BELEN — Six weeks after being placed on paid administrative leave, Belen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez is back at work and says he’s ready to continue his duties.
Rodriguez, who was placed on leave on June 27 by the city’s administration, came back to work Monday after an investigation revealed he had been absolved of allegations brought against him.
Saying he wouldn’t get into the specifics of the complaints brought against him, Rodriguez said he initially didn’t know the nature of the complaints. In June, Mayor Jerah Cordova said he also couldn’t talk about the specifics of the complaints, citing they were personnel matters.
“I was very confident that I had done nothing wrong, and that there were going to be no findings, which the independent, external investigation indicated that, and I’m glad to be back,” Rodriguez said.
Robert Caswell Investigations (RCI) conducted the investigation into complaints lodged against the chief. Eventually, and through the investigation, the complaints were ultimately revealed to the chief, who said he couldn’t talk about them or who filed them.
“The city of Belen conducted an internal affairs investigation with regards to the police department and Chief Victor J. Rodriguez, and the city has concluded that any allegations against Chief Rodriguez were unsubstantiated and he was cleared of all allegations against him,” wrote Jun Roh, the city’s attorney, in a statement. “The city hopes that Chief Rodriguez will continuously maintain the integrity of the police force and our community.”
Cordova said it took some time to get through the investigation, but that it was a fair process.
“The conclusion is the chief is back at work and we’re glad to have him back,” Cordova said.
Since the chief was placed on leave in late June, four officers have resigned from the department, which doesn’t include five who had left prior, two of whom retired. To date, the Belen Police Department has a total of 13 officers on duty, which includes the chief. The department is currently funded for 22 officers.
According to Roseann Peralta, Belen’s finance director, the city has paid out a total of $6,463.97 in police officer overtime since July 1.
Being nine officers down, Rodriguez says he’s committed to recruit and retain as many officers as he can.
“Obviously, staffing and retention are critical to any police department,” the chief said. “We have been actively trying to fill our vacancies since I’ve been here.
“I applaud our officers that are here because they have done an outstanding job with our resources,” he said. “This is an epidemic in law enforcement — it’s not unique to us.”
Rodriguez says being short officers is not unique to Belen, and small, local police departments across the state and country are going through the same difficulties.
“With the mass amount of officers that the Albuquerque Police Department recently hired, it took a toll on the smaller agencies like Belen,” the chief said.
The chief said there’s a big difference in officer pay at larger departments. He compared the starting pay of $20.69 an hour for a certified officer at BPD to $28-$30 at larger agencies.
“You can’t stop officers from leaving,” he said. “People leave for various reasons — they leave for better opportunities or they leave because they’re not in line with the mission and vision of the department. Unfortunately, turnover is not unique to Belen.”
The chief said he has committed to not hire police officers just to hire someone. He said he will not fill the vacancies with “warm bodies,” or with individuals who might present a liability to the city.
“I will only hire qualified candidates — either certified or uncertified — who want to make a career in Belen.”
One recently-hired officer will be attending the CNM Police Academy next week, and the chief plans to continue to look for qualified certified officers as well as invest in trying to send uncertified recruits to the academy.
“If anyone in our community is interested in a career in law enforcement, come and see us,” Rodriguez said. “I strongly believe the only way to overcome these retention and staffing problems is to get people who are committed to the community.”
The police chief wants the residents of Belen to know the department is committed to serving and protecting the community, even with its current staffing shortage.
“I’m confident we have the support of surrounding agencies, including the sheriff’s office, and I will ensure our community members that when they pick up the phone and call for law enforcement, somebody will respond to their call in a timely manner. We’re not going to let down the community.”