Santa Fe police’s criminal intelligence unit keeps eye on crime

December 3, 2018

Tucked away on the second floor of the Santa Fe Police Department headquarters, two detectives and a criminal intelligence officer are keeping tabs on the city.

Computer monitors in the small room outnumber officers 5-to-1, and seven flat-screen TVs flank the walls, all displaying a steady stream of local and national news, police dispatch calls and surveillance video.

This inconspicuous place is the Santa Fe Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence and Analysis Center — the hub of a concept cops call “intelligence-led policing.”

The basics are pretty simple: Officers in the unit work in tandem with the department’s patrol officers and criminal investigators to monitor and analyze crime.

Their tools are anything but traditional: The three officers in the center keep watch over surveillance cameras, social media and 21st-century technology — options that supplement the traditional shoe-leather policing that defined their profession for decades.

Police administrators say the intelligence center has helped the force evolve — employing modern means to fight modern crime. Team members say their role goes beyond just the tech: The work allows them to build partnerships that help keep Santa Fe and surrounding areas safe.

“We’re catching up with the times,” Deputy Chief Robert Vasquez said. “We’re doing stuff that’s modernized. That’s needed.”

Vasquez started the intelligence unit at the behest of former police Chief Patrick Gallagher in April 2017. Nineteen months later, the department cites recent successes — such as helping bring charges against a drug trafficker, plus identifying suspected criminal groups and suspects in violent crimes — as evidence that it’s time and money well spent.

“It’s been a great asset to the police department,” said Chief Andrew Padilla. “They do great behind-the-scenes work, working with our patrol division when they need to research or locate someone … and obviously working with our investigations division.”

The unit is staffed by three men, each handpicked by Vasquez: Detectives Casey Salazar and John Miles, and criminal intelligence Officer Christopher Abbo.

“Their way of thinking is unique; the way they analyze things is unique; the way they process information is unique,” Vasquez said of the people in the unit. “Obviously, we have a lot of smart detectives, but these three individuals not only had a unique way of thinking, they also had the passion for taking on a concept fairly new within policing.”

While criminal investigators work crime scenes and gather information through interviews, the criminal intelligence staff comb through video surveillance, monitor social media such as Facebook and use software to gather digital information from cellphones.

“The majority of crimes now have some digital component,” Salazar said. “Now, you have to do your traditional investigation, but you also have to do the digital side.”

With the formation of the criminal intelligence unit, Salazar said, “we’ve caught up to where we should have been years ago.”

The officers use an advanced set of tools, ranging from cameras to mapping technology.

For surveillance, the unit has both overt and covert cameras around town. Officers use towering mobile surveillance cameras mounted on trailers to monitor and attempt to deter crime in problem sites.

One of the trailers, for example, was set up near the De Vargas skatepark in September following reports of two stabbings in a week. A security guard nearby told The New Mexican the conspicuous apparatus had a noticeable impact on loitering and nighttime activity in the area.

Surveilling the schools

Officers also have live access to the camera systems at Santa Fe High School and Capital High.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García said the district gave police access to the school surveillance cameras following February’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

“If the police department felt that it would help them keep our students and our schools safe, I trust their judgment on this,” García said. “In a time when it comes to student safety, and we’re concerned about violence on our campuses, I’m going to defer to them in terms of student safety and in terms of what they need to do their job.”

School board President Steven Carrillo said he was shocked to learn about the police department’s camera access at the high schools. Three other school board members also said they were not aware police had access to school camera systems.

“This has caught me completely by surprise,” Carrillo said. “I don’t believe this was ever brought before the board and, in my opinion, and I believe I can speak for the others, something of this nature would demand board support before being enacted.”

Carrillo said he plans to discuss the matter at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

Police don’t routinely monitor the in-school cameras, Vasquez said. But should the schools contact police about a threat or a lockdown, the surveillance capability allows officers to immediately look for suspicious activity in or around the school.

Vasquez said the cameras recently came in handy when police were called about an alleged road-rage incident in which a Capital High School student was accused of brandishing a gun. While patrol officers responded to the incident, officers in the intel center pulled up footage of the Capital High parking lot to monitor for any concerning activity.

Intel officers were able to see the vehicle in question pull into the property, and they directed patrol cars to the student’s location, Vasquez said.

In the end, the report was a false alarm. Police determined the juvenile didn’t have any weapons.

“It just goes to show that we were able to respond with much more efficiency with the camera system and first responders going to that location,” Vasquez said.

Abbo said the unit helps community members install and set up their own camera systems. Such video can make it easier for officers to obtain evidence when a crime is committed — as was the case when police used business surveillance camera video to investigate the September homicide of 64-year-old Richard Milan near Airport Road.

“If something major happens, we want to be able to go somewhere and not worry about nobody knowing [the video] system,” Abbo said.

The department’s advanced software helps improve the quality of video footage, crack cellphone passcodes or map a phone’s geographical location using cell tower data, if officers have a search warrant signed by a judge.

Court documents show the team used this approach to gather information about the July killing of respected Santa Fe businessman Robert Romero in a neighborhood near Herb Martinez Park.

Detective John Miles filed a search warrant in First Judicial District Court in early August, asking a judge for access to data from cellphone towers near Romero’s home. In the warrant application, he explained the data could lead investigators to a suspect.

“Most criminals will have a cellphone on their person when they commit criminal offenses,” the search warrant affidavit reads. “… When a cellular device communicates with the cellular tower, it can show that the device was in a particular area at a particular time.”

A judge granted the search warrant request, and Miles collected relevant information about calls, text messages, cellphone account numbers and owner identifications from four different wireless carriers, according to the warrant. Police have not yet identified a suspect in Romero’s death.

Concerns about privacy

Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, said the unit’s use of advanced police technology begs a few considerations. Simonson said it’s critical police only use the technology when they have a defensible reason to think someone is involved in criminal activity and “not broadly conduct surveillance in the hopes they may turn up evidence.” Surveillance, Simonson said, can have a chilling effect on people exercising their First Amendment rights.

He added that departments that use this kind of technology should have policies that strictly govern its use and outline what should happen if officers use it improperly.

“Some of these technologies — and I wouldn’t say all, but some — do have a legitimate crime-fighting purpose,” Simonson said. “The important factor there is that the department has actual, comprehensive policies and rules for using that technology to minimize the impact on innocent subjects, people who are not engaged in crime.”

Vasquez said these policies were written before the unit was officially launched. Santa Fe police adapted the International Association of Chiefs of Police model policy on how to use criminal intelligence, and the unit abides by federal guidelines for operating criminal intelligence systems, he said.

“We definitely respect the privacy of citizens and we abide by the privacy policy set forth by federal mandate. We can’t use these tools unless we have reasonable suspicion or probable cause,” Vasquez said. “The policy is very important. We can’t just operate this kind of sensitive equipment without it.”

Stephen Aarons, a Santa Fe defense attorney, said he’s glad to hear the police department is employing these kinds of techniques. Camera footage, Facebook messages and cellphone data are the kind of information that helps both prosecutors and defense attorneys get to the truth, he said.

“I didn’t know about this new unit, but I certainly applaud that we need it, because otherwise, we start speculating and making mistakes based on the lack of evidence,” Aarons said. “It helps both sides: It helps them catch the bad guy, and sometimes [it shows] somebody wasn’t there at one time, or whatever.”

For Vasquez and other officers in the criminal intelligence center, the goal is to be a regional resource.

As word about the center has spread, Vasquez said, other law enforcement agencies have asked Santa Fe police employees for help.

Lt. Diego Lucero, who oversees criminal investigations for the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, said the intelligence center has been of assistance whenever deputies need additional resources for phone forensics or intelligence on suspected criminals.

The unit, he said, “is definitely a great asset in Santa Fe; it’s something we didn’t have before here.”

Lucero and Vasquez said the police department and sheriff’s office have been in discussion about possibly stationing a sheriff’s detective inside the intel center, for easy access to the investigative tools.

That collaboration is helpful for Santa Fe police, too, Detective Miles said, because it helps the local force strengthen its network across jurisdictions.

“It’s about: ‘How can we share knowledge and get better at what we’re doing?’ ” he said. “It’s better for the community if we can come together and work effectively. It’s a team effort all around.”

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