When law enforcement officers tell each other to shut up and argue over who’s in control, you’ve got an authority problem. When they order each other to leave the scene of a standoff, you’ve got a breakdown in jurisdiction and the chain of command. And when they set up competing perimeters and train their weapons on each other, you’ve got a dangerous conflict that puts them, and the public, at risk.
All this happened recently in Rio Arriba County, where the sheriff has been arrested twice in a month for allegedly interfering with and obstructing Española police officers. Flare-ups between police and the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office have been captured on police lapel camera videos obtained by the Journal and are worth watching.
In the latest video showing the May 21 arrest of Rio Arriba Sheriff James Lujan in Española, a tactical unit from the Taos County Sheriff’s Office surrounded the Rio Arriba Sheriff’s Office with assault rifles drawn. Española police had asked the Taos tactical unit for assistance in executing a search warrant for a cellphone Lujan allegedly used to contact a barricaded man during a March standoff with Española police.
“You guys are f—– up, man,” Rio Arriba County Undersheriff Martin Trujillo told an Española officer when he arrived.
Lujan was handcuffed and detained as officers searched the Sheriff’s Office and seized his cellphone. Police asked Lujan to unlock the phone, but the sheriff said he first wanted to talk with his attorney. “It doesn’t work like that. This is not a negotiation,” Española police Detective Zachary Wright told the sheriff as Lujan called out for his undersheriff. When Lujan invoked his right to an attorney, Wright ordered Lujan arrested on a misdemeanor charge of resisting, evading or obstructing an officer.
Tensions continued after Lujan was removed from the scene. At one point in the video, a member of the Taos tactical team can be seen peering through a scoped rifle pointed in the direction of Rio Arriba deputies rallying at the Sheriff’s Office. Taos deputies were on edge after someone from Rio Arriba radioed “10-33,” an emergency request by an officer for assistance. Responding Rio Arriba County deputies were ordered to set up a security perimeter and draw their weapons, and Taos County deputies responded by setting up their own security perimeter.
The ensuing bickering would be amusing in its immaturity if it wasn’t part of a dangerous situation a hair trigger away from two police agencies exchanging gunfire:
“This is our house,” Rio Arriba Undersheriff Trujillo said.
“Well, right now it’s ours,” said an Española officer.
“We own the building right now,” Espanola detective Wright said.
“Shut up,” Trujillo said, pointing a finger at Wright.
“Don’t talk to me like that,” Wright responded.
“Shut up,” Trujillo said again.
And it continued. Thankfully, cooler heads ultimately prevailed and the situation didn’t escalate further. But tensions are clearly high between the two largest law enforcement agencies in Rio Arriba County, and one can only wonder about their level of cooperation. Rio Arriba County residents, like all New Mexicans, deserve a united law enforcement community that works together.
If they haven’t already, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Attorney General Hector Balderas need to watch the video of Lujan’s arrest. Their leadership and involvement may yet be needed to bridge the divide and restore public confidence in law enforcement in Rio Arriba County.
Police lapel camera video shows a member of the Taos County Sheriff’s Office pointing his rifle at Rio Arriba County deputies during the arrest of Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan on May 21. The two sheriffs’ offices set up competing perimeters during the incident, with guns pointed at each other.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.