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City seeking to hire chief of public safety

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The city of Albuquerque is looking to hire a chief of public safety who would oversee the chiefs of the police department, the fire department and the office of emergency management.

According to a job posting on the city’s website, in addition to overseeing the three department heads, the new hire “must coordinate with the Chief of Police to provide strong reform-minded leadership as the department works to achieve and maintain compliance” with the Court Approved Settlement Agreement dictating the police reform effort.

The city is in the midst of a yearslong reform effort after the Department of Justice announced in 2014 that an investigation found officers have a pattern and practice of using excessive force. The most recent reports and hearings on the undertaking have been highly critical. The city has replaced its police chief and vowed to turn things around.

Jessica Campbell, a city spokeswoman, said it’s not the first time the administration has explored hiring a chief of public safety. Mayor Tim Keller mentioned the idea when he was running for office.

“Public safety is our top priority, so we are testing the waters for a candidate up to the task of streamlining and innovating the City’s emergency responses,” Campbell wrote in a statement. “The Chief of Public Safety would also play an active role in APD reform, and serve as a policy and regulatory expert.”

However, the job – posted on Tuesday – is news to some city councilors, who say they had no idea the administration was looking to hire such a high-ranking official. The city is already in the midst of a national search to replace former police chief Michael Geier, who was told to retire in September.

Geier’s replacement, interim Chief Harold Medina, has said he’s interested in the permanent job.

Councilor Brook Bassan

“I don’t know why we need more chief positions when we need to trust and find a chief of police that can do a really good job, and be effective when it comes to the Department of Justice, and the consent decree and rebuilding our department,” said city councilor Brook Bassan. “We already have a great chief of fire, so why does he need a new supervisor?”

While there is precedent for this position, the job description has changed somewhat since the police department is in the midst of reform.

One-time Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White was the last to have held the position of director of public safety under Mayor Richard Berry. During White’s tenure, some city councilors and other critics questioned why the post was necessary.

White was paid $120,000 a year when he stepped down in 2011 following a controversy related to a crash involving his wife. That’s equivalent to about $139,000 today, due to inflation. The current job posting for the chief of public safety states that salary will be based on the qualifications of the person who is hired.

The city council passed its $1.1 billion budget for fiscal year 2021 in October and city council president Pat Davis said the mayor’s office had not asked to fund the position at that time. However, he said, if they eliminated another position, they could use that money to make a new hire.

Davis, who also said he had not heard the city was hiring a chief of public safety, said he supports the idea in theory.

“It doesn’t bother me at all, it doesn’t matter to me whether the police chief reports to the safety director or the mayor,” Davis said. “I think we need to do whatever it takes to get this train back on track. It’s got to be the right person who understands policing and won’t get cannibalized by APD’s culture.”

Whoever is hired will report to Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair, who currently oversees the police department.

Although, as of Friday evening, the job posting said law enforcement certification is required, Campbell said that was an error and whoever is hired will be a civilian. She said the job was posted on the city’s website on Dec. 8 and it may appear on law enforcement websites in the future.

“Although this would be a civilian position, it would be beneficial for the person who holds this role to have first-hand knowledge of policing,” Campbell said.

Both councilor Bassan and councilor Davis said they expected the fact that the city is hiring a supervisor to affect the hiring of the next police chief.

“The type of candidate who is going to apply wants to know who their boss is going to be,” Davis said. “If they want to try this new strategy – and, again, I’m all for it – I just think we need to get that person in place to see how that’s going to work first. It would be very hard to put a new director and a new chief in at the same time.”

In response to questions, Campbell said, “The search to fill this potential position (will) not affect the ongoing national search for a new Chief of Police.”

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