Remembering Jim Wells
Jim Wells retired from LCPD as a Captain a little over 30 years ago. His career spanned 25 years and he was one of the few I knew in the department who started his career as a cop in the pre--Miranda Warning 1960s. He grew up in Nebraska, joined the Army and was a Vietnam veteran. I'm not quite sure how he ended up in Las Cruces but we were fortunate to have him.
He was Lieutenant Wells when I met him in 1979 during the 13th LCPD Academy. I was a cadet and he was the department firearms instructor. His knowledge of weapons and marksmanship were apparent. Just for fun, he brought a skeet machine to the range one afternoon and we shot clay pigeons with a shotgun. His instruction had positive results for me in that I was number one in firearms score.
There were fewer personnel in the department then (less than half the size it is today) and shifts were comprised of ten or eleven officers in addition to a corporal, sergeant and lieutenant. Taking days off into account there were, generally, only seven officers on duty for any given shift (one for each of the six districts and a rover), and sometimes fewer. In the early 1980s, shifts rotated around college semesters so officers could attend school and graveyard was from late August to New Year's Eve.
Jim Wells was, by far, the best supervisor I ever had in the police department. He was hard but fair, and by that I mean he expected his officers to conform to a standard of what was expected in a cop and he refused to accept anything less. He lived by the same creed and was a shining example of a leader in that he would never ask a cop to do something he wouldn't do, or had not done, himself. He also looked out for his people. If an officer under his command was accused of wrongdoing, and he knew the officer was in the right, he would back that officer one hundred percent. If the officer was wrong, he expected him or her to take their "medicine" (disciplinary action) and not whine about it. There has always been an atmosphere of politics in police work and it is sometimes difficult to find supervisors and managers with backbone, but he was one of the good ones.
Long before we had special response teams it was the duty of the patrol officer and patrol supervisors to respond to, and effectively deal with, situations that today would require SWAT and Hostage Negotiations. I recall one night when he spent hours on the phone talking to a suicidal man from the phone in the LCPD watch commander's office, while we patrol officers waited behind cover outside the apartment where the man lived. The man wanted suicide by cop, and even fired a gunshot during the negotiations just to show that he had a firearm, but Wells kept him on the line and eventually talked him into surrendering and going to the hospital.
Another night in briefing Wells was reading the BOLOs (Be On the Lookout), code 28s (frequent patrols) and other items of interest. He came across an incident in another city where an off-duty officer sitting in a restaurant had been shot and killed by members of his own department during a robbery. The officer had been dining when armed robbers entered the establishment and he observed the robbery. Unknown to the officer, a silent alarm had been activated by employees and the restaurant was surrounded by uniformed cops. When the robbers ran out, the officer ran after them with his gun in hand and was shot dead by his fellow officers who thought he was a robbery suspect.
"Listen," Wells said. "If the police are called to the scene of a crime that involves firearms, anyone holding a gun and not in uniform when they get there is fair game. You have to understand that adrenaline is high, cops are scared, and no one, not even your best friend, is going to recognize you in a shootout. If you see a crime in progress, the best thing you can do is be a good witness." He was absolutely correct and his words echoed in my head years later when I almost became a victim under similar circumstances while in plain clothes and investigating the murder of a deputy in Mesilla. He spoke from experience and like so many other things he passed on to us the lessons were invaluable.
His ass chewings were legendary. I remember so many cops saying that you can piss off anyone you want in the department, but you better not make that man mad. He could, they said, give an ass chewing like nothing you'd ever experienced. I was in two of those sessions, not as an individual but as part of a group. The first incident involved a mob of citizens throwing rocks, bricks and bottles at us close to the intersection of Mulberry & Solano early one morning.
Two officers had attempted an arrest at a disturbance call and it turned into a struggle, and then more people came out of nowhere and attacked. The officers called for back up and when we arrived it started raining objects from the sky. I saw a woman get hit in the head and she went down but I could not render aid or I'd become a victim, too, if I took my eyes off the sky. What made Lt. Wells mad was that, for the most part, we stood and did nothing. A couple of us had tried to make arrests but while struggling with a suspect with one hand and trying to keep others away by holding our batons in a manner meant to keep the mob back, the suspects broke our grips and ran off. He called us in at shift relief at 7 AM and reamed us. He told us it was not feasible to make arrests in a situation like that. To restore order we needed to utilize our night sticks. "You start knocking the shit out of people and the others will run off." He was right, as future experience would show.
The second time we were, again, on graveyard shift and getting raped on commercial burglaries. He chewed us out in briefing. The night before we had been hit five times at different locations around the city. It was embarrassing. It was as if burglars were doing whatever they wished and LCPD was allowing it to proceed unchecked. If we had been busy, as in calls for service that made it impossible to patrol as we raced from call to call, that was one thing; but that wasn't the case. We were being lazy.
That night we caught two different burglaries in progress, both self-initiated. Self-initiated meant that the officers discovered the burglaries on their own and were not dispatched. Wells was beaming that morning. He knew what we were capable of, we just needed the proper motivation.
What I respected about Wells was that he never raised his voice, and did not threaten or resort to name calling when chewing someone out (and trust me when I tell you that there were supervisors who thought that yelling and screaming were the order of the day when dealing with subordinates). It's not that he was nice to cops who were screwing up by the numbers (one officer told me that the exact words used by Wells regarding his less than stellar performance was "Your evaluation is going to hell downhill on a roller skate"), it was that he made his point based on professional observations, and before he finished would tell the errant officers that he knew they were capable of doing better and he expected an improved performance out of them in the future. It didn't leave one feeling unfairly treated, but disappointed in oneself for letting him down.
If you are a young cop and your lieutenant decides to stop in and have a cup of coffee with you in a restaurant at four in the morning that means something. He would do that with us individually, just to check how we were doing and how our morale was because he knew how working nights could wear a person down, physically and mentally. He often told us that if we were tired nobody was going to think any less of us if we went into the station and napped. "I'd rather see you get some rest and not fall asleep behind the wheel and end up getting in a wreck. You let me know and I'll cover your district." He was the only supervisor I knew who said that. Most would threaten to suspend you if they caught you sleeping, and some would try and sneak up to catch us dozing behind the wheel.
Wells told me early one morning over a cup of coffee that when the Miranda Warning came about it really didn't change the way people were interviewed, other than the mandatory advisory that they had a right to remain silent and the right to a lawyer. What he meant was that a good cop who knew how to talk to people could still get information regardless of the mandatory reading of rights under the law. In briefing at night he would give us scenarios and ask how to handle them. In reality he was giving us in-service training without the formality of a scripted course or classroom. He focused on the necessary and important, and left out the politically correct BS. He didn't care if we knew the Rules & Regs inside out, he wanted us to be prepared in matters of law and procedure. He also told us once that we never needed to apologize for doing our jobs. We were cops and we sometimes had to make decisions that would negatively affect the lives of others, but no need to say sorry. He understood the job at a much deeper level than many supervisors. He knew that police work could negatively affect a person psychologically, and he wanted us to know that what we were compelled to do as cops was not something we needed to apologize for to anyone.
Wells was an avid fisherman. In an era when every other lieutenant on shift work took Saturday and Sunday off, he was off on Tuesday and Wednesday. I remember that because as a patrol officer I had the same days off. Caballo and Elephant Butte were not crowded on those days of the week and he'd have his bass boat out on the water regularly. I remember once he caught a lot of bass and his wife fried them up and he brought them to work to share with us. Occasionally, I'd be at the lake in a boat with other officers and if we ran into him he was always congenial and friendly to us, curious if we had caught anything and what we were using for bait. I and a group of officers came across him once in the evening at the Butte, where he was staying with his wife in their camper trailer. He was relaxing and having a drink (rum and coke) and I was shocked. Not shocked that he drank, but that this lieutenant everyone feared, but also deeply respected, was actually a human being!!!
Years later, when he was the patrol captain and I was in detectives, I was having some issues with a supervisor in CID who was an unpleasant person. I'd had issues with that supervisor on patrol and then he transferred to CID and the problems continued. I was afraid I was going to punch the SOB, which would effectively end my career. I went to Wells and told him I wanted to come back to patrol. He listened to me and then spoke. "Look, Randy, I'd love to have you back on patrol, you'd be welcome here any time. But before you make that decision talk to the captain of CID and see what he can do. Give him a chance to resolve this." I followed his advice and the issue was resolved. I was only seeing the matter from a personal viewpoint and he saw it from a career perspective.
When he retired a few years later, I was a sergeant in criminal investigations. CID at that time was located in the basement of the old Memorial General hospital at Alameda & Lohman. He made it a point to stop in and say goodbye to people who had worked for him over the years. That meant a lot to me and it was a reflection of how he treated his subordinates. He said he was leaving Las Cruces and heading west to do some fishing. I was happy for him, he looked content. I only saw him one time after that, at the Village Inn on Telshor about five years later. I was a patrol lieutenant by then and seated at a table having coffee when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that someone had walked up to where I was sitting and just standing there. I looked up and it was Jim Wells with a big smile on his face. We talked and had a cup of coffee. It was great to see him.
Jim Wells had a great influence on me and many others in LCPD. Much of how I supervised over the years was modeled on what I learned from him. He was a great teacher and role model, and had a positive lasting effect on me long after he retired. I was saddened to hear of his passing on February 21 but I know that wherever he is in this great universe he has a line in the water and is doing what he loves. Rest In Peace, sir.