Recruiting cops will take planning, innovation

December 16, 2018

Isolated in Santa Fe and even New Mexico as a whole, it is sometimes easy to forget that what happens here likely could be happening elsewhere. Take, for example, the difficulty Santa Fe is having recruiting police officers. We know departments all across the state are shorthanded, but it turns out this is a nationwide problem.

America has a cop shortage, and it’s getting worse.

That means that cities like Santa Fe will have to work harder and smarter to find officers to do the hard jobs of patrolling our neighborhoods, preventing crime, keeping streets safe and arresting bad guys. Earlier this month, the Santa Fe Police Department announced the hire of 14 new officers. That’s impressive. Yet after the hires, the department still has 20 vacancies.

It will be difficult to keep up with street crime — muggings, armed robberies and the like — if there aren’t enough officers to fill shifts. Covering all shifts is difficult. Other areas fall short, too, and important information is not gathered.

Last month, reporter Sami Edge told us that despite what appears to be an increase in gun crimes, we don’t know that for sure. Why? Because Santa Fe does not regularly track gun crimes. A crime analyst whose job it was to sift through data — track guns used in crime, for example — has been doing administrative duties within the force, according to Deputy Chief Robert Vasquez.

Basic weapons information is collected for the FBI as part of the department’s monthly crime reports. There, the Santa Fe Police Department tells the national crime fighting unit how many assaults, robberies or homicides were committed using a firearm. Officers also report how many people were arrested on suspicion of either unlawfully possessing or carrying guns.

That’s fine, so far as it goes. But the current tracking system won’t tell investigators what areas of town are reporting more gun crimes, or whether criminals with guns are young or old. Information isn’t gathered consistently, either. That’s necessary, for example, to help track down ways teenagers or felons obtain guns illegally. The department needs the people to do these jobs, as well as take to the streets, where we need their eyes and ears the most.

As we have said before, recruiting is going to be difficult. Santa Fe is competing against police forces in Rio Rancho and Albuquerque, as well as the New Mexico State Police or even the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office. Cost of living is cheaper in other cities, and eventually, officers can tire of the commute from Albuquerque or Rio Rancho. We have long recommended the city put in place policies that would help both grow and recruit officers who want to live in Santa Fe. These officers would know the people they serve in a way that commuters may not.

A recent announcement from Mayor Alan Webber’s office, as well as the continuing shortage of officers, reminds us that opportunity exists if we create it. Carmen Gonzales, a noted educator with experience at community colleges and New Mexico State University, is generously donating her time as the mayor’s volunteer education adviser. The idea is to coordinate between the city and Santa Fe Public Schools to better serve kids and families.

While the news release announcing her appointment identifies many excellent opportunities for collaboration between the city and the schools — summer programs, computer literacy, mentorships, fitness, housing, locations of schools and more — we have yet another suggestion. Gonzales could work with school officials to identify areas of study for criminal justice, setting up training starting in high school for young people who want to become officers.

Linking those classes with programs already offered at Santa Fe Community College could help Santa Fe grow its own officers, just as the medical academy at Capital High School is producing young people ready and able to enter health careers. This is a long-term effort but one that would produce home-grown officers, people with a commitment to this city.

Recruiting police officers over the next decade is going to take commitment, planning and innovation. Recent National Public Radio reports talk of how departments across the nation are falling short in recruitment efforts. NPR reports that, “Since 2013, the total number of working sworn officers has fallen by about 23,000. The number of officers per capita is down even more sharply, from 2.42 per 1,000 residents in 1997 to 2.17 officers per 1,000 in 2016.” These are U.S. Department of Justice statistics.

In Indiana, the Seattle police force has put up billboards trying to recruit officers from Indianapolis. The “poaching” of officers from one force to another — across the country — is being conducted more aggressively as fewer young people go into policing and more career officers retire.

That’s the context in which the city of Santa Fe must recruit. Pay more, yes, when money is available. Find ways to make housing affordable. Improve working conditions. And start growing our own.

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