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APD shrinking; Berry reveals incentive plan

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Dinelli, Heh call for leadership overhaul

The number of sworn officers in Albuquerque’s police force has fallen 15 percent over the last three years, according to figures provided by the city.

But with an election just 50 days away, talk of what to do about it is certainly on the rise.

In an interview Friday, Mayor Richard Berry outlined a plan to bolster the Police Department, building on a proposal from three city councilors last week. All four – Berry and Councilors Isaac Benton, Don Harris and Dan Lewis – are up for re-election Oct. 8.

Like the council legislation, which the Berry administration also worked on, the mayor’s plan calls for an across-the-board pay hike of 2.5 percent for police officers, in addition to the reinstatement of retention bonuses and the addition of other incentives. Details depend on union negotiations.

HEH: Would drop college-class requirements

HEH: Would drop college-class requirements

BERRY: Grow force without compromising standards

BERRY: Grow force without compromising standards

DINELLI: Will “take years to rebuild this department”

DINELLI: Will “take years to rebuild this department”

Berry also wants to go beyond that by seeking approval from the state Legislature for a plan that would provide financial incentives to encourage officers to delay retirement beyond 20 years – when significant PERA benefits kick in – and stay on an extra five years. The move could boost the police force by perhaps 50 officers initially and by 100 officers within 18 months, city officials said.

His opponents in the fall election, former Deputy City Attorney Pete Dinelli and retired police Sgt. Paul Heh, said Friday that Berry’s proposal is too little too late.

“It’s politics,” Heh said about the timing of Berry’s proposal.

Dinelli said the mayor “should have taken corrective steps long ago.”

Berry, for his part, said the improving economy has provided the city with more budget flexibility at this time.

“I can’t just stop being mayor because it’s election season,” he said.

Berry said he has other incentives in mind, such as allowing cadets to draw pay in non-officer positions while they wait for an academy class to start.

The council legislation authorizes about $2.4 million in extra funding for the Police Department.

Berry didn’t immediately provide an estimate of how much his incentive package would cost but said the city could afford it by using the council’s proposed allocation and other budget savings.

Berry said his goal is to expand the police force without compromising the standards for hiring.

“We’ve raised the bar to get into the Albuquerque Police Academy,” Berry said, “and I think that’s the right thing to do.”

‘Catch up’

Dinelli, who served in the administration of Berry’s predecessor, Mayor Martin Chávez, said the latest proposals are simply attempts to “catch up to where we were three and half years ago.”

The Berry administration reduced salaries for officers and other employees in 2010, a move Berry says was necessary to balance the budget amid a recession without raising taxes or cutting services.

Dinelli said the ideas discussed by the mayor and council are a “first baby step in a mile-long journey. It’s going to take years to rebuild this department.”

He said the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into APD is hurting recruitment.

In November, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation into whether APD has a pattern of violating people’s civil rights, specifically through officers’ use of force, and whether the department sufficiently polices its officers.

He favors replacing much or all of APD’s top brass, which he says would improve morale and recruitment. He also proposes reorganizing the department so more officers would be assigned to responding to calls full time.

Dinelli said a factor is “the low morale within the department from the leadership.”

Heh also supports replacing the leadership.

Heh also said he would drop college-class requirements for officers and add $15,000 annual bonuses for officers who postpone retirement.

Improving the department in general will help recruitment by word of mouth, he said.

“As soon as anybody can retire, they retire,” Heh said. “They’ll do anything. They don’t want to work there.”

Fewer officers

It’s clear the size of the police force is smaller now than it once was.

Figures released by the city show the number of sworn officers climbed to 1,099 in June 2010 but has fallen to 939 officers this month, a difference of 15 percent.

About 415 of those officers are assigned to “Field Services” and respond to calls full-time, though officers in other units also respond to calls, Police Chief Allen Banks said.

Berry, Heh and Dinelli agree the decline in officers is at least partly due to changes in benefits from the Public Employee Retirement Association. Even talk of reducing PERA benefits prompted some officers to retire, city officials say.

Berry said his administration has increased admission standards at the police academy, which has dampened the number of new officers.

He maintains officer pay is still among the best in the region. The city cut officers’ pay about 2.4 percent on average in 2010, but that came after a series of increases.

A patrol officer, first class, now makes about $52,374 a year after graduation from the academy.

That’s enough to put Albuquerque ahead of Oklahoma City and Phoenix, for example, but behind Salt Lake City and Colorado Springs, according to figures distributed by Berry.

Nevertheless, academy classes have been small lately. The current class has about 10 cadets, Banks said.

The city budget includes enough money for 1,100 officers. Berry has never committed to having any particular number of officers, unlike his predecessor, Chávez, who made growing the department’s sworn police force a priority.

Dinelli served as chief public safety officer and deputy city attorney under Chávez.

Berry often says the city simply needs the number of officers required to get the job done, and that crime statistics say the department is succeeding. He points out that the yearly crime rates reported for 2010-12 are the three lowest in the city over the last 20 years.

Crime in Albuquerque has steadily trended downward since 1997, with decreases nearly every year since then, matching national trends generally.

Berry’s opponents, meanwhile, have described APD as a department in “meltdown.”

The department has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, partly over the number of people shot and killed by officers.