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Officer shortage slows response time in Santa Fe

October 1, 2018

In the world of law enforcement, they say every second counts.

In the city of Santa Fe, those seconds are turning into minutes.

Police response timesare starting to slip as the Santa Fe Police Department continues to grapple with a shortage of officers, some of whom are leaving Santa Fe for higher-paying jobs in Albuquerque and elsewhere.

While the department’s struggle to recruit and retain officers has been an ongoing conversation at City Hall, response-time statistics show there are real-life consequences.

“Several weeks ago, I was working graveyard, and I saw calls that were pending since one o’clock in the afternoon,” said police Sgt. Chris Reynosa, a former Sandoval County sheriff’s deputy who joined the police department in Santa Fe about a decade ago.

“I came in at 8:30 at night and there were like 25, 30 calls pending,” he said. “That was because of staffing.”

Response times for all categories of calls — from low to high priority — have gone up since 2017, according to police documents.

For Priority 1 calls, which are the most serious and require immediate attention, such as a shooting or a home invasion, response times have increased by about two minutes since last year.

Documents show that it used to take officers on average about 12 minutes from the time someone picked up the phone and called for help to the time an officer arrived at their door. Now, it’s taking about 14 minutes.

The biggest increase has been between the time that a 911 operator answers a call and the time it takes to dispatch an officer. Most Priority 1 calls require at least two officers.

“The increase in the ‘call start to dispatch’ is the fact that we have a reduction in force,” said Ken Martinez, director of the Santa Fe Regional Emergency Communications Center.

“They don’t have as many officers on the street right now as they probably need or would like to have,” he said. “In the interest of officer safety, we need to make sure that we wait until we have appropriate resources to be able to send to the call.”

In a follow-up email, Martinez said 911 operators aren’t responsible for the delay.

“I am not aware of any issue within the dispatch center that would delay or prevent the operators from getting the calls out to the units in a timely fashion,” he wrote. “As quickly as we can ascertain the chief complaint and identify available resources (officers), the call is dispatched. The key contributing factor to any increase in dispatch time is the fact that the city police department is so short on officers right now. We can’t dispatch a call if we don’t have enough officers available to dispatch it to.”

Deputy Chief Ben Valdez said the department, which is budgeted for 177 uniformed officers, had 30 vacancies as of last week.

While an officer shortage is affecting response times, Valdez said police also are seeing an increase in calls for service, which are up by about 6 percent this year.

“The need for police services is going up,” he said. “If demand is going up, we need to have the resources available to go out there and provide that service.”

In the meantime, Valdez said the department is working on ways to reduce response times. One way is by encouraging people to file reports online, such as a report of a missing cellphone. Such calls are time consuming and don’t necessarily require the presence of a police officer, he said.

The department also is assigning officers to certain areas of the city.

“If you have someone in that area and a call comes in within that area, that shortens the response time because they’re in that geographical area,” he said.

Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber said he is working on a “comprehensive action plan” that includes more pay for police.

“I’ve been sitting with our finance director, Mary McCoy, to look at ways that we can increase pay for police officers in both the short term and in the long run so that we are able to demonstrate our appreciation not only in ways that are handshakes and thank yous but also a better paycheck,” he said.

“There are things that we can do immediately if we can find savings and apply them directly to a police pay bump,” Webber continued, adding he plans to do a six-month budget review to see if there are opportunities to make changes.

Webber said he’s spoken with Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and his chief of staff “to talk about things that Albuquerque and Santa Fe can do collaboratively to grow the overall number of people who want to go into policing.”

Webber met with police officers and their families two weeks ago to hear concerns and said he convened a meeting last week with city and school officials and representatives from the private sector “to talk about a shared approach toward recognizing that recruiting police officers and appreciating police officers.”

However, he acknowledged, “None of that changes the fact that we have to find a way to pay our police officers more.”

While response times are slipping, police say the safety of the community isn’t in jeopardy.

Police are simply prioritizing calls, including the most urgent.

“It’s like triage — which one is the worst?” said Reynosa, the police sergeant.

Reynosa said the department’s staffing shortage means lower-priority calls will take longer to answer.

“It might take a little bit longer,” Reynosa said. “But we will be there.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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