Sept. 12--LAS CRUCES -- A fire chief and a paramedic have accused Dona Ana Sheriff's Office supervisors of withholding critical support during times of need, an allegation the sheriff rejects.
The fire chief and paramedic, who have more than 35 years combined experience, spoke to the Sun-News under the condition of anonymity as both fear retaliation. Both said the problem is a recurring theme, happening almost daily.
While Sheriff Todd Garrison readily admits his department is under-staffed, he roundly rejects any insinuation that officers are not responding to the best of their ability -- and says if there is a real problem, all parties should work together to address it.
"These complaints are unsubstantiated and do not take into account the fact that our agency is a primary emergency response agency," Garrison said in an email Friday. "We provide back-up and assistance to non-emergency calls as it's available, and we would be violating our primary trust and mission if we ignored emergency calls in order to provide support on every non-emergent, non-enforcement or medical call for the fire department." Garrison pointed out that other local law enforcement heads, including New Mexico State Police Capt. Rich Libicer, have said recently that area departments have "a good working relationship with the sheriff's office."
"Both of us are limited in resources," Libicer told the Sun-News in an interview last month about similar complaints of non-support. "It's important we work
together and provide the service to the citizens that we get paid to provide. I don't think it's that much of an issue. I think some people make more of it than it is."
The allegations of the fire chief and the paramedic were initially reported by some state and city police officers last month -- a few "arrogant" and "apathetic" supervisors denying dispatchers' requests for deputies on calls that could turn violent, such as domestic disputes, calls where screaming is heard in the background or in situations where individuals are drunk and disorderly, the two say.
"We don't carry guns," the paramedic said. "We don't have bulletproof vests."
"I can't put my guys at risk," the fire chief said.
Garrison denies that deputies are "not allowed" to assist, saying that too often those in the short-staffed department are already busy with high-priority calls. Responding to all fire support calls would increase the sheriff's office's call volume by 21 percent, he said.
"It's not that we are ever unwilling to provide assistance; the reality is that we are many times unable," Garrison said.
Securing the scene
The problem has been getting worse over the last two years, said the fire chief and paramedic, and mostly in the areas just outside Las Cruces -- Organ, Dona Ana and the south valley -- and are some of the busiest areas for the sheriff's office. Multiple meetings with sheriff's office management to address the problem haven't been fruitful, the fire chief and paramedic said -- something Garrison said is absolutely not true.
"The consensus is, our job has an inherent risk," the paramedic said. "Pretty much (DASO management has said) 'Deal with it.'" He added: "I told (one sheriff's captain), 'Take off your vest, take off your guns and go on the same call with us.' His response was, 'Well, we have old vests we can give you.'"
Garrison says management "has not been invited or made aware of any so-called meetings with other agencies to address these allegations. Further, the Dona Ana County Sheriff's Department has never been made aware of any problems, allegations, or situations where our assistance or service was criticized by the fire department."
He also says that a recent department emphasis on community policing may be reducing manpower at times by focusing deputies' attention on their community districts, which "may well impede assistance to other areas during busy periods."