“If I were to shoot someone on my property, what would happen to me?”
That question, in various forms, was asked four times at Sunday afternoon’s (Feb. 24) Peñasco Community Crime Awareness meeting.
Nearly 300 Peñasqueros packed the Peñasco Community Center for the meeting, which was called in light of a recent spate of armed robberies and burglaries in the Peñasco area.
Burglary victim and meeting organizer Natalie López said she hoped the meeting would become a dialogue on how Peñasco could protect itself better with a community watch committee.
“We’re here to take our community back,” López said. “It seems it’s not a matter of if the crime will affect you, but when.”
In February alone, three Peñasco businesses fell victim to crime— Sugar Nymphs Bistro was burglarized down to spices and silver, while Pacheco’s Grocery and the Family Dollar Store were both robbed at gunpoint.
According to the meeting’s sign-in sheet, Peñasco valley residents reported at least 40 burglaries in the past year. Some of the reported response times for law enforcement ranged from 45 minutes to 13 hours.
Eighth Judicial District Attorney Donald Gallegos, Taos County Sheriff Miguel Romero and Sgt. Steve Miera, New Mexico State Police Officer Colby Skidmore and Taos County Crime Stoppers law enforcement coordinator Detective Barry Holfelder attended the meeting to answer some pointed questions, generally about what law enforcement planned to do to allay crime in rural Peñasco.
“My hope is that this won’t become a complaint session, but a solution session,” Gallegos told the crowd at the beginning of the meeting. “This is a bigger picture than saying, ‘Mr. D.A., Mr. Sheriff, you’re not doing your job.’”
Gallegos, Romero and sheriff Sgt. Steve Miera clarified some of the struggles law enforcement face when addressing crime in the area and major budgetary limitations they deal with to do their jobs.
“Taos County is 22,000 square miles,” Miera said. “With three officers per shift, I hope this gives you an idea. We get stretched pretty thin but basically, that’s what we’ve been given to work with.”
Romero also said that budget concerns greatly limited his manpower, along with certain requirements for different types of calls.
“Our budget is tight,” Romero said. “The courts keep us busy. If there’s a domestic [violence call], it’s mandatory that I send two officers.”
Romero also addressed several questions as to why Peñasco doesn’t have an officer dedicated to the area. A number of years ago, the sheriff’s office had a sub-station in Peñasco, which was shut down. Romero also said there was no “emergency funding” to keep an officer in Peñasco.
“About five years ago, it was taken from us,” Romero said. “If [an officer] stays here 24 hours a day, he’ll get lazy on me and go home and do nothing. I know it. Keeping him here eight hours a day is too hard.”
Romero also said that a lot of his budget was tied up in overtime for his current officers. The Taos News double-checked Romero’s claims with the Taos County financial office and found that out of an $80,000 budget specifically allocated for overtime, the department has spent $71,406.11 since the fiscal year began in July, leaving $8,593.89 left for overtime for the rest of the year. The Taos News has filed a records request with Taos County to find out to whom specifically the overtime money was paid.
The Taos News spoke with Taos County Manager Stephen Archuleta about what, if anything, could be done to address the problems in Peñasco. Archuleta said he would be glad to have the commission hear the concerns of residents at a meeting, but that it wasn’t so much a question of funding as accountability.
“If people want to come forward, they need to tell the commissioners that they know where the officers are, and they’re not in Peñasco,” Archuleta said. “I know the concerns are there. The reality is, all [Romero] has to do is dedicate a shift and officers to that area.”
Gallegos had to answer scads of questions about what his office was doing to make sure offenders convicted of burglary, robbery and drug dealing stay behind bars.
The questions were largely based on the local belief in Peñasco that the recent burglaries are being committed by the same person or people to sustain a drug habit.
“It’s not as easy as it looks and it’s certainly not CSI,” Gallegos said. “The state of New Mexico has more protections for citizens than the Bill of Rights. We have to build probable cause, then come to court for a search warrant. Once we have a search warrant, the we still have to get enough evidence.”
Gallegos and Romero both said that it can take as much as three months to get a warrant, as the evidence has to support such a measure. To catch a drug dealer, for instance, an undercover officer from elsewhere must come into the area and make a certain number of drug buys to build evidence and cause. To make things more difficult for law enforcement, Gallegos said a lot of funding for narcotics investigations has been cut back.
In addition to encouraging residents to form a community crime watch program and put pressure on local and state officials to be heard, Gallegos, Romero and Holfelder all urged Peñasqueros to speak up more about crime in the area.
“Folks, what these guys are saying about funding is absolutely the truth,” Holfelder said. “Go in there and personally talk to the county commission, the D.A., the county sheriff, the state police. There’s nothing like that face-to-face, that weight to make things happen.”
Miera reminded the attendees that the future of his budget lies with the Taos County Commission.
“Let the county commission know your concerns. They’re the ones that hold the purse strings,” Miera said. “That’s the bottom line: We need more officers.”
And Romero pledged more attention from his department for Peñasco.
“I’ll take the blame for a lot and I’ll help to correct it. But if people don’t talk, we can’t help you,” Romero said. “I guarantee you’ll have officers saturating Peñasco, but don’t call me the next day and say, ‘Neighbor, I got a ticket.’ If you get pulled over, thank them.”