BELEN — The majority of Belen police officers don’t have confidence in the police chief and is asking the Belen City Council to take action.
Belen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez returned to duty last month after being placed on six-weeks of paid administrative leave as an investigation into several complaints was conducted. The investigation revealed the complaints were unfounded, but eight of the 10 non-probationary department employees voted in favor of the letter of no confidence to the council.
The letter to the council begins by saying the officers and their families believe Rodriguez has created a “chronic unsafe working environment,” and has a “lack of leadership, and inability to make sound decisions that affect the citizens of Belen.”
The letter goes on to describe the police chief as “incompetent, non-communicative, dishonest, racist, ineffective, and exerts control by force or fear in his position as an appointed official overseeing public safety,” the letter states. “The Chief has damaged, almost irreparably the Belen Police Department.”
In a written statement from Rodriguez, he says he is committed to serving the residents of the Hub City by leading a professional and respectful organization.
“As the chief of police, I believe in the philosophy that our police department and our officers must be accountable to our community,” Rodriguez writes. “As the chief of police, I expect professionalism from all police employees and adherence to department/city policies.”
Rodriguez goes on to write that his efforts to move the police department forward have been met with “resistance and disagreement,” resulting in false allegations against him by the union.
“There is no merit to these new allegations as there was no merit in the previous allegations made against me, which I was exonerated by an independent external private investigation company,” the chief wrote.
In a statement from the city of Belen, the city’s administration writes that they respect the vote of the Belen Police Department’s union, and “is aware of officers’ complaints and has and will investigate all legitimate complaints brought to our attention. We understand that the department has experienced significant division and we are actively working in the best interest of Belen’s citizens to resolve these issues.”
According to the letter sent to the city council, the union claims the chief “has created an environment that has attacked the morale of the employees and created uncertainty of the employee’s safety as servants to the people of the city of Belen and has been detrimental in the growth of the organization.”
The letter says many have been afraid to file a complaint or complain about the chief for fear of retaliation. They also allege Rodriguez has threatened officers, wanted to fire some without just cause and has “even gone so far as to verbally place blame on certain membership for the stress that led to the removal of a former leader of this department.”
The Belen Police Department has funding to staff 23 positions, but they only currently have 12 officers on duty, including the chief. The union says since Rodriguez was hired earlier this year, seven officers have left the department, and that he has failed to fill positions or promote within the department.
Rob Trombley, the public safety coordinator and staff representative for AFSCME Council 18, said in a phone interview with the News-Bulletin that members of the Belen Police Department have been threatened with termination by the chief, and he has used “racial terms” when describing at least one officer.
Trombley alleges that during a supervisor’s meeting on May 21, Rodriguez referred to one officer as “gestapo,” saying the officer was unprofessional and he would never work in his administration.
“He tried to have that officer terminated,” Trombley said. “He put him under investigation for code of conduct violation for being untruthful. The actual issue came out of an arrest of a man who was violent against the officer. The man accused the officer of brake checking him when he was in the back seat of the patrol car. The video showed it wasn’t egregious; it was a necessary need to break fast.”
Trombley said the city manager overturned the chief’s decision to terminate, and instead gave the officer a short suspension. The union rep alleges Rodriguez then reported him to the state’s law enforcement academy, which he says is against union and city policy.
“The city’s policy is to foster corrective action,” Trombley said. “They’re supposed to promote progressive discipline. The chief retaliated and filed an LEA 90 ... against the officer, which is in violation of the city’s policy,”
Tombley alleges the biggest complaint the officers have about Rodriguez is that he’s not professional, and that he doesn’t care about the officers or the community.
“These officers have been there a long time and they care about the community, and they don’t feel that’s true with this chief,” Trombley said.
During Monday night’s city council meeting, Trombley asked the city council to investigate the chief on their own, saying they need to see evidence and hear from witnesses that the prior investigator did not allow.
At the end of the meeting, Councilor David Carter said the majority of the council is behind him, and ...
“I want to state that not all of the details have been put out and not all the details can be released regarding this personnel issue, but we do have a problem situation in the department,” Carter said. “It behooves me to address the fact that we had a third party stroll in here and address the council, who doesn’t have a vested interest in the citizens or this community, tell us how to run the department.”
Referring to the city’s police officers, Carter said, “There are a couple of rotten apples,” who are affecting the others.
“Chief, we hired you to do a tough job ... and it’s tougher than what we thought,” Carter told Rodriguez.
At the end of Rodriguez’s statement to the News-Bulletin, he wrote, “I would remind the community that I am not the first police administrator who has been subjected to these false allegations from this same police union,” the chief wrote. “I continue to have an open door policy for both our officers and community members.
“I plan to continue working alongside the brave men and women of the Belen Police Department in an effort to unify our department and resolve any differences, so that we can better serve the community.”