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Editorial: APD survey shows officers need city to have their backs

A recent survey of 433 Albuquerque Police Department officers shows 62% do not feel supported by Police Chief Michael Geier, 83% do not feel supported by Mayor Tim Keller and 96% do not feel supported by the City Council.

The survey, a routine endeavor commissioned by APD’s union and most recently released last week, indicates morale is at its lowest point in recent years, due in part to the “current view on policing, the increased scrutiny on officers, new reform efforts and job insecurity.” For those who’d like to defund APD, the results may be cause for celebration, showing the best way to scale back a department is to demoralize those in uniform via a thousand little insults/tweets/protests. For Keller and city leaders entrusted with ensuring public safety, the results should be troubling. For citizens who rely on there being enough officers to show up to their 911 call, there’s real cause for concern.

APD police union president Shaun Willoughby says he’s never seen officer morale so low. And yes, low morale in union surveys isn’t new – in 2018 70% were considering a career change, now 80% in this year’s survey. From a union standpoint it’s hard to argue for contract concessions if everybody’s happy as a clam.

But 2020 is a very different year to be a cop.

Historically, understaffing is a commonly cited reason for low morale. But in his first term Keller had made progress toward his goal of 1,200 sworn officers. There were about 835 when he took office in late-November 2017, now up to 997. We join every Albuquerquean who’s sick of crime in hoping the mayor can hit 1,200 cops, though the current climate likely makes that tough.

Willoughby blames current low morale on deteriorating national and local sentiments toward police. The survey found 68% of officers said it was “unlikely or very unlikely” they would recommend police work to others. That’s despite the estimated annual salary of $60,320 through their first four years, specialty pay opportunities, good benefits including take-home cars, and a pension allowing retirement after 25 years at 90% of top pay. Fully 88% of officers surveyed were concerned about losing “qualified immunity” – meaning they could be held personally liable for something that goes wrong on the job, potentially having to forfeit their homes or other assets.

There’s little doubt fatal cases of police brutality, particularly against people of color, have seriously undercut public trust in police. Or that bad cops and systemic abuses of force must be rooted out. That’s why APD is currently under a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

But APD officer Adam Golson recently gave Journal readers an insight into a day at the office for our local members of law enforcement. In an op-ed June 5, Golson recounted his May 31 shift. After starting his day at an active shooter call, he was dispatched to multiple vehicle crashes before being sent Downtown where a riot was unfolding after a protest over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It bears repeating Golson joined in the vocal criticism and called Floyd’s killing criminal. Golson said he and another officers became boxed in as numerous people hurled rocks at their vehicles, with a large piece of concrete breaking through his driver’s-side window. “I’m not entirely sure how the brick did not strike me in the head, or how I escaped major injury, but I am thankful I was able to come home to my wife,” he wrote.

After a day like that, a police officer would be right to expect a little backup from his or her chain of command. But that’s not been the consistent message coming out of City Hall, which instead of decrying the violence head-on, bought into progressive defund police rhetoric and focused on getting officers out of the community with a plan to have others handle certain calls for service. There are parts of this that make sense. But rather than clearly state the move as a way to ensure our professionally trained officers are sent to calls that require their specific experience and expertise (which abandoned car and down-and-out calls certainly do not), the insinuation was that APD officers are the bad guys who escalate what should be peaceful encounters.

APD officers are the highest-paid members of law enforcement in the region, but most don’t become a cop for the pay and pension, and the survey clearly shows money doesn’t buy happiness. As in Golson’s case, law enforcement is often the family business, with generations catching bad guys and making their communities safer. We are thankful that’s why most of these men and women sign up for the badge and blue uniform – to help real people in real ways.

Especially given the city’s rampant gun and drug crime, city leaders need to take the APD survey seriously – not dismiss it out of hand as typical union grousing – and talk to officers about issues including where the city’s attorneys stand on qualified immunity as well as a zero tolerance for assaults on officers and their vehicles.

Simply put, they need to treat them like we want our officers to treat the public, with concern and respect.

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.