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Editorial: Top cop or social worker?

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Did Santa Fe just hire a new police chief or was it a new head social worker/employee-relations counselor?

As we’ve stated previously, the recently retired chief, Ray Rael, took on, and by all available accounts, greatly reduced Santa Fe’s worst crime problem: A nationally high burglary rate.

His policies, which included doing away with three-day weekends for police officers, apparently gained him no friends within either the rank-and-file or the City Council, to the point that no one associated with Rael’s SFPD administration felt they had a chance to succeed him. No top officers under Rael and former Mayor David Coss even bothered to apply to be the new chief.

Eric Garcia. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Eric Garcia. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

This week it was announced that the new city administration of Mayor Javier Gonzales has picked Eric Garcia, a longtime State Police officer in northern New Mexico who since late 2012 has been in charge of the Española police department, as the new chief.

Garcia, we think, is a great choice. He’s developed a great reputation with both the State Police and as Española chief (and, for what it’s worth, has always had good relations with us curmudgeons in the news media, stemming from his time as a reliable, friendly and accessible public information officer for the State Police). He’s been employed in law enforcement in Rio Arriba County for two decades without being dragged down by the Byzantine political/interpersonal disputes that the county seems to specialize in.

But Mayor Gonzales’ statement in a Monday news release announcing Garcia’s appointment as Santa Fe’s new top cop was a bit worrisome.

Here’s what the mayor said:

“Eric shares my vision for the City of Santa Fe by working with various community partners to build bridges of cultural understanding. I have talked to him specifically about training, improving morale and broader community involvement for our police officers,” said Gonzales.

Nothing in Gonzales’ statement mentions continuing Rael’s legacy of keeping people from routinely breaking into Santa Feans’ homes and taking their stuff, and then doing it again, over and over. In fact, the mayor made no reference to fighting crime at all.

Gonzales’ statement almost seems to imply that crime isn’t a problem in Santa Fe, and that the police chief’s real priority post-Rael should be making everybody feel happy and included.

The reference to “improving morale?” We assume that means giving the police union back what Rael took away – workweeks of four 10-hour days. Rael changed to a standard five-day, eight-hours-per-day work schedule. His figures say the move saved $100,000 in overtime costs and put more officers on the street.

It just didn’t help morale much. But wouldn’t just about everybody rather work four days instead of five? Why not just go that way for the entire city workforce? That would boost morale across the board, for our “trained and motivated” city staffers who enforce zoning laws or catch stray dogs or maintain streets, not just the police.

Most Santa Feans surely support, as Gonzales puts it, having the chief work “with various community partners to build bridges of cultural understanding” and expand police “community involvement.”

But what problem is Garcia being asked to solve here? Santa Fe seems to have a fairly well-respected police department that the record has shown avoids the kind of deadly force and aggressive behavior that has put the Albuquerque police in a negative national spotlight and has stirred up the Duke City populace. Santa Fe police don’t ask for immigration papers. Just who needs “understanding” from the police and who hasn’t been getting it up to this point?

Gonzales deserves kudos for the detailed work his citizen transition team produced, also this week, casting a critical eye on city operations with the aim of making them better. But the police department wasn’t included.

Let’s just hope Garcia can somehow do everything that’s been put on him – keep the community as safe as possible while officers act in a constitutional, humane and respectful way (which we hope remains job one for the chief), make the rank-and-file officers reasonably content (despite the fact a string of Rael’s predecessors also were targeted by no-confidence votes by the police union, even with three-day weekends in place) and in the meantime follow the mayor’s campaign-style suggestions for a kinder and gentler, bridge-building (and somehow more politically correct) police force.

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