Chief Dino Sgambellone Speaks To Kiwanians About LAPD, Marijuana, Youth And More

BY MAIRE O’NEILL
maire@losalamosreporter.com

Los Alamos Police Chief Dino Sgambellone told Los Alamos Kiwanis Club members Tuesday during their weekly meeting that for what he does, you really can’t get much better than Los Alamos.

“It’s a very safe community. I think we’re well-supported in general by the community. We’re involved in a number of different partnerships with stakeholders and involved heavily with the schools,” he said.

Sgambellone noted that LAPD recently passed its national reaccreditation.

“This was a goal of mine. When I first got here we started that process and it took about two years to get our policy in line with those standards and then we were initially accredited. Every year they virtually look at 25 percent of our standards and then every four years, which just started in November, they do what’s called an on-site although it was also actually virtual because of COVID,” he said. “Not only did we pass on the reaccreditation but we’ve passed each one of those with 100 percent compliance and we take our additional standards that we don’t have to. We’re allowed to have a discretionary standard of about 20 percent and we do all those. My thanks go to those the folks that I work with and to Sgt. Daniel Roberts, my accreditation manager. He’s really outstanding; he has exceptional attention to detail which helps us to get to those levels of 100 percent compliance.”

Sgambellone said he thinks it’s important in today’s world that the police department is accredited.

“It means that we adhere to 424 total standards, some of them aren’t applicable to us, but most of them are and we adhere to those and we have independent inspections to make sure that we are compliant. Much the same as when you send your child to college, you want it to be accredited, or if you’re looking at a serious surgery, you may look for an accredited health organization, so why shouldn’t your police department be accredited. I’m very proud of that and we will continue to examine what we do on a day to day basis and how we can improve,” he said.

Sgambellone said with COVID in 2020, the department expected it might see an uptick in “domestics”, with people being with each other all day long every day.

“We thought we might see some mental health outcomes. On the domestic side, we really didn’t see what we anticipated, which is a good thing. Of course, we still have domestics just like we have other crimes. We have drugs, we have a lot of theft, which is our major issue here, but we didn’t really see the domestic outcomes,” he said. “We did see mental health outcomes.  I can’t say that everything was related to COVID but we had eight suicides in 2020 where we typically might have zero or two maybe on average. I don’t have 2021 numbers yet but I didn’t see any really alarming trends in 2021. As we look forward to 2022, I don’t really see any trends on the verizon as long as we all keep doing what we’re doing here in Los Alamos – one of the safest communities in the nation.”

He noted that the last couple of years has been challenging. In March, he will have been 31 years in law enforcement and that the last two years with COVID and social justice issues have presented some challenges.

“I think at one of the protests we talked about things and I ended up making some policy changes. Really we have an extremely low use of force. Our compliments significantly outweigh our complaints each year, so I think we were in a good place before those issues came up,” Sgambellone said.

He said the Department is being hit pretty hard with COVID>

“The problem with that for us is we’re 24/7. Also, for some of my smaller areas such as dispatch and detention, it doesn’t take losing too many people in those areas for it to significantly impact our ability to continue to provide high-level services. I’m hopeful we can weather the storm,” Sgambellone said. “We haven’t had any inmates catch COVID, which is a very good thing, but we’ve also kind of limited our numbers there. If it’s not absolutely necessary, we prefer not to bring inmates into the facility.”

Sgambellone told the group the clear number one driver of crime in Los Alamos is theft.

“I know people like to leave their door open and the cars open and all that, but I just ask you not to,” he said.

Asked about the effects of COVID on recruitment, he said recruiting in law enforcement has taken a significant hit in the last two years.

“Not too many people want to do the job. For us, what I would say is we’ve never really had to actively recruit. People want to come here. It’s a good place to work – low crime – you’re not dealing with what you’re dealing with in other communities although though some of the younger folks like that. I did when I was young.  We’ve seen a reduction in overall applications but we still have enough that we’re able to attract quality individuals,” Sgambellone said.

The Kiwanis Club had advertised that Sgambellone would speak about drug issues with young people in the community.

Sgambellone said drugs are in every community, including Los Alamos.

“I attended a meeting here a few weeks ago that included (Los Alamos Juvenile Justice Advisory Board) and the schools as well as several community stakeholders. It was particularly focused on youth, which is where I like to focus. We just strategized about different things that each department or stakeholder at the table could do to try and impact the current situation and perhaps what might be the outcome of legalization of marijuana,” he said.

He said other states have seen some significant outcomes with respect to juveniles in states that have legalized marijuana.

“For our part, we invest heavily with the schools. I’m very proud of our resource officers program. I think it allows our youth to see police officers in a different light – human like anybody else. A lot of the students rely on and trust the officers and that’s worth its weight in gold. We just brought back DARE and we have that in one of the elementaries now and we look to expand that,” Sgambellone said. “

He said looking at programming efforts, there are not a lot of programs in Los Alamos that specifically target the middle school age group, which he said is probably one of the most significant age groups that should be targeted.  

“I think one of the biggest takeaways from the meeting that I just mentioned was instead of just telling the children , ‘Don’t do this and this’, let’s have opportunities for them to do positive things that assist with those resiliency efforts. But if you read the (state Youth Risk and Resiliency Study) data – there’s efforts here with the youth, not only with drugs, but bullying seems like a consistent issue. It’s important for us to be a good partner in those areas and really look at how we can continue to positively impact our youth,” Sgambellone said.

As far as drugs other than marijuana, Sgambellone said there is also heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine in community, just not to the level seen in other communities.

“Fentanyl is obviously very scary. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s very powerful and leads to a lot of the overdose deaths that you hear about. It can also be very dangerous to handle, so there’s challenges there and it’s an important area for us. Thankfully we don’t have the volume as I indicated, but it’s something that we’re constantly aware of and is an investigative priority for us,” he said.

Sgambellone was asked about his thoughts on legalized marijuana, how that plays out in the state and how it is going to affect LAPD.

“I think we’re in an insatiable drug culture. I think to turn that around the message has to be one that includes the idea that it’s unpopular to use drugs. I think by legalizing drugs, it sends the wrong message, that’s my opinion. We already have a legal process in the United States and that’s prescription drugs and it’s one of the most abused areas that we have,” he said. “It leads to numerous overdoses and overdose deaths. Honestly, I don’t want to get in trouble here, but I took exception to the legislature calling a special session to come back to vote on that issue when New Mexico is last or near last in every social services category, and if that’s the priority, I think we could do better.”

Sgambellone said the research is out there based on other states that have legalized marijuana and not all of is good.

“I’m hoping that particularly with our youth we don’t see some of those negative outcomes, but it is likely. We’re going to do what we can to be a good partner in trying to mitigate its effect,” he said.

Asked about concerns in the community about cyberbullying among young people and the role the police play in dealing with it. Sgambellone noted that the DARE program has been revised and deals with other issues besides drugs.

“They concluded that the heart of it is not about drugs but it’s a moralistic view in terms of creating those resiliency factors and appropriate behaviors and includes things like bullying – one of the reasons why I was supportive of doing it here. Proactive training would be why it’s not appropriate and then how to deal with it if it does happen. And yes we do get called for cyber issues, most of which – at least that we get called for – we can’t really do a whole lot about,” he said.

He noted that the Department also can’t do a whole lot about phone scams.

“We recently arrested a couple of folks that scammed somewhere around $200,000. It’s very rare that we catch them because a lot of them have an overseas nexus and the money is spent and by the time we’re notified it’s gone,” he said. “Anybody calling you because your grandson’s in jail, you owe back taxes – there was one last week where ‘Sgt. Irving from the police department’ was calling to say you have a warrant for your arrest. When in doubt, call us. We’ll tell you. Call us if it’s something else. We’ll tell you if it’s a scam.”

Sgambellone said LAPD sends its information to the FBI.

“I think in a lot of situations, they’re limited too. The scammers are very sophisticated and a lot of them are overseas and we will continue to see those. Nobody should be asking your bank information, your social security number in an email or over the phone so be aware,” he said.