As Albuquerque’s police force continues to shrink, Mayor Richard Berry said Friday that he’s willing to consider offering bonuses to lure officers away from smaller departments in New Mexico or elsewhere.
In an interview, the mayor said it’s a “last option,” but an idea worth considering after the failure of state legislation aimed at getting retired officers to return to work.
“We have to do what we have to do,” Berry said. “It’s a darn shame you’d have to cannibalize from other departments because you can’t get a common-sense bill through the Senate.”
The mayor said he expects to try again next year to win approval for legislation that allows retired officers to return to work without having to put their pensions on hold. Berry, a Republican and former state representative, has tried repeatedly to win approval from the Legislature for the idea, or something similar.
Critics, however, dismiss the proposal as “double dipping” because officers could draw both a salary and pension at the same time. Opponents also suggest the city invest in younger officers.
“We need to get more cops on the street,” Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, said earlier this week. “But my personal preference is to get people who are going to be there for the next 20 years.”
Unlike traditional double dipping, the legislation was crafted to avoid harming the financial health of retirement funds. Officers would not be allowed to continue to accrue higher pensions after returning to work, and the city would have made payments into the fund. Albuquerque and more than 30 other cities around the state supported the proposal.
It’s clear Albuquerque won’t have the retiree option anytime soon. Just this month, the size of the city police force sank to 814 officers, down 26 percent from the 1,099 officers employed in mid-2010.
The understaffing comes at a critical time for APD. The department is carrying out a series of reforms required by a settlement agreement with federal investigators.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice found that APD had a pattern of violating people’s rights through the use of force. The investigation also described a “culture of aggression.”
City Council President Dan Lewis, a Republican, said APD’s top brass needs to build a better relationship with the police union. There are plenty of ways to boost the size of the force, he said, including recruitment and retention bonuses and the funding of more cadet classes.
“We have the ideas,” Lewis said. “We just need good leadership. We need someone leading that department who feels like his job is on the line. Get the numbers up or get out of the way.”
Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque police union, said poor morale and other factors have contributed to the staffing shortage. For one thing, he said, the city should increase pay for mid- and late-career officers to bring them in line with salaries offered by other police departments.
And it should happen soon, Willoughby said, before another retirement wave hits the city in June, when the fiscal year ends.
“It’s time to invest in public safety in Albuquerque,” he said.
But City Councilor Isaac Benton, a Democrat and chairman of the council budget committee, said that more money isn’t necessarily the right answer.
“We have done a lot to increase the rank-and-file pay,” he said, “and I don’t know how far we can go down that road.”
And the federally mandated reforms, he said, might actually attract officers.
“I see that process as being very positive,” he said.
Councilor Pat Davis, a Democrat and former police officer at the University of New Mexico and in Washington, D.C., said it will take time to rebuild the department.
But APD is starting to see the results of an improved recruiting strategy, he said, resulting in larger classes of cadets – a good sign for the department’s future.
Davis opposed the return-to-work legislation, which he described as a “Band-Aid” solution.
“I don’t think – long term – that’s the way we get APD back on its feet,” he said.
A recent staffing analysis estimated Albuquerque needs 1,000 or more officers.
The bill passed the state House, where Republicans hold a majority, but didn’t make it through the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. The legislative session ended this week.
Berry said Friday that recruiting from other departments isn’t an obvious answer, given that “I have friends and colleagues” trying to take care of their own communities.
“It’s what I’d consider my last option,” he said, “but it’s on the table.”
Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull, a Republican, said the possibility of Albuquerque recruiting his officers “doesn’t worry me terribly” because his city is a great place to work.
“We have a really strong police force up here,” he said, and “our officers are very dedicated to Rio Rancho.”