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APD’s dwindling ranks

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

The ranks of Albuquerque police officers are dwindling away – forcing APD to shuffle assignments in an effort to answer priority one calls.

Civilians will take over all crime scene forensic work, for example, so the 12 officers who do that job now can go to field services. Even the bomb squad takes calls for service one day a week. There were 878 officers – the fewest since 2001 – last week, and only 404 are field services officers, which means they patrol the streets, said Celina Espinoza, a spokeswoman for the department.

“It’s devastating,” said Shaun Willoughby, the vice president of the Albuquerque police union. “Proactive policing is gone. … Officers are going from call to call to call.”

Espinoza said community policing and proactive patrols are affected by the size of the force. “Being able to stop by on patrol and shake hands and go into a business and see what’s going on – that is being affected because we’re very busy,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s where we’re at right now.”

The police department is brainstorming different ways to efficiently use its officers for calls for service, and it is also trying to sign new recruits and get them into the police academy.

Police Chief Gorden Eden said in a statement Saturday that he has sent police officers who worked in records, the crime lab and other positions back into the field. He said officers assigned to information technology and planning assignments are also going be reassigned to law enforcement work.

“Our goal is to have police supervisors and managers where they are most needed to supervise police functions,” he said.

In addition to the bomb squad and forensics, officers who work in other specialized units have been assigned to respond to routine calls for service.

SWAT team members, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, are being sent to area commands based on call volume to work as regular patrol officers.

“We’re working together to make sure our priority one calls are taken quickly,” Espinoza said.

APD is currently more than 120 officers shy of its 1,000 authorized officers. And 32 of the department’s officers are new hires getting on-the-job training, she said.

Stephanie Lopez, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, said the situation could become even more dire because about 160 officers will become eligible for retirement this year. Additionally, she said some of the U.S. Department of Justice reforms that are supposed to be followed within months mandate officer-to-supervisor ratios, which could reduce the number of officers on patrol.

“We are crisis mode now, but it will only escalate,” the union president said.

Union officials said there is also a growing concern among the rank and file that if the number of officers continues to decline, more and more officers will be pulled from other specialized units and returned to patrol. That could make it more difficult for some officers to achieve their personal goals, which could affect morale, they said.

And Willoughby said more time-consuming and detailed police work, such as a property crime detective uncovering a crime ring or tying a string of burglaries to a single suspect, is as crucial to public safety as patrol officers.

“When you pull in resources (to patrol), you don’t have anybody following up on cases, and that’s what it takes to get criminals longer sentences,” Willoughby said.

Espinoza said that all options will be on the table as the department continues to deal with the shortage of officers, but the department is hopeful that it can fix the problem with recruiting and not more reassignments.

The city is taking several steps in an effort to keep officers on the job. It is paying bonuses of $6,000 to $12,000 to officers who are eligible to retire but commit to working for an additional year. Police have also doubled the number of days they offer physical and mental testing classes for prospective officers.

And officers who retired or became eligible for retirement in 2014 are going to be anonymously surveyed so the City Council can get a better idea as to what is causing those officers to leave.

A city-led effort to pass return-to-work legislation that would have allowed the department to hire retirees was defeated in the recent legislative session. Both the union and the Public Employee Retirement Association opposed the measure supported by Mayor Richard Berry.

“It is disappointing to hear the union leadership complain about the number of officers while at the same time fighting legislation that would have quickly solved the staffing issues,” he said in a prepared statement issued Saturday.

But he pointed out that despite the officer shortage, crime was down in Albuquerque last year.

“Our men and women are out doing great work every day,” he said in the statement. “We are consistently trying to build the ranks at APD, however we will not sacrifice quality for quantity.”