The Dongcopter Flies in New Mexico
June 8, 2021
Manny Gonzales calls himself a “tough-on-crime” sheriff. Here, he’s using the dongcopter as an opportunity for more political advertising.
Last Tuesday, a mysterious drone with a dangling dildo interrupted a campaign event for Manny Gonzales, sheriff for Bernalillo County who is running for mayor of Albuquerque. When a staffer tried to grab the dongcopter, Kaelan Ashby Dreyer tried to tackle the staffer and grab the drone; Dreyer seems to have inadvertently smacked Gonzales.
The aftermath: Gonzales accused his opponent of sending the dongcopter, which the opponent refutes. Dreyer, a 20-year old man with no real political motivation to hit the sheriff, was arrested and says the hitting was an accident. And the dongcopter has a Twitter account.
Manny Gonzales, first elected sheriff in 2014, gained a reputation quickly for excessive force and systemic racism within his department, which has led to multiple lawsuits. According to the ACLU, Gonzales systemically discriminated within his department and in the community. One lawsuit alleges that Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) deputies pulled over a Black woman multiple times without just cause in one case of widespread racial profiling.
His department has also settled several lawsuits for killing civilians, including the death of Elisha Lucero, a petite woman with a documented history of mental illness. Deputies arrived on the scene after Lucero’s family called, banging on the door and brandishing weapons. Lucero, who’d had brain surgery, responded with anxiety and picked up a knife. The deputies fired and killed her in a hail of bullets.
Gonzales was one of many New Mexico sheriffs to collaborate with the NRA and lobby against gun reform efforts at the state level. The collaboration – in which the NRA gave New Mexico sheriffs support, advice, and talking points – was predicated on those sheriffs opposed “red-flag” laws and the creation of “2nd Amendment Sanctuaries.” (25 out of New Mexico’s 33 counties passed such sanctuary resolutions; 29 sheriffs signed a letter saying the proposed laws were “unconstitutional.”.) Emails from the NRA to sheriffs reveal that the NRA wrote op-eds for sheriffs to publish under their own names without acknowledging that these were NRA-drafting materials. (The NRA denied such involvement until these emails were leaked.)
Gonzales got even more famous in 2020 when he refused to enforce COVID-19 health orders. He was also a Trump collaborator, inviting federal agents to Albuquerque during the summer of 2020 to tamp down alleged unrest in addition to attending Trump press conferences. Then, he justified his invitation by saying that he needed federal agents in order to keep the public safe – repeating the memory of a dream he had as a 6-year-old as proof of that prophecy. He justified using the feds because, like many other regressive law enforcement officials, federal intervention in criminal cases generates longer sentences, avoids state bail reform, and means that defendants are “taken to facilities out of state so we don’t have to tolerate their behavior.”
(I have spent time trying to figure out what he means here – literally, I think he means that people in federal custody are housed in federal facilities – but still, huh? The only incentive I understand is financial since federal law enforcement intervention means you don’t need to spend state or county money.)
He was asked to resign. He didn’t. (He’s a sheriff.) He also makes sheriff-y comments like:
I don’t work for the governor. I don’t work for the mayor. I don’t work for the president of the United States. I answer to the people who voted me into office.
He’s not the first sheriff to run for higher office or even mayor, but Gonzales doesn’t seem to be doing all that well on the campaign trail. (He’s running, most likely, because he is barred from running for sheriff again under New Mexico law, which limits county officers to two 4-year terms.)
In another corner of New Mexico, Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan had his first in what will likely be multiple criminal trials based on various incidents of corruption and abuse of office. It ended in a mistrial. From what I can tell, the mistrial was based on the unreliability of some of the evidence – what do you do when everyone is so corrupt, you believe no one?
Special prosecutor Andrea Reeb intends to retry the case in a different county. Her argument was based on a “bad apples” argument – Lujan is one of them. If so, he’s the kind of apple who both ruins the barrel and came from a rotten tree.
Lujan faces multiple felonies and misdemeanors for allegedly helping former Española city councilor Phillip Chacon – who was accused of stabbing someone -- evade arrest by the Española Police Department. One arrest came when Lujan refused to unlock his cellphone for a police investigation to locate Chacon. Another came when Lujan showed up rumpled, gun-less, and drunk at the exact moment police agencies were trying to arrest Chacon in a SWAT-style raid. (Lujan also lost his gun and ability to make arrests, yet he remains sheriff.)
Sheriff Lujan has other scandals plaguing his trail, including accusations of racism and sexism. Right after Lujan’s election, a lawsuit by a former deputy alleges that Lujan has discriminatory and “made inappropriate sexual comments.” He also yelled at a resident for flying the Mexican flag and did other terrible things.
A notable case is a recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of a journalist who was writing about the sheriff and his office. According to the lawsuit, the sheriff and his deputies harassed her for writing about the office, waiting outside her home and preventing her from entering the court (which was open to the public) or from obtaining public records and other reporting information. This amounts to retaliation, which is an actual violation of the 1st Amendment, and is sadly common with sheriffs and other law enforcement.
Of course, a sheriff came to defend Lujan, Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace, who has been a staunch supporter of the Constitutional Sheriff and Peace Officer Association, Richard Mack, anti-government movements, and gun rights.
Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace, who rides motorcycles with Lujan, said the sheriff is devoted to his community and participates in programs like Toys for Tots. “Just like other human beings, sometimes we make mistakes,” Mace said.
Lujan is far from the only New Mexico sheriff to face criminal charges. While sheriffs do commit what appears to be an outrageous amount of misconduct, I don’t know if they are less law-abiding than other locally elected politicians. I do think the office attracts people who both like law enforcement (guns, an inflated sense of higher purpose, and a desire to “get bad guys”) and who like being “the man” (being your own boss, not having to actually go to work, bossing a lot of people around), which means it attracts a lot of folks who find the idea of no accountability appealing to them. Unlike other local elected offices, sheriffs are able to control a group of people with guns, search warrants, and unfettered access to information. You may not like your county commissioner, but they can’t enter your house without your permission. The sheriff can.
Of course, does that mean that sheriffs actually commit more misconduct or that their misconduct is more egregious and/ or threatening? Based on the documented studies we do have on the prevalence of police misconduct AND lack of accountability for that misconduct, I think it’s probably both.