All it takes is a brief conversation to sense personality differences between the Santa Fe Police Department’s new chief and his predecessor. SFPD Chief Eric Garcia, 42, broadcasts enthusiasm through the phone line. He talks about being out the streets, shaking hands with business owners. But he often puts a brake on his energy, pausing before revealing law enforcement secrets. The former public safety director of Española, New Mexico State Police officer and Air Force member is being paid $104,000 annually to oversee 175 sworn police officers and 50 civilian staffers who serve the City Different. He’ll continue policies of the Old Guard, like SFPD’s “full court press” program, cited as the reason for decreasing property-crime rates across the city. But in his inaugural interview with SFR, Garcia reveals new initiatives—like putting a more local focus on narcotics enforcement—that will shift how the department interacts with the community.
SFR: Can you speak to Santa Fe about your top priorities?
Over the past two weeks, I've had an excellent opportunity to visit with several business owners and just to chat with them and see what their direct concerns are.
We're at a low right now with criminal activity, which I think we're going to be able to continue with just to have the officers, the supervisors, work hand-in-hand with the community. And one of the biggest things for me is I encourage the guys to get out, and I lead by example. I didn't just task my staff to get out of the cars and walk the Plaza, or get out of the cars and go walk through the rail center, or get out of the cars and walk through the business at DeVargas or the Santa Fe Place Mall. I've been doing that myself. Shaking hands. Meeting people. Talking with them. I want to hear it directly from them. Because a lot of times these business owners and these residents, they don't know how to vocalize that. They think, 'If I call the chief, he's not going to give me any time.' Or, 'If I call the city manager, they're not going to give me any time.' I want to change that mindset and let them see that someone's getting out of the office at least two or three times a week and going to several places across Santa Fe and working with them directly.
How, if any way, are you going to tackle the property-crime problem differently than your predecessor?
The full court press program was put together by Louis Carlos. He's currently a lieutenant at the Patrol Division. We're going to continue forward with that program.
There's no way to tap dance around it: It's a good effective program. It's shown results. The only difference with me, though, is I'm going to give more resources to this by specifically involving more members of the Investigations Bureau, more members of the police department, by encouraging them to network.
More broadly can you about the police department's resources? The greatest operating expenditure from the city's general fund for this year's budget went toward the police department. Is there a way that SFPD can use its resources more efficiently? Or do you think SFPD needs more funding from the city?
Well I can tell you, [like] an administrator in any agency across the country, I'd be more than happy to take additional monies. That's just the bottom line. But we have to show what we can efficiently do with our existing resources. And what I mean by that is increasing the amount of manpower that we have with Solace, increasing the amount of manpower that we have at Esperanza.
I'm going to put in a stand-alone narcotics unit within the police department. On top of that, we'll still have one to two members of the agency working with the Region III [Drug Enforcement] Task Force.
Historically, what has happened is that we have assigned all of our officers, our detectives, to the Regional III Task Force. What I'm going to do is continue to support the task force, the Region III Task Force, with manpower. But I'm also going to implement a stand-alone narcotics unit internally within the PD.
And why do you think that might be a successful strategy?
Well, I'll tell you, the Region III Task Force historically has taken care of mid-level and higher-level narcotics [with] a grander type of vision. And within the police department itself, we're going to be focusing on, with a narcotics unit, the lower level of those that are involving themselves in narcotics, such as the I wouldn't say huge amounts of narcotics are going to be—well, I don't want to go into too much detail with the narcotics unit.
But I can tell you this, Justin: The stand-alone narcotics unit is something we definitely need to have in the police department just because of the amount of intel that we get here that we can follow through on an immediate basis. Versus where we send it to the Region III Task Force, and the Region III Task Force takes care of the entire Northern New Mexico region. The stand-alone unit here will focus on the drug activity solely within the [City of Santa Fe] here.
And so that might mean going after smaller fish?
Not necessarily smaller fish. The narcotics unit will focus on those here within the area. The Region III Task Force focuses on all of Northern New Mexico.
I see. One more follow up on this: I know that Mayor Gonzales has expressed to us that he would like to tackle the drug trade within Santa Fe. Are you guys looking to go after narcotics dealers? Or are we talking users?
I'm glad you brought that up. That's an excellent question. There's several parts to the user. One is getting them arrested and getting them in some type of rehabilitation program. And that includes cycling them through the LEAD program, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which is a pre-arrest program that will say, 'These are the benefits we have for you. These are the offers that we have from our local hospital—our local medical providers.'
If you take a look at a lot of the big [drug] cases that occurred out of the city of Santa Fe, a lot of them occurred from our detectives and front-line officers gaining intelligence, forwarding it over, cycling it through the Investigations Bureau here over to the Region III Task Force. Time is of the essence, in my opinion. If Justin comes to me and says, 'Hey, Garcia, I know of this guy down the road. He has some suspicious activity at his house. It's almost like a drive-through window between 10 o'clock and 12 o'clock at night.' You can report that to me and I will turn around and forward that to my investigations bureau, to the stand-alone narcotics unit, and they'll follow through on that within a matter of a day or two days. We can confront it with saturating officers there. Knock and talks. In the best interest of the community—and getting these people off the street—we need to get arrests on those who are basically traffickers and get help for those who are users.
Do you think response times for SFPD are adequate? Are there any ways to improve response times on calls?
Coming from a large agency like New Mexico State Police, response times were anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes. Within the city of Santa Fe, I've been reviewing the response times with Capt. Dale Lettenberger, the response times are anywhere from five to 10 minutes. So, I think our staff are on the ball in responding in a timely manner.
And this leads me to another part of this response: When our constituents see us—see my officers traveling in emergency traffic, we always encourage them to yield to the right of the call. What has happened in the past we have seen people actually panic, and they actually hop the curb and jump into the median. Our intentions are not to cause anyone any disruption in their life. But if they could please just yield to the right and let the law enforcement officer pass to the left.
What's your opinion on speed vans? Do you think they are an effective law enforcement tool?
Since [the contract for speed vans] still under negotiations, and once we get closer towards the last approval step with City Council, I'll start evaluating that with staff here. But my main focus now is to get the new administration in place within the police department—such as the deputy chiefs and the captains and so forth. Once we have these in place within the next few days or so, we'll be able to move forward and review that again. If that's a good use of our resources, then so be it. If it's not, then it's not.
Considering everything that's been going on with the Albuquerque Police Department, and there had been a couple deadly force incidents with the State Police, are you going in there and telling your officers anything specifically about use-of-force or in any way changing use-of-force guidelines within SFPD?
I can tell you that last week we had a huge commanders' meeting with all of the commanders from every single one of the shifts, and I made it very clear that we are moving forward with additional training. Capt. Dale Lettenberger and Sgt. Matt Martinez, they're working together to implement the crisis intervention team within the police department itself. I can also tell you that I've met with Internal Affairs and I have them researching every single curriculum that's available out there—not only in New Mexico but outside New Mexico—in regards to communication ability with our officers. What I mean by that is having the officers take refresher courses on verbal judo: how to de-escalate a situation. Now keep in mind there are those situations that require an officer to use force. But at the same time, I want to see some steps from my officers on the front line that are responding to these calls to service and how they try to de-escalate them.
This interview was edited for clarity and space.