Despite the important role that sheriffs play in law enforcement, New Mexico law requires little in the way of qualifications for those elected to the office. The New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association hopes to change that.
Almost anyone can be a sheriff in New Mexico. And that, says one association, is a huge problem.
The New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association says the requirements to be elected sheriff in communities throughout the state are extremely low. Short version: If you can vote and have no felonies on your record, you can be elected sheriff of a New Mexico town. According to the state’s general election candidate guide [PDF] and a set of specific position eligibility requirements, a candidate need only be a U.S. citizen age 18 or older and live in the county where he or she is running.
Missing are more fundamental qualifications, such as courses in law enforcement and training in how to properly handle a gun. And some candidates for the job may have a history of legal trouble that, while not felonies, some see as problematic for those seeking a law enforcement leadership role.
“It’s quite a surprise to a lot of people. If you get the vote, you can get elected into the job of sheriff,” NMSA Executive Director Jack Levick told New Mexico Watchdog last week.
The issue is coming to a head after Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella was indicted last month on civil rights charges stemming from the alleged assault of a motorist in a 2013 road rage incident.
NMSA is promising to pressure state legislators to change the law to require at least five years of law enforcement experience when their next session starts in January.
A top executive for a national sheriffs’ group says the situation in New Mexico is fairly common, and NMSA’s push reflects a growing trend.
But National Sheriffs’ Association Director of Operations Fred Wilson adds that plenty of sheriffs who don’t come from law enforcement nevertheless succeed in the role.
“We’ve had doctors, undertakers, all kinds of people elected sheriff across the country who didn’t have law enforcement backgrounds,” Wilson told New Mexico Watchdog, adding that these sheriffs often play administrative roles.
Many states have added training requirements for elected sheriffs. New Mexico has a training program for police officers, but elected sheriffs are not required to take part in the 26-week certification program for law enforcement officers or even a two-week crash course, at the end of which a sheriff can receive a certification by waiver.
p>Rodella, the sheriff facing civil rights charges, recently had his certification revoked, a common situation for police officers facing charges.