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Interim SF Police Chief Has His Work Cut Out for Him

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Rael takes reins amid high crime, low morale

Raymond J. Rael’s new job is going to come with a lot of scrutiny and criticism for the decisions he makes. But he did a very smart thing before accepting the position as interim chief of the Santa Fe Police Department.

“I called my wife,” Rael said to laughter during a City Hall news conference Wednesday afternoon. Getting the OK for his new job from his spouse was a “smart move,” noted one female in the audience.

How many smart decisions Rael, who prefers to go by Ray, will make as interim chief is up in the air. But one thing is for sure: He has his work cut out for him.

Rael, 57, a former assistant chief with Santa Fe police, was sworn in as interim chief of a department that is fractured and beset by morale issues.

Rael’s predecessor, Aric Wheeler — chief for less than two years — resigned his post on Tuesday and will be taking a captain’s position with the department.

Wheeler’s resignation came about a month after police union members voted overwhelmingly that they had “no confidence” in Wheeler or his deputy chiefs, discontent that stems from a controversial shift change that the now-former chief recently put in motion.

On Tuesday, Wheeler told City Manager Robert Romero that he was stepping down as chief — the same day that both area newspapers ran headlines about residential burglaries last year being the most the city has ever seen.

Romero said at the news conference that Wheeler came to his office Tuesday and offered to step aside. The city manager said the move surprised him.

“It was a short discussion,” Romero said. “I respected his wishes and we’re now moving forward.”

Both Rael and Mayor David Coss said Wednesday they weren’t ready yet to discuss what steps will be taken to find a permanent chief.

Wheeler did not return phone calls seeking answers as to why he decided to step aside. A city news release states that Wheeler “is taking the opportunity to step into the role as police captain as a way of devoting more time to his wife and children.”

Coss said he understood why Wheeler made the decision, noting that he has “a relatively young family” and that being a police chief “is a 24/7 thing.”

The mayor is at least glad that Wheeler is staying with the department.

“I like Chief Wheeler a lot,” he said.

Job cut out for him

But the man of the day was Rael, a Santa Fe native who graduated from Santa Fe High School and Santa Fe Community College. He served in the Marines during the Vietnam War. He was a Santa Fe cop for 21 years and was once an assistant police chief before retiring as a captain in 1999. Most recently, Rael served as the city’s compliance administrator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Coss lauded the new chief, saying, “I am greatly encouraged by his desire to build strong and professional relationships with our hardworking police officers.”

The mayor also stated in a news release that, in meeting with Rael about the position, he “reinforced the importance of keeping our community safe and implementing programs to dramatically reduce property crimes in our city.”

On Monday, the city released statistics that show the number of residential burglaries in 2010 — 876 — was a 7 percent increase from 2009 and the most the city has seen in more than 15 years.

Santa Fe has perennially been ranked among the worst in the nation, per capita, for burglaries in FBI reports.

“We apparently have a burglary issue,” Rael said. “We need to get a handle on it.”

Rael said he would concentrate the appropriate resources to deal with the issue, but admitted that “I haven’t had an opportunity to delve into statistics.”

Rael stated through the press release that he “will work with my officers to develop a comprehensive plan to increase the number of officers in our community and for taking serial burglars off the streets.”

Not lost in the praise of Rael and Wheeler was Coss’ acknowledgement that Rael takes over at a “tumultuous time” for the department. With the city facing budget woes, Wheeler had announced a change to a five-day, eight-hour shift workweek, instead of the current 10 hours a day, four days a week. Wheeler and the city said the move would cut back on overtime costs and put more cops on patrol at the same time.

But the Santa Fe Police Officers Association says that violates the collective bargaining agreement and is seeking to block the change in state District Court.

Morale problems

Coss said that the union’s pressure on Wheeler was not a reason for him stepping aside.

Rael said that he “agrees with the city manager that eight hours are much more effective,” but that he wants to communicate with officers to better deal with that workweek dispute.

Union Vice President Adam Gallegos said he is looking forward to working with the new chief to resolve that issue.

Though it’s clear that the shift change was the catalyst for the union’s “no confidence” vote against Wheeler and his deputy chiefs last month, that’s not the only source of members’ gripes. The union has alleged “ineffectiveness” by police leadership in combating crime. Internal affairs matters have also sparked dissension and, before members voted that they had no confidence in Wheeler, they upheld the same vote against Romero and Assistant City Attorney Mark Allen.

There is clearly a morale problem, a sentiment not just voiced by union members.

“The morale is not all that great,” Capt. Gerald Rivera told the Journal. “And all this change can’t help, of course.”

Capt. Tom Wiggins echoed, “There are morale issues, to be sure.”

Both Wiggins and Rivera said they are retiring soon, Wiggins in May and Rivera in June. Also, Deputy Chief Robin Contreras is expected to soon follow suit. And, on Tuesday, Lt. Gerald Solano retired from the department. Solano’s name has come up in union filings that dispute how internal affairs matters are handled.

Rivera and Wiggins made it clear that their motivations for leaving are mainly financial, a response to pending changes to the city’s sick leave pay-out policy that could adversely affect accelerated retirement benefits.

Institutional memory

But both men expressed concern that, as more commanders leave the department, experience goes with them.

“Right now, there’s an opportunity in terms of there being a lot of bright people in the department, certainly,” Wiggins said. “But there’s a huge component of maturity, experience and management skills that are lost at times like these. You lose that institutional memory.”

Staying on as deputy chief is Gillian Alessio. Billy Johnson, formerly a lieutenant, will be promoted to join Alessio as deputy chief.

Wiggins disagrees with criticism that the department isn’t doing enough about the burglary problem. Police make the arrests, he said, and that it’s up to prosecutors and the courts to handle the rest. He also said morale is affected by budget cuts hanging over officers’ heads, ones that he says the city should “triage” when deciding where to slash.

“People don’t die when grass isn’t cut in the parks,” he said.

As for Rael, he’s aware of the issues affecting the department and said he’s looking forward to tackling them.

“It comes down to conversations, discussions, and everyone being in agreement of our purpose, of our goal,” he said. “I think we’re all adults …”