be a new detective, who can help close cases faster and more efficiently in order to get them into the next part of the judicial process, the court system.

How to allocate those four new positions, if they are granted, is a balancing act, he said.

“If we get these four positions and put them out in the field, they can take more calls and hopefully spend a little more time with people,” he said. “However, if we have someone working on the backside, as a detective, they might not be handling a call but working on a case that connects your burglary with several others. If we can stop that person, then it stops a lot of future problems, but people might still have to wait for a deputy. It’s a hard thing to balance.”

Saying she understood people’s frustrations with wait times, Vigil said it’s critical for people to report crimes.

“Even if you don’t know who did it, maybe we have information we can link to something else,” she said. “It also helps us know where we need to focus. If we don’t know there’s a problem, we can’t do anything about it. I know it’s difficult to call and wait for somebody.

“And I know the public doesn’t see a lot of the things we do behind the scenes, but we are working to make the community safe, to serve the community.”

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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.