New Mexico Fire Chief Facing Criminal Charges Had a Criminal Record

By Michael Klazema on 10/20/2015
A volunteer fire department in Santa Rosa, New Mexico is considering monthly or quarterly background checks for firefighters, following the discovery that one of the department's fire chiefs had a criminal record. The fire chief in question is currently facing charges for aggravated battery. Police reports say he beat a man and left him in the middle of a city street, with bruises, cuts, and road rash. According to an article from KOAT 7, an Albuquerque-based ABC News affiliate, the victim also had drawings and markings on his body, including swastikas and homophobic slurs.

The fire department in Santa Rosa, which is located two hours east of Albuquerque, is now mulling additional background checks for volunteers. The suspect, in this case, was convicted on a battery charge just earlier this year, for assaulting a local peace officer. He evidently kept his conviction secret, though, because neither Santa Rosa's city manager nor the other volunteer fire chief at the department was aware of the charge until recently.

Santa Rosa's volunteer fire department has a bylaw stipulating measures that can be taken to relieve members of duty in cases of misconduct. The suspect's conviction for battery of a peace officer would have certainly qualified as misconduct, and the fire department's members should have taken a vote to decide whether or not to remove him from service. But since the other fire chief with the department wasn't aware of the conviction, such a vote never took place. As a result, a clearly violent man was allowed to continue on with the department for four months after his conviction.

Santa Rosa's city manager and volunteer fire chief are now working to revise both the background check policy and the bylaws for the local fire department.

Repeat background checks would be an especially smart measure for the city to take. Quarterly or monthly checks will keep squad members accountable, encourage self-disclosure of criminal charges, and reduce the likelihood of a dangerous individual having an opportunity to serve.

Of course, such a policy would also be considerably more expensive than the systems in place at many volunteer fire departments. It's not uncommon, for instance, for firefighters to only be screened once for criminal history. Such requirements are fulfilled at the beginning of a firefighter's tenure, along with training and safety classes. However, the investment would pay off in providing a safer and more dependable fire department, free of the kind of cruelty and abuse that this case has revealed.
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