Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan didn’t have a tough act to follow.
His predecessor is serving a 10-year sentence in federal prison for attacking a motorist.
Few imagined that Lujan could do worse, even if he tried to fail.
Now many believe Lujan is every bit as untrustworthy as Tommy Rodella, the old, disgraced sheriff. I am one of them.
Two of Lujan’s deputies recently made headlines for irresponsible use of stun guns. Lujan has defended one and placed the other on administrative leave.
That difference in itself has become just one more reason for the public to lose confidence in the sheriff.
Lujan made supportive comments about Deputy Jeremy Barnes, who fired his Taser into the chest of a 15-year-old special-education student at Española Valley High School. Barnes remains on duty, drawing a public paycheck.
The sheriff’s willingness to let Barnes continue carrying weapons is full of risks. Rio Arriba County already is the defendant in a lawsuit filed by the student’s mother.
The other deputy, Leon Gallegos, discharged his Taser into the genitals of a jailer. This mindless violence verified how undisciplined and dangerous a department Lujan is running.
Lujan’s spokesman, Maj. Randy Sanches, has tried to spin the jail-yard tasing as an accident. Sanches told me it might have been a case of “horseplay” that got out of hand.
That description won’t assuage anyone. A professional law enforcement officer doesn’t treat a weapon like a toy.
Lujan placed Gallegos on administrative leave pending an investigation that is now three weeks old.
Why the sheriff pulled one deputy from active duty but not the other is a mystery. It only deepens if you study videos of their conduct.
Neither had to use his Taser. Both defied the law of reason and discounted whatever training they had. The deputies inflicted pain, tarnished their profession and exposed taxpayers to lawsuits.
Barnes and Gallegos have invited criticism. They deserve it.
Lujan deserves it even more. Every sheriff from time to time makes one of those Harry Truman, buck-stops-with-me speeches. Lujan must answer for the failures of his charges.
He is the head of a quasi-military operation. If deputies don’t know their job or don’t do it properly, that reflects on the person in command.
But Lujan to a large extent has been insulated from scrutiny.
His spokesman fields questions about the deputies, investigations of their conduct and the lawsuit. What the sheriff is thinking seeps out only occasionally.
Lujan doesn’t even have to account to voters. They elected him to a second term last fall, a few months before the tasings. He is in the early stage of another four-year term.
Why is Lujan more culpable than the two deputies who fired their Tasers without justification? He put them on the streets or on a campus.
A sheriff in metropolitan department cannot be expected to know all about his staff. Lujan’s situation is different.
He runs a small department. It only has about two dozen officers. He is familiar with everyone who is hired. He should be well aware of each employee’s experience level and weaknesses.
The downside for him is that his agency can’t pay much. It might not attract top recruits.
Still, Lujan is the executive decision-maker. He has to account for why his department hired a two-time castoff in Barnes — and at a higher pay grade than his experience merited.
With his troubled history in law enforcement, Barnes never should have been assigned to keep the peace on a high school campus.
Barnes is a probationary employee. Lujan could have ousted him after the tasing. Instead the sheriff backed him.
Gallegos acted like a cowboy, pulling his Taser on a jailer and firing at his genitals. The victim, fearing the humiliation that would come with a written record, didn’t even want to fill out a report, said Larry DeYapp, the jail administrator.
When Rodella went to prison, the sheriff’s office seemed to have fallen as low as it could go. Now that’s in doubt.
Lujan’s department might not have hit bottom yet.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.