Beginning early next month, the Santa Fe Police Department will introduce two Segway machines in the Downtown Plaza as part of its Seasonal Tourist Officers program.
The two machines, which resemble souped-up, motorized tricycles, will cost the city a total of $34,162. The cost includes an extra battery and a charging system, according to the police department.
The funds are part of the community convention center budget managed by the Convention and Visitors Bureau and will be collected through a lodger's tax. They were approved as part of the larger city budget that went into effect on July 1, according to Randy Randall, the executive director of Tourism Santa Fe.
"During our budget process, I presented the budget that included the Segways," Randall tells SFR. "I provided my best explanation, but the City Council at that time while they approved the budget with the Segways asked that we give further information. That's where the police department picked up and provided that additional info."
Randall says the police department approached him earlier this year to discuss the benefits of the Segway SE-3 Patroller machines. SFPD representatives convinced him that having officers in the Plaza who were more mobile than foot patrol, but still grounded, were a good idea.
In a memo to the City Council Finance Committee dated June 2, Deputy Police Chief Mario Salbidrez wrote that the police department's review of last year's calls for service in and around the Plaza indicated that panhandling, "homeless vagrancy" and aggressive buskers were issues of public concern.
Salbidrez also wrote that on average, 1,380 of the yearly calls to police for disorderly conduct were from the downtown Plaza. That comes out to roughly 1 percent of all calls made to the police department. The memo also includes four tourist comments from TripAdvisor selected at random, three of which describe "homeless" people in the Plaza disparagingly.
"Perhaps we were there at the wrong time, but there were too many homeless people and it just didn't feel right," reads one of the tourist comments cited by the SFPD.
When asked why the Segways were necessary given the small number of Plaza-based disorderly conduct calls received by SFPD, Salbidrez pointed to several awards and accolades that Santa Fe has earned as a national tourist destination.
"While the number of disorderly conduct calls may look 'minuscule' not every officer contact is captured," he wrote in an email to SFR. "Officers often instruct individuals to stop what they are doing or leave a certain location when what they are doing is violating the law. These types of events often do not generate a numbered call for service."
Salbidrez says that several businesses expressed their support for the Seasonal Tourist Officer program during an early June meeting hosted by the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce. The SFPD also discussed the program with several downtown stores, including the shop Things Finer, located in La Fonda Hotel.
"The overall goal is to make downtown friendlier and cleaner, clean things up and that sort of thing—and safety, because there's a lot of safety issues around the Plaza," says Elizabeth Pettus, co-owner of Things Finer and the president of Santa Fe Downtown Merchants.
SFPD received guidance for the Segway purchase from the Delray Police Department in Palm Beach County, Florida. There, city officials have tasked a security force to clear homeless people away from businesses and "increase the perception of safety downtown."
Youth homeless advocate Devin Dunsay, the development director for Santa Fe's Youth Shelters & Family Services, doesn't believe that police use of Segways in the Plaza is necessarily a bad thing for the people her organization serves.
"The police have demonstrated their understanding that homelessness is not a crime," Dunsay tells SFR. "We've had a good relationship with police and plan to continue to have that relationship."
On a hot Wednesday afternoon in the Plaza, one busker sitting near the obelisk said that while the police bothered him occasionally, they usually left him alone once he showed them he was licensed to play in the area.
"Some musicians are very territorial; you tell them when their two hours [for which they're permitted to play] is up and they want to fight," the busker said. "I'd like to see the police be able to do it without the Segways, but if it makes their job a little easier, then I guess I'm for it."
Not everybody agreed. Michael Hastcoat, a wheelchair-bound man from Albuquerque who said he panhandles in the Plaza, voiced his deep opposition to the Segway purchase.
"You know what?" he rasped to SFR. "This is my personal opinion: If a motherfucker wants to get out and ask somebody, 'Can you give me a dollar?' I think they ought to be allowed to do that. Why not? They're not hurting nobody."