The Truth or Consequences City Commission approved a contract hiring Victor Rodriguez as the new chief of police, with no discussion, at its June 23 commission meeting. Rodriguez, who formerly served as chief of police in Belen, NM, will start July 6, according to the contract.
City code grants the city manager authority to hire and fire the chief of police, while providing a theoretical check and balance in requiring the city commission to approve the terms of the chief’s contract, which was included in the meeting packet.
The city’s Human Resources Department required the Sun to file an Inspection of Public Records Act request to obtain other information about Rodriguez, which was not fulfilled by press time. City Manager Bruce Swingle confirmed that only Rodriguez had been Belen’s chief of police.
Once contacted, Rodriguez deferred the Sun’s request for an interview until after July 6, explaining that his contract was not fully executed and he was busy finishing up the duties of his current job.
Rodriguez came to the Sun’s attention last fall, after Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed him to be on the Civil Rights Commission. The commission was formed by the legislature in July 2020 at the request of the governor to address the need for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police. The governor appointed three of the commission’s nine members.
“Chief Rodriguez’s career, including his clear record of enforcing consequences for officers who used excessive force, is a testament to his qualifications for appointment,” a spokesperson for the governor said at the time, according to a Sept. 8, 2020, story in the Albuquerque Journal.
Rodriguez and three other Civil Rights Commissioners filed a minority report protesting the majority recommendation that civil rights legislation be put forward. The legislation stripped most public employees of sovereign immunity, allowing citizens to sue them for civil rights violations. House Bill 4 passed in the last regular legislative session and was signed by the governor on April 7. The Civil Rights Act takes effect July 1.
Rodriguez and the commission’s other minority members argued that the CRC was formed to scrutinize only the conduct of law enforcement, not that of most government officials. Allowing teachers and city council members, among others, to be named in civil rights suits would make insurance costs skyrocket, straining local government finances, the minority argued.
Money would be better spent on improving officer training and reorganizing the state’s Law Enforcement Academy and its certification board to make it more efficient and officers more accountable, the minority report stated. Taxpayers’ dollars would instead be wasted on attorney fees and settlement costs.
Rodriguez has been personally involved on both sides of excessive force controversies, in Belen and in an earlier public safety position with the state. The accounts of these incidents that follow are based on contemporaneous reporting by KRQE News 13, the Valencia County News-Bulletin and the Albuquerque Journal.
Rodriguez’s tenure as Belen chief of police lasted from January 2019 to January 2020. He had previously served as a “lieutenant with the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office, overseeing civil/court services and criminal investigations divisions, the school resource program and day-shift patrol officers,” according to the News-Bulletin.
About six months into his tenure with Belen, Rodriguez was placed on paid administrative leave for unstated reasons and then was reinstated after an investigation. The Belen City Council did not renew his one-year contract.
In April 2020 Rodriguez filed a suit against the city, “claiming Mayor Jerah Cordova retaliated against him after he tried to report excessive use of force by his officers,” according to KRQE. The case reached a settlement the same month. Belen paid Rodriguez over $187,000 in exchange for Rodriguez dropping all claims against the city.
Rodriguez himself had been accused of using excessive force when he worked as an undercover officer for the New Mexico Department of Public Safety in 2009, according to the abovementioned Albuquerque Journal story published in September 2020.
Rodriguez was part of the Special Investigations Division. He was questioning a woman in a Clovis bar, “when a patron tried to intervene,” the Journal article stated. Rodriguez allegedly used a taser and cuffed the man before announcing he was an officer.
The Journal reported that a civil lawsuit filed against Rodriguez over the incident was dismissed in 2011 after “DPS agreed to pay roughly $35,000 under a settlement.” An internal agency investigation found no evidence of excessive force on Rodriguez’s part.
RODRIGUEZ’S CONTRACT WITH T OR C
Rodriguez’s contract with T or C is renewable annually for up to four years. He will be paid $77,000 the first year and receive the same benefits as other city employees, including health insurance, vacation and sick leave. He is required to participate in the state’s retirement system.
Use of a city vehicle is part of the contract, with insurance, maintenance and gas also paid for by the city. Use is limited to “official business.”
Professional training, including per diem and mileage fees, will be paid by the city, as well as professional membership and subscription fees if the city’s budget allows. Rodriguez’s pay can only be decreased if an “across-the-board” reduction in employees’ salaries is necessary, the contract states.
Should the city terminate Rodriguez before his first year is up, two months’ severance pay will be due, unless he has “engaged in illegal acts of a serious nature or other conduct detrimental to the City.” Rodriguez must give 30 days’ notice if he wishes to leave.
He will undergo two performance reviews a year based on criteria and yearly goals mutually set by Rodriguez and City Manager Swingle.
In addition to okaying the contract, the city commission approved a lease agreement that allows Rodriguez and his “immediate family” to occupy a city-owned residence at the municipal golf course. He will not pay rent, but in exchange for the free accommodation, with an estimated market value of $500 a month, he will report trespassing or illegal activity at the course. Utilities, trash service and home insurance will be paid by Rodriguez.
Swingle told the city commission Rodriguez had looked for a house, but had been unable to find one. The lease agreement is for one year.