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With officers forbidden from carrying guns, New Mexico town's police force goes to the dog

KRQE

Nikka, a police dog in Vaughn, N.M., is now the town's only official member of the police force.

VAUGHN, N.M.-- A drug-sniffing dog now is the only certified member of the police force in the small eastern New Mexico town of Vaughn.

Police Chief Ernest "Chris" Armijo decided to step down Wednesday after news stories reported that he wasn't allowed to carry a gun because of his criminal background. 

"He decided the attention was distracting," said Dave Romero, an attorney for the town. 


State officials said Armijo couldn't carry a gun since acknowledging that he owed tens of thousands of dollars in delinquent child support payments in Texas. Armijo also faces new felony charges after being accused of selling a town-owned rifle and pocketing the cash. 

Romero said Armijo is working to clear up the latest case. He said Armijo has not ruled out seeking the police chief's position again if his case is resolved and the position is open. 

According to NBC affiliate KOB.com in New Mexico, Armijo's annual salary is less than $30,000. Because he can't own a gun or any ammunition, he sold an assault rifle he owned to Guadalupe Sheriff's Deputy Juan Sanchez in January for $250, KOB.com reported.

A second police officer in Vaughn, Brian Bernal, was hired in the spring, but he had his own legal problems: In January of 2011, Bernal pleaded guilty to assault and battery against a household member, which prohibits him from owning a firearm by federal law, KOB.com said.

Now, according to records, the only qualified member of the Vaughn Police Department is Nikka, a drug-sniffing dog. Non-certified officers can't make arrests and can't carry firearms. 

Russell Contreras / AP

The K-9 police truck of the Vaughn, N.M. Police Department sits in the driveway of former Vaughn Police Chief Ernest "Chris" Armijo on Wednesday, Sept. 26.

But Romero said not having an officer qualified to carry a gun didn't put Vaughn at risk. "England doesn't allow police officers to carry guns," he said. "Sometime the strongest weapon in law enforcement is communication." 

Vaughn, a town of about 450 located 104 miles east of Albuquerque, is a quiet place that is an overnight stop for railroad workers.

While residents maintain there is no crime problem, the town is set deep in what U.S. officials say is an area popular with drug traffickers. The desolate roads in Guadalupe County make it hard for authorities to catch smugglers moving drugs from Mexico. 

Guadalupe County Sheriff Michael Lucero said since news about the police chief's record became public his department has helped patrol Vaughn. But he said those efforts have put a slight strain on his already short-staffed department. 

"I visit the town at least once a month," said Lucero. "The important thing is to keep a presence so residents know we're there to help if we're needed." 

Romero said town officials are considering whether to hire another police chief or keep the department staffed with just one officer. He said it's unclear whether the town will keep the police dog, which had been in Armijo's care. 

When approached by a reporter from The Associated Press at his Vaughn home, Armijo said he had no comment, and he declined to grant access to the canine for photographs or video. 

The dog's kennel could be seen in Armijo's backyard, and a police truck marked "K-9" was parked in his driveway. 

At Penny's Diner, residents said they were embarrassed by the attention the episode has put on the small town. 

"There's just a whole lot of nothing going on here," said cook Joyce Tabor. "We have very little crime. It's quiet. So this really doesn't matter."

Armijo told KOB.com in June that he didn't feel he needed a gun to do his job. 

“We have tasers, batons, mace … stuff like that,” Armijo said. "This isn't a TV show. This is life. We don't run in every day with a gun drawn. Life isn't in a pistol grip. It's how you talk to people. I wasn't the type of person to go, 'I'm a cop, now give me my badge and my chip on my shoulder.' That's not me."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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