Updated: Monday, 15 Apr 2013, 11:21 AM MDT
Published : Thursday, 28 Jun 2012, 10:06 PM MDT
The state of law enforcement in the tiny prairie town of Vaughn, southwest of Santa Rosa, is so bad the only qualified member of the police department is a drug-sniffing dog.
“They are a police department that should not exist,” said Gordon Eden, cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Department of Public Safety. “If they do not stop what’s going on in Vaughn, New Mexico, we will go to the New Mexico attorney general … to take additional action.”
Vaughn is a community of 450 and has a police department being run by convicted criminals. In fact, the only fully trained and certified member of the Vaughn Police Department is Nikka the police dog.
“I’m very leery about getting rid of police officers for just not being able to carry a gun or something,” said Vaughn Mayor Paul Madrid.
From the outside, the Vaughn Police Department appears to be a real law enforcement agency. The town has spent tens of thousands of dollars to look the part – including expensive designer sunglasses, police cruisers, handcuffs, flak jackets and enough ammunition to equip a small army. In fact, earlier this year, the town borrowed $10,759 from the New Mexico Finance Authority to buy Nikka.
However, Vaughn police haven’t made an arrest in years. Police Chief Chris Armijo can’t even remember the last time he wrote a speeding ticket. And no one who works for the department has any experience handling police dogs or investigating drug cases.
Asked how much good the $10,000 police dog is doing today, Madrid was blunt.
“Right today it doesn’t have no use, no,” the mayor said.
But spending tax dollars on the trappings of law enforcement is just the tip of the iceberg.
A larger issue is the fact that Chief Armijo is a convicted felon. He pleaded guilty in January to not paying child support in Texas – a felony in that state but a misdemeanor in New Mexico. That means he cannot possess firearms.
“The law is very clear,” Eden said. “You cannot be a convicted felon and be a police officer in New Mexico.”
In an effort to get around the law, Vaughn officials bought Armijo a Taser, though he has also been seen patrolling the town of 450 people with a fake gun strapped to his hip.
Madrid said that if Armijo is comfortable patrolling without a gun, then it’s OK with Mayor Madrid. Asked what might happen if someone pulled a gun on the chief, the Mayor said, “I asked the same question … and they didn’t have an answer for me.”
After a recent Vaughn Town Council meeting, News 13’s Larry Barker asked Councilor Richard Gallegos about Armijo’s criminal record. At the time, Armijo, who is also a town councilor, was sitting next to Gallegos.
“Are you aware of some problems with the police department?” Barker asked Gallegos.
“No,” Gallegos said.
“You’re not aware of any problems with the police department?”
“Not at this point officially, no.”
“Nobody ever told you that your chief of police sitting next to you … is a convicted felon?”
“You didn’t know that?”
“(Shakes head) … I’d rather get it straight from the mouth.”
“OK, well why don’t you ask him? He’s sitting right next to you,” Barker said.
“When the times comes, I will,” Gallegos said.
Armijo doesn’t fight crime in Vaughn all by himself. The Number Two man in the department is Officer Brian Bernal.
Though the town hired him earlier this year, Bernal has no prior police experience, training or certification. But apparently nobody noticed that Bernal was convicted of battery on a household member in Mora in 2010.
“Because of that, he cannot be a certified, licensed law enforcement officer in the State of New Mexico,” Eden said. “It is a problem because … under state statute he cannot have a firearm (and) under federal law he cannot possess a firearm.”
Armijo told News 13 he plans to resign from his job although he did not say when. Officer Bernal refused comment.
“The Vaughn Police Department is being managed and operated by a convicted felon who has on his staff a person who has been convicted of domestic violence,” Secretary Eden said. “It is extremely poor judgment and a huge liability for the City of Vaughn.”
So as DPS moves to revoke Armijo’s certification and Bernal’s domestic violence conviction is likely to force him back into civilian life, what will become of law enforcement in this little prairie town?
“Nothing makes sense to me anymore,” said Mayor Madrid. “I don’t know beyond today … if we will ever have a police officer here again or not. I have no idea because the town cannot afford what’s required of the State of New Mexico or the federal boys.”
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