Law enforcement icon retires

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Priscilliano “Shorty” Vaiza, chief deputy at the Socorro County Sheriff’s Department, is chief deputy no more.

Vaiza’s last day as chief deputy was Dec. 31, 2012, and now he is retired after 27 years serving local law enforcement.

Elva Österreich/El Defensor Chieftain: Priscilliano “Shorty” Vaiza shares his collection of badges and patches Wednesday during an interview at El Defensor Chieftain. Vaiza kept all of the badges and patches from the different ranks he held, as well as patches awarded for outstanding service, during his career in law enforcement. He started as a dispatcher in 1985 for the Socorro Police Department and retired from the Socorro County Sheriff’s Office as chief deputy.

Vaiza started his law enforcement career in 1985 as a dispatcher with the Socorro Police Department, a position he held about five months. Then he became an officer and worked several years with SPD, achieving the rank of lieutenant by the time he left in 1998 to work for the Socorro County Sheriff’s Department. He worked there two years, then went back to SPD as a school resource officer for two years. In 2002, he was back at the sheriff’s department as chief deputy, a position he held until his retirement last month.

Vaiza estimated he worked 14 1/2 years total for SPD, and 12 1/2 years for the sheriff’s department. He really enjoyed it.

“I wouldn’t trade being a police officer for anything in the world,” Vaiza said during an interview Tuesday.

Before he worked in law enforcement, Vaiza was in the National Guard, which he joined at age 17. He spent 21 years in the National Guard, with the last year or so overlapping with his first years in law enforcement.

Vaiza was born in Magdalena and his family moved from there when he was 7.

“I’ve been a Socorro County native all my life,” he said.

Besides working in law enforcement, Vaiza loves running.

“It’s my time to think things out,” he said.

Vaiza participated in track and field in high school and has been running ever since. His penchant for running helped him at the police academy, which he attended when he was almost 39 years old; he was 37 when he first started as a dispatcher with SPD. Everyone at the police academy had to run a mile and a half in order to graduate. Vaiza finished the run in a time of 9 minutes, 15 seconds.

“My time was with much younger men than me, so I was really proud of that,” Vaiza said.

For the past few years, Vaiza has participated in the Bataan Memorial Death March, a 26.2-mile marathon through the desert held every spring on White Sands Missile Range. According to results posted on runhigh.com, Vaiza placed 22nd in his age class at last year’s Bataan Memorial Death March, with a clock time of 6:15:19. He placed 431 overall among 1,866 total participants who finished the marathon.

Vaiza likes participating in the Bataan Memorial marathon because it is a way to honor the people who defended the Philippine Islands during World War II, many of whom were captured by the Japanese and forced to march 80 miles up the Bataan Peninsula.

They were starved and abused all along the way, and many died from hardships or were murdered in cold blood by their captors. The Bataan Death March, as it appropriately came to be called, was later judged by an Allied military commission to be a war crime.

“Running the 26.2 miles is nothing compared to what these gentlemen went through when they did the death march,” Vaiza said.

Vaiza has also participated in the Law Enforcement Torch Run, a fundraiser for the Special Olympics, for 20 years. During the Torch Run, law enforcement personnel, as well as others who want to join, run from the four corners of the state to the state fairgrounds in Albuquerque.

Undersheriff Les Torres, who was county sheriff when Vaiza first came to work for the department in 1998, said Vaiza was until recently in charge of coordinating the Torch Run for the Socorro area. Someone else will coordinate the Torch Run in the Socorro area from now on, however.

“After 20 years, I wanted to let someone else take the reins,” Vaiza said, adding that he stayed in law enforcement 27 years “because I really, really love doing my job.”

Vaiza has also participated in the Drug Free Relay race with the Alamo Navajo Nation for the past 16 or 17 years. That race is from Alamo to Bernardo in a relay setting. Participants can do various distances for the relay; Vaiza estimated most run about six or seven miles on average.

“There’s a lot of runners, a lot of people that really get into it because of what it stands for,” Vaiza said. “It’s a Drug Free Relay race, so it’s really, really good.”

Vaiza said he will probably continue to help, in some capacity, with both the Torch Run and the Navajo Nation run.

“I see no reason to stop,” he said.

Vaiza said his running also got him involved in coaching middle school sports, specifically track and football, which he did for about 20 years from the late 1980s until about 2007. Torres said Vaiza has always been very active in the community, particularly with young people.

“All the kids know him,” Torres said.

Torres said several law enforcement personnel currently working at the Socorro police and sheriff’s departments were coached by Vaiza when they were children. At least one staff member at the Chieftain also had Vaiza for a coach.

Vaiza spoke often during the interview about the profound enjoyment he found working in law enforcement, but just as often spoke of his loving, supportive family. He said without their support — especially that of his wife of 32 years, Judy — he couldn’t have succeeded in the field.

Vaiza is prodigiously proud of his family, which includes a daughter, three sons and nine grandchildren: Diana, his eldest child, and her children Velicia and Samantha Chavez, and Jared Padilla; his son Joseph, an officer with the Albuquerque Police Department, Joseph’s wife, Darlene, and their children Joseph, Andrea and Marissa; son Jimmy Peralta, his wife, Nicole, and their children Gaby, Erlinda and Santiago; and son Stephen, who serves in the Navy and is married to Lisa, with no children so far.

Vaiza expressed delight at the symmetry of his grandchildren: three sets of two granddaughters and one grandson each.

Vaiza’s family held a retirement party for him Jan. 6 that yielded unexpected joy. His son Joseph threw the party at his house in Los Lunas — with the odd request that his parents call first before they set out for the party.

When Vaiza and his wife arrived at the party, Joseph told them Stephen had made a video for them and had them watch it. The Vaizas hadn’t seen Stephen in person for about a year because he was deployed with the Navy to the Middle East.

While the Vaizas watched Stephen’s video, Joseph’s wife brought out a camera. Joseph said he was making a video to send back to Stephen and asked his father if he wanted to say something to Stephen.

“And then behind me I hear this: ‘Well, Dad, don’t you want to say something to me?’” Vaiza said. “It was awesome.”

The voice from behind was Stephen, who was there with his wife to surprise his father at his retirement party. He stayed in the area visiting for a week after the party. Vaiza said seeing Stephen was a big surprise for him and Judy.

“She started bawling like a baby,” Vaiza said. “And I think I did, too.”

Vaiza has an extensive collection of patches and badges from his work years. Some are the different arm patches used over the years at the police and sheriff’s departments — some of the sheriffs, such as Felix Saavedra, designed the patches themselves.

Some of Vaiza’s patches, however, were presented in recognition of outstanding service. One example is the Second Chance Patch, which Vaiza earned for saving a woman’s life using CPR.

Vaiza was a rookie in training at the time. He and the officer he was training with answered an ambulance call, and they arrived before the ambulance. They found the woman on the floor of the home.

“She was actually gone,” Vaiza said. “My T.O. — my training officer — checked her, I checked her, and he looks at me and says, ‘She’s gone.’”

Vaiza said the woman’s family was pleading with them to do something. He had just taken a first responder course, so he began performing CPR on the woman. When the ambulance arrived, the EMTs said they found a pulse.

Vaiza jumped in the ambulance with the woman and an EMT, and kept CPR going until they arrived at the hospital.

“And she made it!” Vaiza said. “So I got inducted into the Second Chance Club. That was a highlight, as a rookie. It was really, really nice.”

Vaiza said he’s used CPR a couple of times on the job and “been lucky.” He used his CPR training again, this time when he was a deputy with the sheriff’s department, when a little boy drowned in a mini pool. The boy’s grandmother had already been trying to revive the boy when Vaiza started CPR.

When the ambulance arrived, Vaiza gave the boy to the EMTs. Later, he called the hospital to find out how the boy was doing, and hospital staff said the boy was crying when he arrived there.

“I helped, but then I wasn’t the only one,” Vaiza said, adding the boy’s grandmother and the EMTs were key in saving the boy’s life.

Torres said Vaiza was recently honored by the Civitans, who nominated him as a hero throughout his career. Torres noted Vaiza has received many awards and accolades for his service, and that he is very well liked in the community.

“He’s been a good one,” Torres said. “He’ll be missed.”

Vaiza has also climbed trees to rescue kitties in distress, as well as performed a broad gamut of other duties.

“You do it all, you know? It’s just the nature of the job,” he said.

Vaiza remarked on the police motto “To protect and to serve,” which has its origins with the Los Angeles Police Department, according to the LAPD website. It was the winning entry in a contest LAPD conducted through its internal BEAT magazine in February 1955 to find a motto for its police academy. It eventually became the department’s motto as well, and this motto or a variation of it has found broad application in departments all over the nation ever since.

“I believe it’s a pleasure to serve, and a duty to protect,” Vaiza said.

Vaiza has seen many changes in law enforcement throughout his career. He noted the Socorro Police Department is much bigger than when he started work there. And Jim Naranjo, currently Municipal Court judge, was SPD’s chief of police when Vaiza started.

After Naranjo, Vaiza worked for Chiefs Frank Tafoya, Johnny Trujillo and Joe Haley. As a deputy, Vaiza worked for Sheriffs Torres, Saavedra and Phillip Montoya, the current sheriff.

Vaiza said laws have also changed since he started — many for the better.

“Especially the battery on a household member laws,” Vaiza said. “That was a welcome change.”

Vaiza said if he had any regrets, it would be that he would have liked to bookend his career with a position on top — such as sheriff or chief of police — especially since he started pretty much from scratch as a dispatcher. He does not express himself as a man who has regrets, however.

“I had a very good career,” Vaiza said. “My kids … my wife — they supported me all the way, and I made a lot of friends along the way.”

Vaiza loved his work, and he loves Socorro.

“People in this town are awesome. In this county, they’re awesome,” he said. “I have never been treated badly. But I learned a long time ago: If you want their respect, you got to treat them with respect. My dad taught me that.”

Vaiza is thankful for the positive relationships he’s been able to develop in the community. He said even individuals whom some people consider “gang-bangers” have actually helped him out in different situations.

“It didn’t matter if they were gang members or politicians, bankers or whatever — it didn’t matter to me,” Vaiza said. “Everybody was a friend.

“If I could do it forever, I probably would. But there comes a time … I had a good career, I really did.”

 

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