Mountainair’s town council fired its police chief Tuesday, at a town meeting where dozens of residents showed up to weigh in on crime in the town.
The council also voted to add five streetlights immediately and to investigate security cameras for the town, which has seen a spate of break-ins and a large fire that consumed half a city block just before Christmas.
So many Mountainair residents called the Torrance County Sheriff after the fire that the sheriff set up a command station in town shortly after the fire to listen to concerns from residents—and start investigations.
“We started getting a lot of calls from citizens advising us of multiple issues in Mountainair and it probably came to a point where we had to go down there and set up our command post,” said Sheriff Heath White.
White said he and the department’s detective, along with four deputies, have been manning the post and patrolling in town. “We started making points of contact, working community relations.”
White said he is planning “long-term involvement” in Mountainair, but admitted that it is taxing on the small department to do it. Additionally, most calls in the county are concentrated north of Estancia, White said.
“Since we’ve been down in Mountainair we’ve made several arrests that have affected the community, and we have multiple investigations going on that are very solid. We’re just doing basic police work,” White said. He said there “were things going on withing the city that were not being handled” and when pressed, said his department was “not working collaboratively” with Mountainair’s police force.
“My job is to provide law enforcement and oversee all law enforcement in the county, over all agencies,” White said. He added, “In the Sheriff’s office we are dedicated to provide the best service we can and make sure the crime element is being addressed properly. I want people to feel comfortable to come and talk to us, or though our tip line or phone conversation.”
To reach the sheriff’s tip line, call 505-544-4908. To reach the department, call 505-544-4900.
Mayor Chester Riley had set up an informational meeting after the fire, then cancelled it.
Town councilor Peter Nieto has said that he and many residents suspect arson as the cause of the fire, but no official ruling has been made yet.
Mountainair police chief Robert Chung declined to comment both before and after the meeting.
A relatively short and simple agenda included discussion of global positioning system (GPS) units in the town’s police cars, and that’s when the discussion got heated, with Riley putting some comments off until later in the meeting.
“It looks like Juarez out there,” one man said, addressing the council about crime in town. He said people would have to be willing to turn in relatives for drug crimes to make a change.
Security cameras could catch people committing a crime, but would not necessarily help to “actually bust somebody,” said Kevin Turner, who owns a business in town.
“It’s time for everybody here to stand up,” said Jason Quintana, adding, “None of us should be sitting here afraid of talking to police.”
Jan Eshleman said she has lived in the area for 23 years and called the police force “ineffectual.”
Ed von Kutzleben, formerly chief of police in Mountainair, said, “I think we’ve lost confidence in this police department,” saying that he had seen “heroin dealing” at a convenience store.
“Maybe my glasses are better than theirs,” von Kutzleben said. “Every time I feel we’ve hit bottom in this town, we find a new low. … I have no confidence in Milton Torres. I have no confidence in Chief Chung. … We need a new chief, not just retired on duty.”
“I want to give props to Chief Chung,” said Michael Martin, saying that Chung saved his life after Martin was bitten by a rattlesnake a few years ago.
A woman spoke directly to the Mayor: “Mr. Mayor, I’m asking you to take your town back. Find people to protect us. It’s your responsibility.”
“I believe all members of our police force are good people,” said Edwina Hewett, adding that the department is “understaffed.” She said an issue she had was not resolved in two years by the Mountainair Police Department but an arrest was made in two weeks by Torrance County Sheriff’s office after she took her problem there.
After residents spoke, Nieto took the floor, saying that if crime in town continues, “we have to start looking at property values” and people leaving the area.
Nieto said when Mountainair schools have trouble, they call the Sheriff, not Mountainair Police, and voiced concern that if residents leave the area, that would pull students and therefore money from the schools.
Nieto said he had “no confidence” in Chung, and added, “He’s not going to fix the problem because he doesn’t admit there’s a problem.”
After public comment, the council went into executive session for about half an hour. When they returned to open session, Nieto made a motion to terminate Chung, effective immediately. The council’s vote was unanimous.
The council had already approved new streetlights and to look into the cost of security cameras.
Chung had weighed in on the security cameras, saying that he had looked into it about two years ago. He said to be effective the cameras would need to point at businesses across the street.
After he said he would investigate it some more, councilor Juanita Carrillo said she wanted somebody else to investigate security cameras also, directing the town clerk to do so.
In other business, the council amended its solid waste ordinance to include ashes in its definition of solid waste.
Coming from councilor Adrian Padilla, the change was sparked by residents leaving ashes and green waste like branches in alleys around town.
“Given the right conditions, that could take off,” Padilla said, adding, “Our alleyways and streets are not people’s dump.”
The measure passed with very little discussion.