By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. – Voters may not know it, but just because somebody gets elected as a New Mexico sheriff that doesn’t mean he or she is a certified law enforcement officer.
In fact, they’re not required to pass a law enforcement training course or even demonstrate they know how to safely handle a gun.
“It’s kind of scary when you have persons … with no real qualifications who get voted into office,” said Los Alamos County Sheriff Marco Lucero.
There is no requirement that county sheriffs must complete the 26-week certification and training program that’s administered by the state’s law enforcement academy.
The requirements, in fact, are minimal: Candidates must be at least 18 years old with no felony convictions, a resident of New Mexico and a citizen of the United States.
LeVick said he didn’t know how many county sheriffs across the state lack certification.
“A lot of states demand that sheriffs have to be certified and some of them call for sheriffs to get certified after they get elected,” said Fred Wilson, director of operations at the National Sheriffs’ Association, based in Alexandria, Va.
Wilson said New Mexico is not alone, “but there is a trend to add law enforcement certification and an education component” for prospective candidates for sheriff’s offices across the country.
“If you’re going in for brain surgery, would you want a sheriff to do it or a brain surgeon? That’s what this is about,” LeVick told New Mexico Watchdog.
But is certification really essential to be a good sheriff?
“We’ve had doctors, undertakers, all kinds of people elected sheriff across the country who didn’t have law enforcement backgrounds,” said Wilson, pointing out that some sheriffs look at the job from an administrative perspective. “It varies from state to state,” Wilson said.
The New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association plans on getting legislation introduced in the upcoming 60-day session in Santa Fe that would mandate all sheriffs across the state be certified.
“We want to have professional law enforcement people out there,” LeVick said.
“As an administrator, you should be well-versed in every aspect of your office,” Lucero said. “That means from patrol to civil service to investigations to various divisions within your office. You need to know how they work.”
In fact, when Lucero was elected in 2010, he became the first Los Alamos sheriff who actually held full certification as a law enforcement officer.
Lucero said New Mexico sheriffs who haven’t taken the 26-week certification process often opt to take a two-week crash course at the law enforcement academy that allows them to receive a certification by waiver.
But there is no requirement that sheriffs take the two-week course.
“You can stay uncertified,” LeVick said, adding that means the official cannot carry a gun or make arrests. “Basically, you’re a desk jockey.”
Here’s an odd twist: While sheriffs in New Mexico do not have to be certified, officers under their command do.
That means deputies and other officers must show they’ve passed the certification program at the New Mexico Training and Recruitment Division, which is run by the Department of Public Safety. New hires have one year to complete the program, Lucero said, which includes psychological evaluations, physical fitness requirements and weapons training.
“The lack of any real qualifications for elected sheriffs creates an awkward double standard where the rank and file deputy officers have to meet higher requirements than those they report to,” said Fred Nathan, executive director of Think New Mexico, a think tank based in Santa Fe.
Two years ago, Think New Mexico spearheaded a successful effort to boost the qualifications for candidates for the Public Regulation Commission.
“The public is more than ready for higher qualifications as we found in 2012 when more than 80 percent of New Mexicans voted in favor of the constitutional amendment to require higher qualifications for PRC commissioners,” Nathan said.
Why isn’t there already a certification requirement for sheriffs? Because there’s nothing on the books.
According to Article 7, Section 2 of the New Mexico Constitution, the only requirements to run for elective office is that a candidate is a U.S. citizen, a legal resident of the state and qualifies to vote.
In addition to the newly-enacted PRC requirements, there is one exception: to be New Mexico attorney general, one must be a member of the state bar association.
A quick review by the Legislative Council Service showed no additional requirements for elected office in the state.
For example, there are no requirements for financial expertise for candidates running for state auditor or state treasurer.