BCSO ‘fully staffed’ but still losing deputies

BCSO deputies give instructions to onlookers at the scene of an active shooter situation on Locust NE on May 31, 2020. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office considers itself fully staffed, but that hasn’t insulated it from high turnover over the past year or concerns that it’s not assigning enough of its deputies to patrolling the streets.

BCSO is budgeted for 325 deputies, and it now has 315. However, there are 19 cadets in the academy.

In an interview with the Journal, Detective Aaron Velarde, the president of the Bernalillo County Deputy Sheriffs Association, said he thinks the department doesn’t have enough deputies on patrol, given the increase in crime in its jurisdiction, the large number of deputies allocated to specialty units and the increasing response times to calls.

“When you have four deputies on a shift and you get one major call, that’s going to be all four of those deputies tied up,” Velarde said. “Meanwhile, you have all these other things that are still happening, but we’re having to either pull units from other area commands to cover or there’s a significant time delay in them getting there, or they’re just going to have to wait. That’s not fair to the citizens to have to be placed in that situation when it could be prevented.”

Sheriff Manuel Gonzales, who is running for mayor, declined repeated requests from the Journal to schedule an interview, ultimately saying that neither he nor anyone else from the agency was available. His spokespeople did not respond to questions about the union president’s claims, but they did provide data and statements.

“Staffing and the quality of service we provide are always at the forefront of our mind,” wrote Deputy Joseph Montiel, a BCSO spokesman. “This is the reason why, for many years now, while other departments have struggled with staffing deficits, the Sheriff’s Office has remained fully staffed.”

Increase in departures

Over the past couple of years, the agency’s staffing level has stayed relatively constant. BCSO provided data that showed there have been from 309 to 315 deputies in the ranks since 2018.

But like other law enforcement agencies across the country, the Sheriff’s Office has had a higher number of departures in the past year than in previous years. Jayme Fuller, a BCSO spokeswoman, said 26 deputies retired and nine resigned since June 2020 — adding up to 35 deputies or 11% of the budgeted force departing. In the 2020 fiscal year, 21 deputies left, and 23 left in fiscal 2019.

Fuller cited challenges to retention in law enforcement agencies across the country, saying, “The negativity and current rhetoric surrounding law enforcement are likely having a negative impact on people willing to do the job and the quality of life for those in the profession.”

“Although, BCSO is seeing more deputies retire after many years (20+) of service rather than leaving our team for another agency or the profession altogether,” Fuller wrote in a statement. “Our high staffing levels are a positive reflection of good morale at our agency, especially considering the highly publicized rhetoric and negativity toward police. BCSO does a great job retaining our deputies and creating a culture where they feel supported by the leadership and encouraged by the many opportunities to advance here in their law enforcement careers.”

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, cautioned against comparing law enforcement agencies with one another. For instance, she said, more people could want to join a more rural sheriff’s office than a city police department simply because they are attracted to a certain type of policing. Likewise, urban agencies were more likely than smaller departments to have lost a lot of officers over the past year.

“They’re more in the spotlight in terms of, you know, having clashes with the public and demonstrations,” Haberfeld said. “The need to re-imagine our structure is primarily directed more at larger municipal departments than a department that has 10 cops.”

Haberfeld said that as crime increases across the country, the public might be inclined to call for more of a law enforcement presence.

The unincorporated area of Bernalillo County had a stark increase in crime in 2020. Data provided to the Journal from BCSO earlier this year showed there had been an increase across every crime category except for homicides — where there was one fewer. Some of the increases — such as aggravated assault and larceny — were double -digit percentages.

Federal task forces

One thing Velarde said contributes to the lack of patrol officers is the number of deputies assigned to federal task forces — 25, according to BCSO. He said he would expect an agency the size of BCSO to have one or two, but over the years the number has been steadily increasing. Operation Legend — a controversial federal initiative brought into the Albuquerque area by the administration of former President Donald Trump — relied on local and federal agencies working together on task forces.

“We had some staff meetings about it early on and voiced our concerns, and we were basically just told that that’s how things were going to have to operate for the time being,” Velarde said.

Fuller said that there are 181 deputies on the Field Services division but that around a third are assigned to specialty units — including the Community Action Team (6), Student Support (12), Traffic (5), DWI (4) and the task forces.

That leaves 116 deputies on patrol over three area commands — 50 in the south, 39 in the north and 27 in the east. She said there are 35 detectives total and about 100 more sworn staffers, including the sheriff, two undersheriffs, three deputy chiefs and “many more captains, lieutenants and sergeants that are supervisors in all the various units.”

BCSO deputies took 118,638 calls for service in 2020 — almost 18,000 fewer than the previous year. And response times for Priority 1 calls exceeded 10 minutes — with the north area clocking in at just under 11 and a half minutes from the time the call was placed to the time a deputy arrived on scene, the east clocking almost 15 and a half minutes and the south at just over 11 minutes, 45 seconds.

Velarde said he’s seeing some calls pending for longer and longer times.

“Back when I started 15 years ago, it was rare to see a call pend for more than 20 minutes,” Velarde said. “And now, I mean, we’re starting to see calls pend for, you know, 45 minutes to an hour, or sometimes over an hour.”

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