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Sheriff candidates debate direction of ECSO

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5-11-CageBudget constraints, rural patrols, and drug activity in Eddy County were all topics on the table Tuesday for Eddy County’s three Republican candidates for sheriff.

At a debate hosted by KSVP and the Artesia Chamber of Commerce at the Ocotillo Performing Arts Center, Mark Cage, Kelly Lowe and John Patterson addressed a number of issues facing the Eddy County Sheriff’s Office (ECSO), as well as their visions for the future of the department.

Cage, current undersheriff to Scott London, has been working in law enforcement in New Mexico since 1993 after retiring as a chief from the U.S. Navy. He’s worn a variety of hats, from officer and detective to interim chief and DEA task force officer, and came to Eddy County nearly four years ago after accepting the undersheriff position.

Lowe, a 21-year veteran of the Carlsbad Police Department, served in the U.S. Army from 1986-88 before joining the ECSO reserves. He transferred to the CPD in 1990 and retired as a captain.

Patterson has been in law enforcement for 28 years, 18 of those with the ECSO, and is also a Navy veteran, serving from 1979-83. Patterson spent 10 years as a security officer trainer and supervisor at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and has spent the past three-plus years working in the office of district judge Lisa Riley.

5-11-LoweWhile the trio differed drastically in opinion at times regarding the direction they believe the ECSO should take, they stood in agreement that the department should have a strong presence in and a positive impact on the communities it serves.

Cage pointed to strides toward that aim that have been made during London’s tenure and expressed a desire to continue on what he believes to be a promising path.

“Contrary to other opinions, I feel we’re doing a very good job, and I get a lot of feedback from the community saying we’re doing a very good job,” Cage said. “We have a lot of things that we still need to get done that we haven’t gotten done, and they’re good ideas – they’re great ideas.”

Cage cited the ECSO’s L3 recording system for interview rooms, upgrades to outdated equipment in patrol vehicles, and the addition of improved video technology as examples.

“I want to keep moving forward, keep the progress going, and just keep being the best law enforcement agency that we can possibly be, because I feel like we have excellent deputies and excellent supervisors and some great leaders at the sheriff’s office,” Cage said. “We just need to keep pushing that to the forefront, keep working, keep getting better, and keep serving the citizens of Eddy County.”

5-11-PattersonLowe, meanwhile, asserted leadership has been lacking within the ECSO and that focus on the public is not where it should be.

“It can be better,” Lowe said. “Eddy County deserves better, and I think our attention needs to be more towards the public and a whole lot less towards all the internal activity going on.”

Lowe termed the ECSO “top-heavy” and in need of balance.

“You balance the department out and you get the people out there to work and you strategically place them in the areas that need the attention in Artesia and Carlsbad and the surrounding communities, and you get the job done,” said Lowe.

Patterson feels the department would benefit from a sheriff open to both the concerns of the public and its own deputies.

“I want better communication with the public,” he said. “I want better communication amongst the ranks. I want these guys to be able to feel free to do their job, and by helping them achieve these levels, I believe we can make a better law enforcement agency and break down these barriers, these walls that we’ve built up.

“There’s a lot of people out there that could use our help. They need our help. And I want (deputies) to be more compassionate and be able to help the community, not just make them feel like, ‘Here come the Stormtroopers.’ I believe it’s a collective effort. We’ve got a lot of good people out there that know their job, know what needs to be done, and I believe in being open-minded. I want feedback. I want them to tell me what’s better for the department. That way, they feel part of the department and have a better understanding of what’s going on around them.”

The candidates agreed illegal drug activity is a significant problem in the county, one Lowe believes has two primary underlying causes.

“First, some people are self-medicating severe and persistent mental illness issues with drugs because there’s not enough mental health treatment in Southeast New Mexico entirely to help deal with these issues,” Lowe said. “Secondly, being tied up on so many small-time buyers and sellers only to see them arrested, fined and released faster than the officers can get the paperwork done doesn’t make a big help out there, either.

“We need justice, not repeat customers for the system. With comprehensive investigations, we will have higher-quality cases where a decade of jail time as a consequence can in itself be a deterrent or push the distributors out of Eddy County.”

Patterson pointed to a lack of guidance at home as a factor behind the drug epidemic.

“I think we need to go back to certain family values,” said Patterson. “Families need to get ahold of their kids and start teaching them the right ways. If we can stop this madness – over the years, it’s been a progression of a lack of respect through the whole community, and we need to stop that. We need to show these kids that there is a right way to do things.”

Cage praised the ongoing efforts of area law enforcement to combat illegal drugs, particularly that of the Pecos Valley Drug Task Force, which is comprised of officers with the ECSO and Artesia and Carlsbad Police Departments.

“We’re doing a pretty darn good job right now with the drug task force,” Cage said. “The standard used to be 80 percent of all crime, you can stem it back to illegal narcotics. Now they’re saying 90 percent of all crime can be attributed, at its root, back to illegal narcotics, so we work hard here.”

Cage pointed to Roswell’s struggles with drug-related crime as compared to Eddy County.

“In Carlsbad and Artesia, our quality of life is a lot better, and it’s because of our very aggressive, very successful drug task force and the efforts of that drug task force, and we push that.”

The candidates were also in agreement on the inadequacies of the ECSO’s $8.6 million budget.

“We took some cuts,” Cage said. “I think we took about $220,000 out of our regular budget that we had to give up, and we’re not looking at any capital right now. The biggest part of (the budget) is personnel, and that’s one of the big things that happens here in Eddy County and in Lea County because of the economy – we have to pay a certain level to be able to attract law enforcement officers to come here, and we have to maintain that. And we compete with the Carlsbad Police Department and Artesia Police Department to keep that level up and to keep our benefits, as well.

“Then we have an entire fleet of 70-something vehicles to maintain and replace and buy equipment for. So it sounds like a lot of money, but when it comes to the end of the year – we always come in in the black but sometimes it’s by the skin of our teeth because stuff comes up. It could be a little bigger, but we also understand the economy and we understand what we have to do – we have to make it happen with what we’ve got.”

Patterson expressed a desire to see the ECSO explore other avenues for additional funding, while Lowe had harsh words for the county regarding the recent budget cuts.

“Sometimes we have to look at our department, look inside and streamline certain areas, but we need to be out there on the streets, we need to patrol, we have to buy gas – all these things cost money,” said Patterson, pointing to grant money and other federal funding as potential sources to supplement the ECSO budget.

“$8.6 million is not enough,” Lowe said. “The officers and the deputies that are out there working day in and day out, graveyards, evenings and nights, are not taking home a big enough paycheck. If the county can’t manage a budget and provide your public safety officials with the money needed and in reasonable competition with surrounding agencies and states, we have a serious problem and it needs to be addressed.”

The three also addressed the public perception that the ECSO’s presence is, at times, not as visible as those living in rural areas of the county would like.

“That’s going back to manpower issues,” said Patterson. “Presence is a deterrent in itself. If they see these patrolmen out there simply just driving down a rural road that they have never driven down, hopefully that’s going to open some people’s eyes. We deal with oilfield issues. Some areas are 30, 40, 50 miles away, and we can only send one officer out there; do we take that risk of sending that officer out there alone?

“But I believe with federal grants and monies, we can pay some overtime, get some officers out there, and hopefully we can effectively patrol the rural areas of Eddy County.”

Lowe stated he feels the question of effective patrols also points back to leadership.

“Right now, I do believe that the forefront of that starts with leadership, and right now, there’s a crisis of that in the sheriff’s department,” Lowe said. “Go out there, talk to your deputies, talk to your families, talk to your law enforcement here. The services that are being provided are not up to par, and it’s not because they don’t know what they’re doing – you’ve got some very skilled, very well-educated officers out there capable of doing great things.

“But when you don’t have leadership and direction in the department because everybody’s attention is tied up on personal interests or idealistic programs that aren’t going to work, the deputies are out there fending for themselves. and when they’re doing that, they’re not patrolling, and when they’re not patrolling and they get called to a call, they show up and they do just what they need to do to get the job done.”

“Every sheriff gets hit with, ‘Why are your people in town?’” said Cage. “The towns are within the county, but that’s not the primary jurisdiction for our deputies, and we’re well aware of that. And it does come from leadership on down through first-line supervision who are out there on the street with the deputies on a day-today basis, working. When we took over, we said, ‘We don’t want to see you guys standing in the middle of an intersection in Carlsbad waving people over and writing seatbelt tickets. Get out in the county and work.’

“It’s a difficult thing. It’s a balancing act, and what we have to have is the support for those deputies out there, and we get that from our detectives. The detectives have to back them, and we have that now. The detectives are backing them, making sure those cases are being followed up on, and that’s where the citizens get the most bang for their buck.”

Brienne Green
Daily Press Editor

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