APD’s thin blue line stretched thinner

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

On a Sunday evening in early June, an Albuquerque Police Department dispatch supervisor sent an urgent message to the only police lieutenant on duty: No officers were available to respond to calls in the city.

“I just wanted to advise at this time we are holding 114 calls,” she reported. Two Priority One calls, the most life-threatening, were in the Southeast APD Command and 10 Priority Two calls “were holding in the SE and NE combined,” according to the supervisor’s message obtained by the Journal.

The supervisor said she had checked dispatch frequencies in each of APD’s six city geographic area commands. “No one has units 10-8 (available) at this time,” the dispatcher wrote. “I just wanted to advise.”

Albuquerque is far from alone in facing a shortage of police officers — a problem plaguing law enforcement agencies around the country. Nationally, the exodus is blamed in part on anti-police rhetoric and calls to defund the police.

In Albuquerque, police also cite the Legislature’s new ban on qualified immunity making it easier to sue officers for excessive force and other misconduct. And exit interviews show some departing APD officers are fed up with the Department of Justice consent decree governing the use of force and other policies.

The drain at APD — down about 60 officers from earlier this year — comes at a time when Albuquerque police are contending with a seemingly relentless violent criminal element, exploding homicide rates and a growing chorus of people who question whether residents of Albuquerque are safe anymore.

“Listen, crime is unacceptable in Albuquerque,” said City Council President Cynthia Borrego, who at a recent City Council candidate forum recalled the days of the past “when it was fine to go outside, go to my car.”

“Now people are living in fear, and that is totally unacceptable,” she added.

APD Sgt Michael Jones holds a briefing in the parking lot of Grace Temple missionary Baptist Church in the early afternoon before officers head out on patrol in the International District in Southeast Albuquerque. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal.)

Both violent and property crime started to escalate in the city in 2015, Borrego noted. Recently, property crimes — especially auto theft — have decreased, but violent crime remains high.

There is no simple solution to what has become the major issue in the Nov. 2 city elections. In addition to council races, Mayor Tim Keller is being challenged by Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales. Both are Democrats. Republican Eddy Aragon is also seeking the seat.

“It’s taken us this long to get where we are,” said Borrego, who represents the city’s District 5, on the West Side. “It’s going to take some time to go back.”

According to the latest data and Journal interviews:

  •  The city budget authorizes up to 1,140 sworn officers — Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina says we may need 1,200 — but as of late July, the force numbered 939. That leaves about 200 positions vacant, although 48 cadets are expected to join the ranks by the end of October.
  •  Excluding supervisors, 404 patrol officers are working the streets in uniform — 369 patrol officers and 35 problem response team officers, according to the most recent data from APD. That’s some 74 fewer patrol officers than in May 2016, according to an APD staffing plan. The percentage of patrol officers on the streets is less than half of the force, compared with 57 percent five years ago.
  •  During the first eight months of this year, 101 officers have left APD. That compares with 82 departures in 2020 and 58 officers leaving in 2019.
  •  Response times in getting officers to the most life-threatening 911 calls increased over last year. A Priority One call is taking nearly an average of 12 minutes for police to arrive on the scene, nearly two minutes longer than in 2020.

While police leaders are finding ways to transfer some police duties to civilian employees, Medina told the Journal that he is contending with officer vacancies throughout the department and that it’s not as easy as just adding more officers to patrol.

“We still don’t have a property crimes division (in terms of staffing) like we had in 2012,” Medina said. “The field is short. I wish I had more people for investigations, but we don’t have them.”

The push to get more officers in the department has been a rallying cry for decades, with previous mayors including Martin Chávez and Richard Berry also struggling to exceed 1,000. In 2016, the number of APD officers was 821.

The general trend over the past five years has been an increase in the number of officers — even reaching above 1,000 in fiscal year 2020 — but over the past year, staffing levels have dipped again.

Pictured is an officer heading out on patrol in the International District in Southeast Albuquerque. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal.)

Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, said that since Mayor Tim Keller took office, there have been more hirings than separations at the department each year.

“Considering the hiring of new cadets, laterals and sworn officers at commander and above, about 350 new sworn officers have been hired,” Gallegos said. “We invested $24 million in compensation and a new contract in 2018 that helped with recruiting, training and efforts to retain experienced officers.”

Gallegos said retirements increased in 2021 because benefits are based on the average of an employee’s highest 36 consecutive months of salary. He said that when salaries were increased in 2018, some officers delayed their retirements by three years.

Profession is vilified

Some retirements have been expected at APD, but Medina said others are leaving the state’s largest police force midway through their careers. Some go to other police agencies. Others quit the profession altogether.

“We literally had one officer who left to be a security consultant,” Medina said. “I was shocked. He had eight or 10 years in, and (we said) ‘You’re giving all that up?’ He said, ‘Yeah, my family doesn’t want me in law enforcement anymore.’ ”

Professor Maria Haberfeld, chair of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City, said that across the country law enforcement agencies had higher rates of departures in the past year than they had previously.

She said although no peer-reviewed studies have been published on exit interviews from officers leaving the profession, she believes it has to do with the rhetoric blaming law enforcement over the past year.

“I’ve studied police misconduct for over 25 years, so I’m the first one to say there are bad police officers out there ,” she said. “… But you cannot paint the entire profession as racist or, you know, incompetent … people just don’t want to be part of the profession that is vilified.”

Haberfeld said she expects that as crime increases — a phenomenon experts say is driven by a breakdown in social services during the pandemic, heightened distrust in police and an increase in gun ownership — the public will demand more law enforcement presence.

“Crime will go up,” she said. “The demand for more police will be louder rather than defunding the police, and then this will be the turning point.”

To address the problem in Albuquerque, leaders have undertaken aggressive recruiting practices in recent months, including offering sign-up bonuses of up to $15,000 to bolster the ranks.

But retention is another issue — one that hasn’t spurred similar financial incentives, although Medina hopes Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham might help with funding as part of her proposed crime fighting initiative. She wants 1,000 more law enforcement officers statewide.

However, Haberfeld warns that departments can’t just focus on quantity; they also have to look at the quality of new hires.

“We cannot just recruit based on ‘we need 100 officers,’ ” she said. “This is the source of many problems throughout the years; there were times that there were shortages and people and standards were compromised. Then years later, we are paying the price for this.”

Critics of the Albuquerque Police Department would agree with this.

About half of the officers who made headlines for shootings, alleged criminal activity or violating policies and procedures in the years leading up to the Department of Justice investigation into APD signed on from 2002 to 2009, when then-Mayor Chávez was pushing to add 100 officers each year.

Less police presence

Former City Councilor Dan Lewis, who is trying to unseat Borrego in District 9, said at a recent candidate forum that Albuquerque police should have more visibility.

“We should ensure that uniformed officers, marked police cars are proactively policing in our neighborhoods,” he said. “We should see badges everywhere we go.”

Louie Sanchez, a retired APD officer running for the District 1 City Council seat, said that when he was a field services sergeant, there were 10 to 12 patrol officers and a police service aide in a command squad.

“Now it’s so bad there’s only five to six officers assigned to a specific squad. You want the police officers out there to be visible. But I haven’t seen a police officer drive down my street in the last six, seven, eight years. When the presence of police is out there, the criminals don’t act.”

Proactive police work by patrol units should include traffic enforcement, which leads to pulling people over and checking for warrants — a strategy linked to reducing crime, Sanchez said.

But with calls for service at more than 500,000 last year, patrol officers go from call to call, responding to crime, and there’s no time to try to prevent it.

Medina also cites the “revolving door” of the criminal justice system in Bernalillo County.

“What also hurts us, is have you ever thought about the fact that we arrest people over and over, like auto theft. Those cases take a half or whole shift to process the case. Imagine if we had a criminal justice system where we arrested somebody once, maybe even twice and they stayed incarcerated?”

Arresting repeat offenders also often requires the use of force.

“So we’re not only losing officer time by having to investigate something a subsequent time,” Medina told the Journal, “we’re also losing officer time through use-of-force investigations related to that hardened criminal we have to use force on.”

Use of force by APD officers, even if warranted, triggers a detailed investigation under the city’s settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which found in 2014 that the agency had a pattern or practice of excessive force that violated the Constitution and federal law.

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