Candidate for sheriff Mike Kovacs, former employee question Ken Christesen's crime data, employee evaluation system

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A candidate for San Juan County sheriff and a former employee of the office are questioning the statistics presented by and criticizing the administrative actions of Sheriff Ken Christesen, who is running for re-election.

"Christesen has been tooting his own horn for a long time," said Nic Bloomfield, a former sergeant with the sheriff's office, "and nobody's said anything in response."

Bloomfield says he quit because he didn't like the way Christesen was running the operation. Christesen says Bloomfield left after he was reprimanded for teaching military style tactics.

The allegations come about a week after The Daily Times published an article about a lawsuit filed against Christesen, two of his deputies, the county and its board of commissioners. The lawsuit states four sheriff's office employees faced unjust demotions, workplace harassment and demands to support Christesen's re-election.

Bloomfield Police Chief Mike Kovacs is running against Christesen, who is nearing the end of his first, four-year term. The president of Bad Boyz Bail Bonds, Daniel Goldberg, is also running for the office. The primary elections are June 3, and there are no Democrats running for the office.

Kovacs says Christesen is misrepresenting the county's drunken driving arrests, traffic accidents and calls for service to promote his re-election campaign.

"If you're going to put out stats for arrests you have done in the county, then you need to be accurate," Kovacs said.

Bloomfield says Christesen tells the public drunken driving is becoming less prevalent, but that is false. He said Christesen dismantled the DWI traffic unit when he became sheriff, and, as a result, fewer DWI arrests are made. He said it is a population-based crime, and its rates do not decline.

Aztec Police Chief Mike Heal and Kyle Westall, Farmington's former police chief, declined to comment on Kovacs' and Bloomfield's allegations.

Christesen disagrees with Kovacs' and Bloomfield's claims. He says budget cuts happened annually after he became sheriff on Dec. 30, 2010, during the national recession. He said he dismantled the DWI traffic unit, which contained three deputies and a sergeant, after grant funding depleted.

But Christesen said he didn't stop efforts to counter drunken driving. Instead, as part of a "work standards" program he implemented, his administration rewards deputies for drunken driving arrests. According to the policy, reports and arrests earn a deputy a single point, citations earn a one-third of a point and drunken driving arrests net three points.

Drunken driving in the county, Christesen said, is now less common. He argues that assertion is backed up by a 22.5 percent reduction in traffic crashes, a crime that goes "hand-in-hand" with drunken driving.

"That's a result of the deputies out there. They're constantly looking for DWIs and taking them off the road," he said.

The sheriff's office from 2009 to 2012 recorded an average of 524 DWI arrests a year, according to a Daily Times article published in late February. That rate dropped by 35 percent when the office reported 339 DWI arrests in 2013.

Bloomfield said the rate dropped because other police departments — those in Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield — are picking up the slack. Two years of statistics showing significantly smaller declines prove it, he said.

The Farmington Police Department from 2012 to 2013 reported a 4 percent decrease in drunken driving arrests. Arrests dropped from 639 in 2012 to 611 the following year, according to a statistical analysis the department provided.

Over that same period, the Aztec Police Department noted a 19 percent drop for the DWI arrests, recording 69 arrests in 2012 and 50 in 2013, according to figures the city's police chief provided.

The Bloomfield Police Department, between the same years, recorded an 8 percent decline in DWI arrests, with 48 arrests in 2012 and 44 in 2013, according to documents Kovacs provided.

But Christesen's interpretation is different.

"Let me explain this to you," he said. "Where are the bars at?"

They're in the cities, he said. On highways outside the cities, sheriff's office deputies patrol with New Mexico State Police, he said. Since state troopers returned to the San Juan County Communication Authority, the additional officers help county deputies catch drunken drivers.

Accusations he is misrepresenting arrest statistics are unfounded, he said.

Bloomfield also alleges Christesen pulls crime statistics from area taskforces — groups that pool local police officers, deputies and federal agents to address crime — and says those numbers are an exclusive achievement of the sheriff's office.

Kovacs said he wants to know where Christesen gets the statistics he touts.

"Every arrest that the taskforce makes, Ken says, 'Well, we have a deputy there so we are claiming that stat,'" Bloomfield said.

Bloomfield claims Christesen does this with the U.S. Marshals South West Investigative Team taskforce and Region II Narcotics TaskForce, of which Bloomfield was a member.

But that's not true, Christesen said. The county's three police departments, the state police and the sheriff's office receive a daily incident log, which details county-wide arrests, crimes and offenses. All incidents are divided by department, and he said the sheriff's office does not incorporate other departments' statistics in its own.

"These are the San Juan County Sheriff's Office numbers, the ones we have control over," he said. "I'm not comparing these numbers to anyone else."

Aside from his statistics, Bloomfield also takes issue with Christesen's point system, which Christesen calls "works standards." Bloomfield said the point system is essentially a quota system, which is illegal.

The point system measures a patrol deputy's productivity by requiring a sergeant to monitor her or his reports, arrests, DWI arrests and citations, according to the policy. Deputies may be penalized for failure to achieve an expected point total, according to the policy.

But "since it is difficult to measure a deputy's total performance by these categories alone," sergeants also track the time a deputy spends on work-related activities, such as investigations and policing, according to the policy. Christesen said deputies spend the majority of their days handling work at their own discretion.

Bloomfield said under the policy officers are inclined to issue more citations because they need points to avoid punishment, he said. Minor offenses — stop signs rolled, $100 warrants, busted taillights — are written up more often, he said.

Christesen said citations can be warnings — they don't have to be tickets.

He says more context is needed to understand his "work standards." Before he was elected, employee performance was already being assessed. Also, an inequality existed in the workforce — about 20 percent of the sheriff's office performed about 80 percent of the work, he said. He had to find a way to get all employees working, and the method had to measure their performance, he said. He said one deputy had written six reports and made only one arrest in a year.

"It's important," he said. "We have to be held accountable."

Now, according to an audit, all department employees' work output differs by no more than 2 to 4 percent, he said,

"And let me make this clear: There is no quota on anything except for work," he said.

He added at the end of the interview, "Chief Kovacs has a 10,000 ticket quota for his guys." Kovacs denied the statement, saying "That's a lie."

The Bloomfield Police Department strives to achieve 10,000 "contacts" a year, not tickets, he said. Contacts can be traffic stops, speaking with a new business owner or warning tickets, he said. One year, he said, the police department issued about 7,000 warning tickets.

He said the department only met the threshold once.

Christesen says his opponents are unfairly maligning him.

"I'm ashamed of the way these people are handling this, and their desperation is starting to show," he said.

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.