Former Santa Fe cop loses appeal to get job back

Posted: September 7, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Former Santa Fe Police Detective James Vigil on Tuesday learned an arbitrator ruled in favor of the city and against the former cop’s appeal to get his job back after a May 2010 DWI arrest and subsequent conviction (in Magistrate Court but now being appealed in District Court).

Now I’ve been out of the office since last week so I didn’t do a story on this for Wednesday’s New Mexican (we had a short blurb about it in our local briefs section HERE), but I think there was some pretty interesting information spelled out in arbitrator James Hall’s decision.

First, the background: Vigil, a narcotics detective, was arrested in May 2010 and blew a 0.15/0.16 on a breathalyzer. He was on desk duty for many months and eventually received a recommendation from a Captain to be suspended for 16 days. New Chief Ray Rael didn’t like the finding and ultimately had somebody else come up with a recommendation of termination, which City Manager Robert Romero signed off on.

Some drama popped up recently when Vigil went public with allegations his firing was retaliation for his being a part of a federal investigation into City Manager Robert Romero and PRC Commisioner Jerome Block Jr.

The bigger picture here, though, was the treatment Vigil, a union member of the Santa Fe Police Officers Association, received not being in line with what Lt. Steve Ryan, a non-union member and reportedly close friend of new chief Ray Rael and Romero, received when he had a DWI arrest in recent years.

Arbitrator Jim Hall, the former state District Judge, wrote in his decision upholding Vigil’s firing:

As a police officer, Detective Vigil simply does not have the ability to violate the law one day and hen attempt to enforce that same law the next.

As to the Steve Ryan piece of the puzzle, Hall doesn’t deny Ryan’s 2009 DWI case was handled differently than Vigil’s case. Ryan was not fired or even demoted after his case was dismissed on a District Court appeal. When the case was tossed, so too it seems was the discipline against Ryan. Vigil’s firing did not wait for the District Court appeal.

Hall points to two major differences he sees in the Ryan case and Vigil case. First, Ryan case was resolved under former Chief Aric Wheeler and there’s a new sheriff, er chief, in town now with Rael. Essentially Rael doesn’t have to abide by the way past chiefs handled these matters.

Writes Hall:

Chief Rael emphatically testified that any officer involved in a DWI will face termination while he is Chief of Police. … Chief Rael flatly stated that he felt Lt. Ryan should have been terminated and that he felt he was not bound by mistakes that had been made in the past.

So the implication there is that Rael is calling Romero’s decision — and ultimately it is Romero’s decision — not to fire Ryan a mistake. The interesting part here is that former Deputy Chief Robin Contreras recommended termination and the union has alleged City Hall’s tampering with the Ryan case is the only reason Ryan wasn’t fired.

But Hall also points out Romero’s reasoning for making the two cases different includes the fact that Vigil had a 0.15/0.16 BAC in his DWI case while:

“Similar scientific evidence did not exist in Lietenant Ryan’s case.”

Well that is true, but shouldn’t in some way lead to giving Ryan the benefit of the doubt here. Let us remember Ryan refused a breath test. That means before any results of blood or breath tests even came back he was already guilty of aggravated DWI by the definition of the New Mexico Implied Consent Act. A cop should know that as well as anyone. It may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but at least Vigil didn’t break that law.

I think suggesting it was clear Vigil was drunk because he agreed to a breathalyzer and questionable whether Ryan was drunk because he refused a breathalyzer isn’t a fair comparison in this scenario. If a cop refuses a breathalyzer, even if he later says it was because he was panicking, that doesn’t allow for down the road doubt about his level of intoxication.

That sets a dangerous standard that all future similar incidents. Now cops arrested for DWI know they at least have a fighting chance of keeping their job so long as they refuse the breath test.

Ultimately I don’t find fault in firing a cop who is guilty of DWI. But I think everyone can agree handling very similar cases in entirely different ways, especially when one officer is in the union and the other is not, is a horrible way to handle such cases.

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