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APD wants to expand PSA force

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Mayor Richard Berry’s administration wants to hire 40 additional police service aides and broadly expand their duties to include some tasks now performed by sworn police officers.

And, in the long term, APD would use the civilian positions as a stepping stone toward full-time police work to bolster APD’s ranks, which have been shrinking the past three years.

APD plans to start hiring people between the ages of 18 and 21 “as soon as possible,” Police Chief Ray Schultz said, adding that the department would like to increase the number of police service aides, known as PSAs, from 21 to 60.

PSAs will still be civilians. They won’t have the power to arrest or carry a gun on-duty, nor will they be dispatched to calls where a suspect is present.

They will, however, write initial reports for some felony crimes that will be used in court cases. They will also receive in-the-field training in basic evidence collection and other police techniques and an opportunity, after two or three years, to complete a shortened version of the APD Academy and receive a badge and gun.

The APD Academy has a minimum age requirement of 21.

The cost of the program will mostly be covered by existing money.

Schultz said he hopes to accomplish two goals by expanding the PSA program: free up sworn APD officers to more quickly respond to the most serious situations, and create a “true police officer apprentice program.”

The time it takes APD officers to respond to top priority calls — shootings, stabbings, car wrecks with injuries and most domestic violence incidents — have risen nearly a minute and a half in the past 2 1/2 years, from 8 minutes 43 seconds in fiscal year 2010 to 10 minutes 1 second mid-way through the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

In the past, Schultz has used response times as a catalyst for changing policies and as a measure of his department’s effectiveness.

More recently, as response times have increased, the chief has said too much stock has been placed in the amount of time that passes between a call to police for service and an officer’s arrival. He also has considered changing the way the department categorizes calls from citizens for police service.

Manpower shortage

Police union leaders have said the longer response times are due to APD’s manpower shortage. In late 2009, the department employed 1,100 officers. As of this week, that figure stood at 980, Schultz said, and the last two academy classes have produced just 18 graduates.

Last year, APD reinstituted previously discarded hiring standards — including a requirement of 60 college credit hours or two years’ military experience — to try to hire “good problem solvers and decision makers.” That change came in the aftermath of a spike in police shootings that, among other issues, led to a federal investigation of APD.

And in 2010, a change in state law halted so-called “double dippers” from retiring as police officers, then coming back to work for a salary while collecting a state pension.

Greg Weber, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, said in an interview that he supports expanding the PSA program as long as it’s not a plan to permanently reduce the number of sworn APD officers on the street.

He said he is cautiously optimistic the idea could accomplish the administration’s goals.

“Based on what they’re suggesting and how it could work, I am supportive,” he said. “If it will allow cops in the field to focus on calls that actually require a response from a fully trained, armed police officer, then I’m for that.

“And I look at the recruiting aspect of it like Triple A baseball: There’s definitely an advantage in gaining experience and being able to observe that experience. We have a manpower problem, there’s no doubt about that. Only time will tell if this will address that problem.”

In the mayor’s proposed city budget, which city councilors are reviewing, APD is funded for 1,100 officers. But because the number of officers won’t approach that number, money is available to cover the cost of hiring new PSAs, Schultz said.

Under the program, PSA salaries would increase from $11.10 an hour to $12.60 an hour. The increase, if the department reached its goal of 60 PSAs, would cost about $157,000. PSAs work 40-hour weeks.

A full complement of 60 PSAs would cost the city about $1.5 million a year in base salary.

Third track to academy?

Currently, PSAs handle much of APD’s courier work, carrying paperwork from division to division, Schultz said. They also write parking citations and complete reports for minor traffic accidents, lost-and-found items and some low-level misdemeanor crimes.

Schultz and Berry want to give PSAs “substantially more responsibility,” the chief said.

Under the program, PSAs would be sent to certain “cold” felony calls, such as vehicles that have been stolen in the middle of the night, and they would complete reports on some felony cases, such as criminal damage to property over $2,500. They would also be trained in fingerprint processing, DNA evidence collection and crime scene photography.

If APD can increase the number of PSAs to 60, the chief said, one would be assigned to nearly every squad.

“They’ll be doing police work without the investigative side,” Schultz said. “They won’t be making arrests or questioning suspects, and they won’t be dispatched to any calls where a suspect is still present. But they will be gathering information that can be given to a detective.”

Weber said there’s potential danger in sending an unarmed, untrained PSA to any felony call, even if police believe the suspect is no longer on scene.

“Depending on the type of call, there can be a safety risk,” he said. “But there’s always that risk, and we’re already sending PSAs to low-risk type calls now.”

Schultz said the department plans to begin transitioning its existing 21 PSAs into their new roles immediately. As new hires come on, they’ll start their careers with the increased duties under the new program.

Prospective PSAs are required to go through entrance testing that includes a background check, physical agility testing and a psychological exam, the chief said. That won’t change.

If a PSA decides to apply for a full-time APD position, he or she must complete a new round of background checks and other testing, he said. Then it’s on to the police academy, which would be shortened for those who have completed the PSA program, from the standard 26 weeks to 18 weeks.

Currently, candidates for the APD Academy must have completed 60 college credit hours or served two years in the military. Schultz said officials are considering whether the PSA program may become a “third track” into the academy.

“We’re going to be able to create a three-year background process and really identify the best candidates,” he said. “We also want them to continue to go to school.”

Schultz’s daughter has been a PSA with the department for about 18 months. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, and the chief said he doesn’t yet know whether she plans to pursue a career as an officer.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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