Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Democratic and Republican city councilors alike said Tuesday that the plan to reorganize Albuquerque’s police force is a promising one.
But the vice president of the police union expressed serious reservations about the idea.
“It’s a surprise to us,” Shaun Willoughby of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association said in an interview. “We have more questions than we do answers.”
The mixed reaction comes after Mayor Richard Berry and Police Chief Gorden Eden this week announced a plan to overhaul APD’s command structure and send at least 80 more officers into the field to work out of neighborhood command centers rather than Downtown offices.
The plan would give officers a more visible presence in Albuquerque neighborhoods and on the interstates – both to deter crime and make it easier for people to interact with police, supporters say. It also could allow officers to respond to calls more quickly, reversing a trend of longer response times as staffing has fallen in recent years.
But Willoughby contends there’s a downside to decentralization. Officers in one part of the city might not realize what their colleagues are doing in another part of town – a problem if one criminal is tied to crimes all over Albuquerque, he said.
“You’re losing your ability to track your repeat offenders,” Willoughby said. “Once you lose all of this expertise (in centralized units), the ball is definitely going to be dropped.”
Eden, in any case, says the reorganization will strengthen communication.
His plan is based on a staffing analysis by a national consultant, Alexander Weiss, a retired professor and former police sergeant. The study was commissioned as part of a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which found last year that APD had a pattern of violating people’s rights through the use of force.
Weiss said the Police Department needs about 1,000 officers to handle its workload, a 20 percent increase over the 831 officers now employed. A greater share of officers also need to be working in the field rather than stationed Downtown in specialized units, he said.
“This is a really important step for the community,” Berry, a Republican, said Tuesday as the plan was announced at APD headquarters.
City councilors reached by the Journal on Tuesday offered a positive appraisal of the plan. But they also acknowledged that it may be difficult to reach the 1,000-officer staffing level recommended by a national consultant – whose analysis influenced the reorganization plan.
“I think this is all nice in theory, but it’ll be a big task,” City Council President Dan Lewis, a Republican, told the Journal. “It’ll take a lot of work.”
City Councilor Pat Davis, a Democrat and former police officer, said the 1,000-officer plan is “doable.”
The city already sets aside enough money to employ that many officers, though it’s been about three years since 1,000 officers were actually on the payroll.
“We will all be happy to see more officers in our area commands,” Davis said in a written statement, “and the prospect of returning to neighborhood-based policing teams is a real step forward for our city.”
Councilor Isaac Benton, a Democrat, said he’s pushed for years for more neighborhood- and community-based policing.
“With the pressure of the settlement,” Benton said, “I’m hopeful that the will is there” to really get more officers into the field.
Councilor Diane Gibson, also a Democrat, described Eden’s plan as “definitely a step in the right direction.”
Councilor Trudy Jones, a Republican, said the plan matches some of the priorities she’s heard from officers herself – that the department needs more officers in the field. But she cautioned that it will take time to build up the staffing.
“This is not an overnight fix on any of this,” she said.
Councilor Ken Sanchez, a Democrat, said the ideas in Eden’s plan aren’t necessarily new. But the city abandoned community-based policing decades ago when there weren’t enough officers, he said.
Sanchez said he likes that Eden wants to flatten the command structure, bolstering the ranks of front-line supervisors, such as sergeants.
“If we’ve got the officers to do it, I think the plan will work,” Sanchez said.
Several councilors said it will take cooperation from the police union to fully carry out the plan.
Berry contends that changes to the state pension system have contributed to the decline in officers, and he is asking the Legislature to authorize a “return-to-work” program that would allow retired officers to rejoin the force without putting their pensions on hold.
Critics say the double dipping would harm the financial health of state pension funds. Berry insists that isn’t the case, and that he’s open to compromise on what form the program would take.
The mayor estimates Albuquerque could reach 1,000 officers within two years if return-to-work legislation is approved.
The idea, in any case, has failed in past legislative sessions after meeting stiff resistance from pension fund officials.
The Legislature meets for a 30-day session, starting next month.