Police chief’s retirement sparks concern in Westmorland

Photo by Brett Miller.

WESTMORLAND — The Westmorland City Council addressed local concerns Wednesday night regarding the possibility that Westmorland’s police department may be taken over by the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office (ICSO), following the announcement of Police Chief Fred Beltran’s retirement.

As the people of Westmorland filled the board room and parking lot of city hall to discuss the Imperial Valley Sheriffs Department’s future involvement with the Westmorland Police Department, the Council listened and responded to the questions and comments of several residents.

Yet in order to clarify the situation before comments were made, Westmorland City Mayor Mary Ann Smith gave an overview of events at the beginning of the meeting.

“When someone retires, there’s a process. In order for us to handle this process, the idea is to get assistance from the Sheriff’s Department on very temporary basis so we can get the department organized and move forward,” said Smith. “We have not discussed the Sheriff’s Department taking over the community of Westmorland.”

The council members confirmed that they did request an estimate for the costs of up to five ICSO officers to patrol Westmorland should the need arise, they said it was only a precaution and the remaining Westmorland police officers will not be dismissed with Beltran’s retirement. ICSO provided an estimate for one sheriff sergeant and four sheriff officers.

“The idea, whenever you purchase anything; a car, an insurance plan, you want the best deal, and in order to do that you have to do some investigation and that was part of the investigation process,” said Smith.

“If the officers are so upset with how things are running that they all quit, where are we going to be?” explained council member Larry Ritchie.

Questions arose, however, about the qualifications of the other Westmorland police officers, one of whom was said to have 17 years of experience.

“Beltran was chosen to become the new captain when the previous one retired, and the [sheriffs] were never asked to step in then. Why can’t we do the same now?” asked one resident at the meeting.

Smith argued that the need to bring in the ISCO wasn’t one of qualification, but of accountability.

“We respect our police officers, we know them by name, we know they’re out there working hard and we want to keep them here in the community,” said Smith.

But following another question, the council did indicate that qualifications were a factor.

“Is there any reason why we, as the Police Officers’ Association, can’t continue to run the department without having to bring someone from the Sheriff’s Department out here?” asked Officer Luis Aguilar. “We have the experience. We’ve been out here. Why do we need a supervisor from another agency to come and supervise us?”

“You need to have people who are adequately and professionally trained to be supervisors,” responded council member Henry Graham, Jr.

Other residents shared their concern with how Beltran’s retirement was announced on such short notice.

“I wish I had been notified,” commented one resident about the decision to not make Beltran’s retirement announcement more public.

Yet the mayor said Beltran had personally asked her not to make it widely known.

“It was his wishes, what could I do?” Smith said.

Dozens of residents also waited outside of city hall to await any developments.

“I hope the council comes up with something that’s beneficial to both the city, and the Police Department we have in place right now,” said Damian Ramirez, a longtime Westmorland resident.

The council will meet again May 17, with further discussions on the matter imminent.