Albuquerque is not an anomaly when it comes to a shortage of sworn police officers. Crime nationwide is on the increase, with officer shortages taking some of the blame.
Police officials and staffing experts say the shortage is in part a result of increasing retirements of officers who joined in the 1980s and 1990s, when forces expanded during the war on drugs, and during the Great Recession. In addition, highly publicized police-involved shootings across the country and rising unrest over racial and discrimination issues have altered some public perceptions of police officers. Throw in changes in pension programs and this picture emerges: Things are tough all over.
Police departments around the country, including big cities like Houston and Dallas, are hundreds of officers short. Portland, Ore., which has a slightly larger population than Albuquerque, has about 60 vacancies and doesn’t expect to reach its authorized 950 officers until 2025.
The Albuquerque Police Department, at fewer than 850 sworn officers, is about 15 percent below its budgeted force of 1,000. So is Phoenix, but that city is rebounding and should be back to full force in a few years.
Police officials here are considering recruiting from other agencies, making lateral academies shorter and taking another run at return-to-work legislation that would allow some officers approaching retirement to keep their pensions and come back to the ranks for a few years. So far, state lawmakers haven’t gone along with that idea, despite clear evidence the proposal won’t hurt pension funds. But they should when they return to Santa Fe in January.
APD Chief Gorden Eden also wants to free up officers from responding to low-priority calls so they can focus on more serious crimes, and he is encouraging people to report minor crimes online. He has a cellphone app in the works.
Last year Eden announced an initiative that would transfer some 9-5 officers based at the Downtown headquarters to area commands to work on community policing teams. That was poorly received by the union, which apparently feels officers earned the right to their current assignments.
APD is still planning a pilot program in one area command anyway.
There is a clear need for new approaches – some of which aren’t that new. Alarm companies need to take responsibility for making sure an alarm is real before APD is called. Camera enforcement at intersections and on freeways will be a must. We will never have enough cops to nail the kamikazes on the freeways, and it’s dangerous to do so. It doesn’t take much driving around town to realize that red lights are treated as a suggestion at best, a signal to floor it at worst.
Meanwhile, APD hasn’t helped itself with tactics like undercover reverse drug stings targeting the homeless.
Implementing the consent decree with the Department of Justice to ensure constitutional policing and getting the ranks closer to fully staffed are two of Eden’s biggest challenges.
Lowering the bar for our police department isn’t an option; re-evaluating priorities and thinking out of the “how we’ve always done it” box have to be.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.