Sheriff gets national attention, pushback for stance on public health orders

Sheriff says some politicians are turning "everyday citizens into villains for simply attempting to live their lives"


Elise Kaplan
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

BERNALILLO COUNTY, N.M. — Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales is gaining national attention for a video he posted on YouTube saying some politicians are turning "everyday citizens into villains for simply attempting to live their lives," and his department will not enforce any orders that "subvert your constitutional rights."

The video was featured in a Fox News segment Tuesday morning, along with commentary from a former national public affairs director who applauded the sheriff and erroneously referred to the governor as " Michelle Lujan."

The courts have not found the state's public health orders to be unconstitutional in any cases to date.

The governor's authority to impose restrictions — such as banning indoor dining and fining businesses that did not comply with public health orders — has been upheld by the state Supreme Court. In federal court, a judge ruled an order restricting houses of worship to 25% maximum capacity was legal and did not violate religious freedoms.

A spokeswoman from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office referenced those rulings and said that claiming the public health orders infringe on constitutional rights is a lie.

"Public health measures don't infringe upon anything except the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which is why it's important that New Mexicans do their part to get through the pandemic by adhering to them and that municipal agencies, including law enforcement, do their part to ensure that their community is being safe," Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in a statement. "Every law enforcement agency in the state is empowered to enforce state public health orders, just as they enforce all other state laws."

She pointed out that more than 2,100 New Mexicans have died from COVID-19 — more than 470 of whom lived in Bernalillo County.

"It is deeply disappointing, not to mention directly harmful, that any public official would take any action that undermines the health and safety of their community," Sackett said. "All New Mexicans should agree on the importance of doing anything and everything we can to save lives."

In the YouTube video, Gonzales said that he has listened to concerns about "what has been characterized as oppressive lockdown mandates" and that he sympathizes with families, business owners and houses of worship who believe their civil liberties are being compromised.

However, when asked several questions by the Journal, his spokeswoman said deputies have not been "ordered" to ignore violations of the public health measures and the department will continue a "verbal compliance approach" to enforcement of the mask order. Gonzales declined an interview request Tuesday — saying he is fully booked with meetings and interviews.

"This was intended to be a public service announcement for the people in order to mitigate any fears they were having about their Constitutional rights, which were perceived from various media platforms," spokeswoman Jayme Fuller wrote in a statement. " Bernalillo County residents need to hear from the Sheriff that our focus is on combating crime in our county and maintain confidence in the government."

When asked what basis the sheriff had for saying the orders are unconstitutional — given that the New Mexico Supreme Court upheld the governor's use of emergency orders — Fuller said: "The Declaration of Independence and the government's purpose is to 'secure' our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Depriving people from opening their business or breaking up their family functions during Christmas qualifies as a deprivation of each."

The video is ironic for Mario Chavez, a self-described "cop watcher" who films law enforcement doing their job.

That's because in mid- July Chavez was cited by a BCSO deputy for not wearing a mask while he was camped out near Gonzales' house. He said he was checking out a tip he'd gotten about deputies protecting the house while the sheriff was at the White House attending a press conference with President Donald Trump.

In the eight-minute video of the encounter that Chavez posted on YouTube, a deputy can be seen questioning why he is there and asking him to leave.

"He had no right to get me to leave the area," Chavez said when reached by the Journal Tuesday. "I wasn't committing any crimes, so the only thing he could find on me was not wearing a mask."

The case was dismissed when the deputy didn't attend a court hearing.

Fuller, the BCSO spokeswoman, said the department has issued "at least one" citation for violation of the public health orders. She said in this case the deputy used his discretion and when verbal warnings were ignored "the deputy did what he thought was the correct action at the time."

"Our agency continues to encourage citizens to follow the public health order," Fuller said. "We see people wearing masks and following the health order more now than ever. On behalf of the governor's orders to wear masks, BCSO deputies have given countless verbal warnings and will continue to do so."

When asked whether Gonzales had lost anyone to the virus and what he would say to those who have, Fuller said "yes" and that the department and the sheriff value all life.

"Death is incredibly difficult for any family member or friend to cope with, whether due to COVID-19, suicide, murder, terminal illness, etc.," Fuller said. "These restrictions increase social isolation, which worsens the suicide rates. Everyone has an individual responsibility to do the things they can to keep themselves and their families safe."

(c)2020 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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