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City must not let cop shortage to continue

September 2, 2018

Santa Fe is “bleeding out officers.” At least that’s how officers attending a Santa Fe City Council meeting last week are describing the situation. Cops are quitting to work at higher-paying departments. Others are retiring. Recruitment is hard and getting tougher. Meanwhile, the police department is short some 26 officers, about 15 percent of the force, and leaders predict more vacancies to come in the next few weeks.

Now, trouble recruiting and retaining police officers is nothing new for Santa Fe. The job is a tough one and takes a special kind of man or woman to fill it. Add to that high standards — not everyone can meet the physical requirements, for example — and the reality that Santa Fe is expensive, and it’s easy to see why keeping the force at full strength is difficult.

But now, the city is nearing a flat-out emergency, with low staffing levels making it more difficult to solve crimes and less safe for officers on call. Mayor Alan Webber, new City Manager Erik Litzenberg, Chief Andrew Padilla and other city leaders need to develop immediate and long-term strategy to avert a shortage so severe that both cops and the public are unsafe.

The mayor has said encouraging words about putting together a plan to boost incentives, with affordable housing and signing bonuses part of the package. Litzenberg, who knows a thing or two about recruiting top talent — he was the fire chief, after all — will be actively involved.

However, it is important that city leaders let the public know — and soon — how they plan to address the situation. Lay out immediate, short-term solutions to keep officers in place and then plan long-term strategies. Make no mistake, the best incentive will be figuring out a way to put more money in officers’ pockets. With cops in Albuquerque starting at $29 an hour and officers in Santa Fe at $19, the city has a lot of ground to make up. The bottom line is that, yes, money matters.

After all, city leaders have had no trouble sweetening the pot to recruit top administrators. Litzenberg, for example, makes more money than his predecessor; the new city manager brings in $155,000 annually, with a raise to $170,000 planned in 2019. Former city manager Brian Snyder took home $145,660, by contrast. Many other top managers are making more than their predecessors, with the percentage of increase depending on the job. All told, though, the city is paying $73,000 more in annual pay for bosses. Of course, we all remember that citizens voted to make the mayor’s job full time, increasing the pay for the position from $29,700 for a part-time mayor to $110,000.

To be clear, we don’t begrudge people their pay. Don’t count us among those who rail at government and civil servants feeding at the public trough. Managing a city, its finances and its properties, passing smart laws and leading people — all of those are complicated, time-consuming jobs. (However, we continue to maintain that we don’t need all the top bosses; we’re waiting to see how Mayor Webber plans to streamline top city management. All the savings from consolidating six-figure jobs could be put in a pool to pay police officers more. Budgets show priorities, after all.)

First, find more money, both for officers already working and those Santa Fe hopes to hire. Yes, add housing incentives and bonuses — but most of all, pay more in base salary, and not just to new recruits but to cops who have been here a while. Over the long term — and here’s where Litzenberg’s expertise in recruiting will be valuable — Santa Fe must do a better job developing home-grown officers. We have written about this before, but we don’t mind the repetition. Establish criminal justice tracks at one or both of the high schools, matching curriculum to what well-trained officers need and to courses at Santa Fe Community College. Offer scholarships to young people, whether from Santa Fe or elsewhere, who pledge to work in law enforcement. Grow police officers who don’t mind living in and serving Santa Fe.

Think about law enforcement more broadly, too. Would Santa Fe — both the city and county — be better served with a combined city/county public safety force? Perhaps one agency, working in the city and in rural areas, would be able to combine administrative functions, leaving more money for officers. What’s the best, most efficient way to deliver public safety services and keep enough cops and deputies working to ensure public safety? We need to have those conversations.

The Legislature has its role, too, and should consider (again) a law to make it easier for retired police officers to go back to work if they choose. Staffing shortages are a statewide problem, after all.

Public safety is one of the most important — if not the most important — jobs that a government must do. A police force cannot operate at its best with chronic staff shortages, overworked officers and rapid turnover. Find money for raises. Hire officers. Put in place long-term, strategic recruiting — including perks for cops who choose to live in Santa Fe, the community they protect and serve. Stop the bleeding, now and in the future.

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