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Editorial: APD had to grow ranks at smaller agencies’ expense

The Albuquerque Police Department finally appears poised to make significant strides in addressing its chronic officer shortage. That’s great news for Albuquerque residents, who have endured dramatic upticks in both property and violent crime in recent years.

But that progress comes at the expense of other police agencies that are losing some of their best officers to APD. The worries from outside agencies are understandable. Replacing officers is expensive, and no department wants to train officers only to lose the most experienced ones to another agency.

Yet it’s not fair to blame the city of Albuquerque for the situation, given that chronically understaffed APD was backed into a corner by state lawmakers who refused to institute a simple fix that would have helped APD replenish its ranks without poaching officers from other agencies.

Former Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry all but begged lawmakers to change state law to allow retired officers to return to work and continue collecting their pensions. That request went nowhere year after year, despite the fact that an actuary hired by the city of Albuquerque determined there was a way to institute return-to-work legislation without hurting the solvency of the state public employee retirement fund.

So we’re left with the current situation, with Albuquerque city leaders in a bidding war with other agencies, spending millions of dollars to boost officer pay and attract lateral hires. That strategy is working.

The city is planning to poach more than 60 officers from other law enforcement agencies in coming months to grow the department by 100 officers this fiscal year. In mid-October, APD had 853 officers, but it’s on track to have 973 by next summer, according to a recruiting status report.

Meanwhile, other police agencies are scrambling to compete with Albuquerque. Starting pay for an APD officer is $29 an hour. By contrast, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office deputies make $27.03 an hour, Rio Rancho police officers begin at $20.30 an hour, and Santa Fe police make about $19 an hour.

Albuquerque also offers specialty pay and longevity bonuses that can add between $100 and $600 to an officer’s paycheck.

The Santa Fe Police Department is now offering bonuses to new officers and to those who transfer in. University of New Mexico police officers were recently given a 13 percent pay raise. And Rio Rancho is trying to come up with a retention strategy.

“It is a topic that we are looking at,” Rio Rancho police Capt. Ron Vigil told the Journal. “It is difficult. Eight to nine dollars an hour is a pretty significant pay disparity.”

Police officers have a dangerous and often thankless job. They work hard to protect us and deserve every dollar they’re paid. But at some point, smaller law enforcement agencies just aren’t going to be able to compete, and that puts those communities at risk as they continue to lose officers to agencies like APD.

Maybe now the Legislature will listen and sign off on return to work, something it should have done years ago.

Help for smaller agencies on the way

Meanwhile, Central New Mexico Community College has stepped up to help fill the police staffing gap and is launching the CNM Law Enforcement Academy next year. The inaugural class will join APD’s ranks after graduating, though they will need to complete another 11-week training course before hitting the streets.

The 17-week academy is for officers already hired by an agency and may prove even more beneficial for other agencies than APD. Those planning to use the CNM academy include Rio Rancho, Village of Corrales, Los Lunas, Moriarty and the Pueblos of Laguna and Isleta police departments as well as sheriff’s offices in Sandoval, Valencia and Torrance counties and the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

The city of Albuquerque and CNM deserve credit for taking steps to bolster the ranks of our law enforcement agencies.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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