In early 2018, a Rio Rancho man emailed the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office to complain about one of its deputies speeding on the road.
"Every morning I drive down 528 Northbound, and most mornings there is one of your officers who must live in Rio Rancho and drive the same route," the man wrote. The deputy's vehicle drove faster than the posted speed limit every time the man spotted it.
"At first I thought, well, maybe he/she is on his/her way to a call, but when it happens every single time I see him/her, WITHOUT FAIL, he/she cannot possibly be on their way to a call. Not going both Northbound and Southbound," the man's complaint reads.
It's just one of 45 citizen complaints filed with the department since January 2017 and released to SFR in response to a public records request. A total of 15—comprising the largest share of alleged infractions—mention deputies speeding, using their cell phones while driving, tailgating and generally driving in ways that would merit a traffic stop for a civilian. The other 30 complaints range from rudeness and incompetence resulting in financial loss to personal harassment.
Speeding was by far the most common driving grievance, with 14 complainants accusing at least eight different deputies of driving above the posted rates of speed. It was almost always mentioned in conjunction with other unsafe driving habits, including cell phone use, not using proper turn signals and tailgating. The latter three acts were each mentioned in four of the complaints obtained by SFR.
In total, complaints about driving mention 10 different deputies, including Adrian Miranda, Maria Hernandez, Tracy Baca, Michael Matison, Nathaniel Garcia, Jarrod Mosher, Christopher Podolak, JD Lujan, Vernon Naranjo and Jeff Jacquez. Two deputies, Miranda and Hernandez, were the subjects of at least two complaints each.
Sheriff's spokesman Juan Rios says people should feel "confident they can call the sheriff or sheriff office to report what they see as an infraction."
"We do take [complaints] seriously; they're reviewed on a case-by-case basis," Rios says. Each one is "essentially assigned to commanders [who] are assigned to look into each infraction. If it's determined an infraction is justified, we will basically deal with it, everything from a verbal warning up to disciplinary action."
While the sheriff's office will publicly disclose investigations into deputy misconduct, Rios says the outcome of those investigations—including whether and how a deputy was disciplined—is a "personnel matter" and therefore protected from release under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act.
The act does not provide for secrecy based on a claim of "personnel matters," and state Attorney General Hector Balderas is reviewing a request from city of Santa Fe officials asking whether the fact of police discipline should be disclosed. An advisory opinion from Balderas could impact secrecy practices at law enforcement agencies across the state, including the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office. The city asked for the opinion more than a year ago.
Adan Mendoza is the county's presumptive next sheriff, because he faces no challengers for the position on the Nov. 6 election ballot.
The county employs about 100 sworn deputies who are assigned to patrol nearly 2,000 square miles of area in Santa Fe County. Mendoza noted the huge swath of land deputies cover every day, but added there was little justification for breaking traffic laws—especially cell phone usage.
"I sometimes see law enforcement—I'm making a general statement—agencies within the city, county, state, other cities, other states, sometimes they're talking on their phones or they're not following proper traffic laws," Mendoza tells SFR by phone. "I think everybody, all law enforcement, can do a better job setting an example, especially when we're out there enforcing laws against the general public when they do the same things."
One complainant contacted the sheriff's office last August to say they witnessed Deputy Maria Hernandez "speeding and talking on her cell phone without a hands free devise [sic]" on Highway 84/285. It echoes another complaint submitted two months later that mentions a deputy "texting with his right hand" while accelerating.
A month later, another person complained about Deputy Tracy Baca "not maintaining her lanes of travel" on Highway 84/285 while possibly talking on her cell phone, and in December, somebody messaged the sheriff to say that Deputy Nathaniel Garcia had been "texting and driving and using his cell phone while on State Road 14 near Rancho Viejo Blvd."
A few complainants were bold enough to follow deputies after they had allegedly exhibited poor driving behaviors.
On Sept. 21, the sheriff's office launched an internal investigation into Deputy Jeff Jacquez for reportedly driving at double the speed limit on Highway 84/285. According to the complaint that prompted the investigation, the complainant "followed [Jacquez] speeding all the way to the county line in Española where [the complainant] saw the flashing sign before the Sonic flashing 65 mph in a 45 mph zone."
One man even convinced an unidentified deputy to pull over and explain why he was driving so fast. On April 10, William Fraizer emailed the sheriff's office to describe what happened after he witnessed a deputy's vehicle speeding on Highway 14 toward the small village of Golden.
"I asked him why he was driving so fast and he said that he was on a call," Fraizer wrote. Fraizer claims he then followed the deputy for 30 minutes on Highway 344 without observing the deputy respond to a call.
Fraizer tells SFR his past experience receiving a speeding ticket for driving far more slowly in the same area motivated him to act.
"It's not the first time I've [followed a deputy's vehicle]," says Fraizer, a retired lawyer and former owner of Marigold Arts on Canyon Road. "I just have this real strong feeling that if you have a badge and a gun, you have an incredible amount of power, you ought to obey the law."
Fraizer says nobody ever followed up with him to say if the deputy had been disciplined.
Even though the sheriff's office won't tell people whether their complaints made any difference, Mendoza still encourages the public to call in if they see deputies driving recklessly.