Even as videos of officer-involved shootings and stories of forced rectal exams on drug suspects make national headlines, officials at the New Mexico Law Enforcement Training Academy plan to reduce peace officer cadets’ basic training time by more than 25 percent.

On Monday, 60 cadets, including 18 recruits from the Santa Fe Police Department and two from the Santa Fe County Sheriff's office, are scheduled to begin four months of training before they earn their law enforcement credentials, swear an oath, and pin on a shield. But the training program for those men and women will be six weeks shorter than the academy's last graduating class.

An SFR investigation has discovered the 650 hours law-enforcement cadets will receive is less than half the 1,600 hours that the state requires cosmetology students to spend in specialized schools before they're eligible to take a mandatory licensing exam. Even barber students complete 1,200 training hours of basic training.

Estheticians, who apply makeup and pluck eyebrows, spend 600 hours earning their New Mexico licenses.

"I don't know a lot about barber schools, but from Day 1 our program is intense," says Law Enforcement Academy Director Jack Jones.

It may be, but SFR's investigation also found that the 65 hours cadets spend in high stress firearm shooting scenarios, and eight hours in Taser training, is less than the 75 hours that barber students spend studying bacteria strains and learning how to sanitize their scissors, combs and work stations.

While jurisdictions have the option of running their own training academy (and places like Albuquerque and Bernalillo County do), many peace officers only get academy training from the state. New Mexico laws even allows cops to patrol the streets with a gun and badge long before earning their formal credentials. Commissioned officers may to work up to 12 months before they're required to enter the academy or lose their job.

"It's more for the rural towns. It gives them the opportunity to hire a guy and make sure they're what they need for their community while they're waiting to get into the academy," says Jones. "There hasn't been an issue with it in the past."

But Jones is uncomfortable with commissioned officers who haven't been to any kind of school being issued a gun and a badge "out there making traffic stops."

"What is the liability there?" he asks.

The new 16-week program has widespread support from members of the New Mexico Association of Chiefs of Police and the New Mexico Sheriffs' Association. Curriculum changes, the top cops claim, were long overdue and still accomplish the goals of preparing cadets to serve their communities.

Planning for the shorter course, which costs taxpayers almost $5,000 per cadet, began in July 2011 with three primary goals: optimize students' time, reduce training redundancies and eliminate some administrative code rules that used to require instructors to teach obsolete laws.

"This was not a knee-jerk reaction, it was a process," Department of Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Gorden Eden told New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board members during a rule change hearing last September. "It was not done in isolation."

In fact, the new syllabus won unanimous approval from the same board members just last month. It was designed with input from academy alum, instructors and trainers from all eight of the state's satellite training academies, Jones says.

The new rules also give four full time trainers and numerous experts loaned to the academy from agencies around the state the flexibility to adapt their materials and adjust to changes in technology and training trends. And New Mexico's basic course will still be longer than similar programs taught in Denver, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah. Regionally, only Arizona's program is closer to the national average of 19 weeks reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2006.

"It's up to us to ensure that we have well-trained officers on the street protecting our citizens," says Santa Fe Police Chief Raymond Rael. "So we've increased our hiring standards."

Unlike beauticians, Rael points out that law enforcement cadets face rigorous employment screening and stringent application requirements. Peace officers need to be physically fit, have felonyfree criminal backgrounds and clean driving records, undergo extensive psychological evaluations and pass drug-screening tests.

In Santa Fe, both the police and sheriff’s deputy recruits have to spend three to four weeks in orientation before they check into the dorms at the state academy. Their basic training hours do not include the dozen hours they spend on prerequisites like First Aid and CPR, or the hours jogging, lifting and shooting they need to meet stringent entrance requirements.

And the rookies' initial training doesn't end after graduation.

Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office training Sgt. Diego Lucero says when his deputies return from the academy, they're teamed with field training officers for another three to four months.

When they eventually earn a solo shift, Lucero says they'll remain under close supervision for at least a year.

"It's almost better that they get back from the academy earlier now," says Lucero. "That way they can spend extra time in the field getting on the job training."

Rael says all he wants from his recruits when they return from the academy is to have a good grasp of the basics. For the chief that means an understanding of New Mexico laws, arrest procedures and the judicial system.

While law enforcement brass is confident in the new curriculum, SFR found others who are not as keen on the idea of rushing cadets out of the academy and onto the streets.

Santa Fe Attorney Mark Donatelli, for example, filed a lawsuit for 77-year old retired police officer Robert Dominguez after he was shot by SFPD officer Charles Laramie in Santa Fe last March. (District Attorney Angela "Spence" Pacheco determined the shooting was justified. Dominguez died last week from what his family says was complications from the gunshot wounds.) Donatelli thinks trainers should determine if there are any systematic deficiencies before they reduce the number of basic training hours.

"If deficiencies in training contributed to those incidents, then cutting back training would be counter-productive," says Donatelli. "If they're rushing cadets through to fill department vacancies, I think that's a little penny-wise, pound foolish. The departments will just end up having to mop up the mess later."

For Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Bernalillo, reducing the number of training hours is not problematic since the cadets still have to demonstrate firearm proficiency, physical strength, and score a passing grade on the written Law Enforcement Officers Certified Exam.

"We've got to get these guys on the street," say Rehm, a retired sheriff's deputy and former academy instructor "That's where they really learn about policing."

Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee with Rehm, says he wasn't aware of the curriculum changes until SFR called him. For now, Egolf says he's okay with eliminating redundancies, but suggests the extra time be used on other topics like deescalating volatile call-outs with mentally ill suspects.

"There's been a push from the legislature in the last couple of years to get increased training specifically to deal with officer-involved shootings, namely with returning veterans who may be suffering from a mental disorder," says Egolf. "It's better for officers to know what to do just short of firing their weapon."

NM Law Enforcement Training Academy Director Jack Jones.
NM Law Enforcement Training Academy Director Jack Jones. | Mark Woodward

To shave time off the basic program, Jones and his team have cut out duplicate instruction material. In June, when he was promoted to academy director, Jones found, for example, that interrogation techniques were taught across several training blocks, including accident investigations and response to domestic violence call outs.

"Our cadets will still get 75 hours of accident investigation training. We won't just be teaching them advanced accident reconstruction techniques," says Jones, a retired Army Colonel with three decades of law enforcement experience. "Sixty percent of the program will still involve dynamic hands-on scenarios."

High-stress firearm simulations, Jones says, allow instructors to determine if cadets have incorporated their classroom knowledge into stressful day and night situations that might require them to deploy some type of use of force. It is, according to Jones, the best way for cadets to learn.

"We could teach 100,000 scenarios, and not cover all of them. I want them to be confident when they respond to threats," says Jones. "When they go back home they need to be able to defend their lives and the lives of others."

Jones wants applicants to be stronger coming into the academy, so they won't have to spend valuable time in strength conditioning. The cadets, he says, will still need to pull a 190-pound dummy, push a police vehicle, and scale a 6-foot wall wearing a 20-pound training belt by the end of the program. Still, after the first physical fitness test using the new standards only four women qualified for the 187th cadet class.

At the end of the day, retired Albuquerque Deputy Police Chief Michael Castro, who says that he never had to fire his weapon at an offender during his 26-year career, tells SFR he isn't worried about the shorter program jeopardizing public safety.

"When I went through my academy it was only 16 weeks, and I turned out fine," says Castro.

For career law enforcement officers, the training never stops. Like barbers, who have to earn continuing education credits, certified peace officers in New Mexico are required to complete at least 40 hours of additional training every two years. And the freshly trained rookies aren't off the hook either. Before they even pop a button on their new uniforms they'll need another 20 hours in state-mandated courses like safe vehicle pursuits.

Email the reporter at: peter@sfreporter.com