By Mike Cook
Doña Ana County Sheriff Kim K. Stewart is running for re-election in 2022 “to see through some things” she implemented in her first term.
Stewart defeated incumbent sheriff Enrique “Kiki” Vigil and three others in the June 2018 Democratic primary and defeated Republican Todd Garrison, who had previously served 10 years as sheriff, in the November general election in 2018.
“I’ve changed a whole lot in three years,” Stewart said. “I believe the changes are good for the county.” Stewart said she would like to serve a second four-year term to cement those changes into the culture of the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office (DASO).
The 2022 election, Stewart said, “is about moving us forward or keeping us back.”
It took the first 1 1/2 years of her term to “bring us back to some type of thoughtful operation,” she said.
Stewart said she inherited “a blank canvas” when she became sheriff Jan. 1, 2019, as “no attention had been paid” to DASO’s budget or organizational structure. The office also had “a mass of computer platforms knew no one how to use,” she said.
Before she took office, Stewart said, DASO’s records management system was using only about 15 percent of its capacity. As she begins her fourth year as sheriff, Stewart said that figure is now 85 percent.
The department was short 32 deputies when she started, Stewart said, and is now at full capacity. With 20 slots kept open for newly trained cadets, DASO has 137 deputy positions, she said, 193 total employees and an annual budget of $24.8 million.
Before she became sheriff, Stewart said DASO “had been doing weekly budget transfers” to manage its budget. Now, she said, the department is doing five transfers a year, and is growing despite a flat budget. Stewart said she also has increased departmental training, started a peer support program and created an organizational chart “to reflect our adaptability and flexibility.”
Stewart said her staff just completed the first update of DASO policies and procedures in more than 20 years, covering more than 140 policies governing best practices for the department and vetted to state and national court rulings.
“The detail in it is remarkable,” Stewart said, not only in terms of each policy but also “how they relate to other policies,” she said.
Part of the motivation to do the policy update, Stewart said, was feedback from deputies, who told her, “’We’re not on the same page; we’re not sure what we should be doing and what we shouldn’t be doing,’” the sheriff said.
Within the next two years, Stewart said she is hopeful DASO will become one of only a handful of law enforcement agencies in the state that is certified by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. That accreditation will make DASO policies and procedures ” a living document,” the sheriff said, by keeping it updated on the latest court rulings impacting law enforcement.
Stewart said DASO was also the first sheriff’s office in the state to adopt a pandemic protocol.
The sheriff said it took 2 1/2 years to purchase rapid DNA testing technology for DASO. Integrating that kind of science and technology enhances “good old-fashioned police work,” she said, so the department has ‘everything at our disposal to solve crime.’
DASO has also upped the number of major crime categories it reports to the FBI from 12 to more than 40, Stewart said, and has significantly reduced the number of reporting errors.
“I’ve seen how these changes had such a positive effect on our ability to provide service,” she said.
Promotions within DASO are now based on who is best for the job, Stewart said, instead of the old way of promoting because of “who you know.”
Stewart said she is proposing “a bold budget” for the coming fiscal year that would restore the DASO criminalistics unit that was eliminated a decade ago. Stewart said she expects the county give raises to county employees, including DASO.
“I am frankly sick of hearing, ‘We don’t have the money,'” Stewart said. “We have the money.”
Even though “county management interference” has impacted morale within DASO, it “hasn’t impacted our ability to recruit and retain,” Stewart said. “We’re a good place to work. We’re still getting applicants.”
Within DASO, it’s important to “take care of our people because they will take care of the public,” the sheriff said.
“The people in our county like us; they support us,” Stewart said. “They want us to show up.”
Stewart said she has 43 years of experience “in and around law enforcement, including 20 years of direct involvement with law enforcement and 23 additional years of government service. She said there are about 3,100 sheriffs nationwide, and she is one of 55 nationally and two in New Mexico who are women.