New Mexico Responders Say Sheriff Is Not Providing Support

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.

Frequently, all it takes is a deputy's presence to provide "scene security," the two said, but without one, situations like scuffles between a father and his intoxicated son can become violent, causing fire and ambulance workers to call for backup from state police, Border Patrol and even the Department of Transportation.

When city fire calls for their help, "never, never, never has LCPD refused to go to those similar calls," the paramedic said, pointing out that city police responds to more calls. But Garrison says that comparison is a stretch, given that DASO covers an area 73 times larger than the city. "We've never been turned down (by other agencies)," the paramedic said.

"One time, state police was 50 miles away. They didn't say no," the fire chief said. "DASO flat out tells us 'no.' "

The supervisors "have a boss," the fire chief said. "The sheriff is there for a reason. He has to control his department and help those who provide a service ... He sat there during the elections and said, 'I'll work harder.' I haven't seen him since."

He added, "It's been brought up so many times it's like talking to a wall."

Command decisions

Sometimes, the two said, they have found out that officers have been available -- after supervisors said no one was free -- or deputies have tried to responded by repeatedly driving by when their supervisors have told them not to.

That's fine with management, Garrison said.

"If any of our deputies witnessed someone in trouble, or in need of the assistance of law enforcement, duty dictates immediate assistance," he said. "In the event of a non-emergency, and non-enforcement assistance were requested and call volume or manpower were such that an immediate response was not possible, deputies in the area would 'drive by' to stay close in case a problem developed. Deputies cannot be in all places at all times, and have to be strategic in their determination of where to be."

It's not just in potentially violent that deputies would be helpful, say the fire chief and paramedic, but incidents like illegal burns where a property owner on scene needs to be issued a citation and rescues and medical calls where onlookers and crowds of upset family members cause traffic jams and block emergency vehicles. In one recent scene, just after a deputy was called away from traffic control after a gas leak in front of East Picacho Elementary School, a drunk driver careened onto the scene and over a hose, coming to rest "inches away" from firefighters, the fire chief said.

"We had to secure him," he said. "It's not what firemen do, on top of (responding to) a potentially major incident."

Garrison said in cases of fire codes, it's not deputies who should be responding, but the Fire Marshal's office. As for crowds, deputies can't bar them from gathering unless they're breaking the law, he said. And while he couldn't comment directly on the East Picacho incident, he said it was "highly unlikely" a deputy could have been able to prevent the near collision.

"[I]f multiple agencies were already on that scene, and that deputy received a competing call that no other deputy was available to cover, he or she and their command chain had to make decisions," Garrison said. "They are not always easy decisions, but they are always dictated by a driving mission to protect public safety, never to compromise it."

The two critics said they don't take the situation personally.

"But the safety of our employees is paramount," the paramedic said. "And we can't force our men to go in somewhere that's not safe ... We don't want them to go on all our calls, but when we say we need it, go."

The fire chief agreed: "We don't pick and choose. We get called out, guess what? We go."

Garrison said the decisions made in responding are not always easy to make, but that all public safety employees are a team -- and help each other as much as possible.

"Above all else, the Dona Ana County Sheriff's Department cannot function without the assistance of other agencies, and they cannot function without ours," Garrison said. "It is important to note (these allegations) ... have never been brought forth to our office, and -- simply put -- we cannot adequately address potential problems or situations until we are made aware of them."

Ashley Meeks can be reached at (575) 541-5462

Emergency response

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