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Face to Face with Sheriff Manuel Gonzales: Quick to draw fire – and fire back

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III reports on Bernalillo County’s violent crime and homicide statistics last December.

Hard-nosed. Outspoken. Controversial. Unapologetic.

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III is all of that – whether you’re talking about hard-hitting press releases from his office announcing arrests to resisting on-body cameras for his deputies for years to shrugging off calls for his resignation from quarters that range from the American Civil Liberties Union to the state’s senior senator.

He has taken heat over a range of issues including meeting with then-President Donald Trump and agreeing to work with federal agents in a crime crackdown last summer and high-profile shootings by his deputies that led to multimillion-dollar settlements. He has at times been at odds with the district attorney and the governor.

A Marine Corps veteran who has been with BCSO for 25 years, Gonzales not only rejects the criticism, he doesn’t hesitate to fire back.

“I don’t work for the governor. I don’t work for the mayor. I don’t work for the president of the United States. I answer to the people who voted me into office,” he said.

Gonzales, who is in his second term as sheriff and barred by state law from running for a third consecutive term, acknowledges that he is considering a run for mayor. He has filed a candidate registration form with the City Clerk’s Office but has yet to declare his candidacy.

As sheriff, he has used his platform to put a spotlight on repeat offenders and violent crime in Albuquerque – which exceeds the national level by a good margin.

“On a daily basis when I go out and meet with the public … when you ask the question have you been a victim of crime, if not literally, every person raises their hand as having been affected by it. I feel there is a level of anxiety and paranoia for people that is changing the way we live.”

A Feb. 25 press release from BCSO headlined “Violent Repeat Offender with 17 Prior Probation Violations & Numerous Felony Arrests is Charged Again” gives some insight into what he thinks is wrong with the system. After listing more than a dozen specific prior offenses including conspiracy to commit a capital/1st degree felony, the release ends with a quote from Gonzales: “Just consequences must be implemented on violent repeat offenders. It is the rightful expectation of our citizens to feel safe, and not left feeling vulnerable by being victimized over and over by these same offenders.”

South Valley to sheriff

Gonzales was one of five siblings. His parents divorced when he was 4, and he moved with his mom and three siblings to an apartment on Isleta Boulevard where he was enrolled in Head Start. He went on to Armijo Elementary, Ernie Pyle Middle School and Rio Grande High School.

“Although my parents were divorced they had a great relationship and were nurturing on both sides,” he said. “I was always captivated by my dad, kind of a larger than life figure to me, a solid, tough, hard-working and classy guy who served in the Marine Corps. It kind of planted this seed in my head that I would go into the Marines.”

That’s what Gonzales did, serving as an aircraft mechanic on a Harrier squadron based in Yuma, Arizona. “It was an active unit so we deployed many places … Asia, Philippines, Japan.”

After a four-year stint, Gonzales returned to Albuquerque and enrolled in what was then TVI in a laser optics program, completing it in 1988. He worked at Honeywell defense systems for a short time but, “I was looking for something else.”

He checked out the Albuquerque Police Department, the fire department and others. “Then I went on a ride-along with BCSO and I knew with no reservations that was where I wanted to work and that’s what I wanted to be.”

He joined the department Aug. 14, 1989.

He later earned an associate degree in criminal justice from CNM and a bachelor’s from Wayland Baptist (through remote learning) in 2008.

Gonzales began his career at BCSO in field services where he worked in the South Valley, North Valley and East Mountains. Over the next 20 years he served in SWAT as secondary position and was involved in a shooting in 1994.

“I personally faced a tactical situation where the target of a federal warrant pointed a gun at me and attempted to kill me. In response to his deadly actions, I was able to return fire,” he said.

According to Albuquerque Journal stories from that time, a suspected drug dealer ran out the back door where he was confronted by Gonzales and another deputy. They identified themselves and told the man to drop the handgun he was carrying. Instead, he pointed the gun at Gonzales and fired one round. Gonzales returned fire with his 12-gauge shotgun, hitting the man in the abdomen.

The man fired two more rounds and fell to the ground. He was taken to the hospital where he was treated and released the following week – and quickly released from jail after posting a $35,000 bond.

By the time Gonzales became a BCSO supervisor in 2000 he had married Elaine and started a family. His duties over the years involved roles in administration, the air unit, anti-drug programs, crimes against children, white collar and instructor at the academy.

He was appointed sheriff by the County Commission in 2009 to succeed Darren White, who resigned to become public safety czar at the City of Albuquerque. A Democrat, Gonzales then lost his first election bid to Republican Dan Houston before winning a four-year term in 2014.

He rolled up a double digit reelection win over Republican Lou Golson in 2018.

Shooting cases

Gonzales resisted on-body cameras for his deputies for years, arguing they were not needed and that the money would be better spent on more deputies.

The lack of video was a point of emphasis in the shooting deaths by deputies of Martin Jim and Isaac Padilla after a stolen vehicle chase and Elisha Lucero, a 4-foot-8-inch woman with mental health issues who charged screaming with a knife at deputies who had been called by her family.

Both shootings resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements by the agency that insures Bernalillo County.

It wasn’t until the Legislature in 2020 mandated cameras for all law enforcement officers in New Mexico that BCSO moved to adopt the technology; Gonzales says the system he chose is superior to earlier versions. And the office hasn’t hesitated to release video in a couple of cases – albeit ones that portray deputies with a somewhat sympathetic view or support their actions.

“I like the technology we’ve selected because it is automated and removes that burden from the deputy … that establishes a level of trust I like,” he said. “Overall it was beneficial.”

Asked about use-of-force incidents, he said, “What I will tell you is that people are going to make mistakes. We take those things very seriously. I’m all for accountability and anyone who has done something either unethical or criminal, we hold them accountable. It’s part of what we need to do to hold the public trust.”

Gonzales previously defended the deputies in the two shooting cases and questioned the settlements. He points out that they “went to a special prosecutor and nobody found enough evidence to prosecute any officer.”

Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III, left, talks with Raul Vigil and Sam Vigil in October. Sam Vigil’s wife, Jackie, was killed early in the morning November 2019 while leaving her home. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The ACLU of New Mexico was hardly persuaded, and was further infuriated by the sheriff’s decision to work with President Donald Trump’s administration last summer.

The organization on July 22 cited what it described as the sheriff’s “extensive record of civil rights abuses and disregard for community safety, and emerging reports that Sheriff Gonzales is collaborating with the Trump Administration to send to Albuquerque the same unmarked federal forces that terrorized protestors, reporters and legal observers in Portland, Or.”

A day earlier, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., called on the sheriff to resign. He criticized Gonzales for not having adopted body cameras and said the sheriff was “inviting the Trump administration to send federal forces to help patrol the city.”

The sheriff responded that Heinrich was out of touch with what’s happening here.

“Along with our federal partners, we pledge to hold accountable the trigger-pullers, firearm traffickers, violent criminals and those who supply them with guns to terrorize our communities,” he said.

Was going to the White House a good decision?

“I think it was great decision,” he said.

As for the criticism? “I feel like it exposes those people who said they were going to make public safety their number one issue … then left the people of Bernalillo County holding the bag on crime and the issues that come with it. If somebody is willing to help this community out – local, federal or state – I’ll go wherever I need to go to keep the people safe. That’s what I swore to do and I would do it all over again.”

Gonzales recalls he was 6 years old and daydreaming during catechism class about being in a uniform and “keeping people safe.” That was prophetic, he believes, for his career in law enforcement.

Federal partners

Gonzales has relied on the federal system when he can.

“The detectives here came to me about three years ago and expressed their concern over issues ranging from dismissals to getting search warrants in the state system.

BCSO Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III, left chats with Attorney General William Barr, after the two gave an update on Operation Legend. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“So we started to staff our task force officers with our federal partners – including FBI and Marshals Service – and for those with extensive criminal histories taking cases federal because they meet the threshold. Instead of these people being released almost immediately for reasons ranging from bail reform to reforms at APD, these people are now getting five, 10, 15 years and taken to facilities out of state so we don’t have to tolerate their behavior.”

On any given day we have “40 to 100 people working with our federal partners.”

He says deputies work in a dangerous environment with many of those they encounter. “Sometimes they have meth on board. We don’t know mental state. We don’t know their criminal backgrounds. It creates a very dangerous environment for our deputies….”

‘Fundamental policing’

While many police agencies struggle to staff their ranks, the sheriff says BCSO is in good shape. The department has 170 civilian personnel and 330 authorized officers. “I would say that with people in the academy we are close to 100 percent staffed.”

That helps with his view of hands-on policing.

“We have a standing order. Whether a crime is big or small it’s an emotional experience. People want somebody to be there. We understand and we value the relationship with the public, so if they call us we go. We believe in fundamental policing.”

Online reporting requirements and technology can drive a wedge between law enforcement and the public, he said.

And there is an added benefit to responding in person. “Often times just the deterrent of showing up helps the neighborhood and makes people more confident and comfortable.”

He recalls that shortly after his reelection in 2018 he walked out of his garage and noticed a couple of men he didn’t recognize go into a neighbor’s yard and check out a vehicle there. “I went back inside my home and grabbed my credentials and weapon. I called for assistance and we began our sweep of the neighborhood. The first of the two was apprehended and was a wanted fugitive by the Marshals Service. I later found the second passed out against a fence. … He was arrested for having an outstanding federal homicide warrant….”

Family values

Gonzales’ wife, Elaine, works for the U.S. Forest Service. They have three teenage children who go to school “and who all work.”

An avid fisherman, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III displays a tiger muskie he caught shortly before releasing it. (Courtesy of Manuel Gonzales III)

He says he is debt-free and financed and oversaw construction of his home. “My mother taught us the value and importance of managing our money.”

Looking nearly as trim as he was when he left the Marine Corps, Gonzales says he has logged more than 3,000 miles running in the last six years and also reads. His last two books were Simon Synek’s “Leaders Eat Last” and Chic Thompson’s “What a Great Idea.”

He used to play golf, but his go-to hobby now is fishing.

“That’s something I really enjoy because I’m around my family. But I do enjoy the catch. I guess the tug is the drug.”

Are we talking about the ersatz religion of fly fishing?

“No, I’m kind of a simple guy. We’ve gone out to Conchas and Bluewater. I have this trophy catch tiger muskie. It was the catch of my life, but I put it back so maybe somebody else can catch it.”

It’s the kind of “catch and release” the 25-year lawman is OK with.


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