You can't kill an idea, as the saying goes. And it appears that an idea in New Mexico to rehire retired police in order to make up for a purported shortage of officers just won't die.
Santa Fe's City Council voted last week to support legislation that would allow police agencies to take back officers who would get a paycheck as well as a pension. It's called "double-dipping," and it was banned for public employees in 2010. The state's Public Employee Retirement Association supported the law, citing limited funds in its retirement system, but with Gov. Susana Martinez pushing a tough-on-crime budget this year, an exception for police may get renewed support.
Here's the trouble: No such legislation had been formally introduced as of the start of the legislative session Tuesday.
That means City Councilor Christopher Rivera asked his colleagues to support a bill that doesn't yet exist. A version of it passed the state House in 2016 and was again introduced in the Roundhouse last year, largely at the urging of officials in Albuquerque, where officials have blamed a rising crime rate in part on a shortage of police.
So it's likely that another swipe at double-dipping for cops could find legislative purchase again. And a review by the Legislative Finance Committee already has lent support to the idea that more officers in Albuquerque could deter increases in property and violent crime in the state's largest city.
"If we can get some of these younger cops to come back … I think it would help ease up some of that crisis," Rivera said at a Council meeting last week, echoing SFPD's contention that it has been short-staffed the last several years. "I know other groups have brought it up to the Legislature, and this is just an issuance of support for any legislation that might come up."
New Mexico police officers who retire between 20 years and 25 years and nine months on the job receive between 70 and 90 percent of their final average annual salary in the form of a yearly pension. Statewide, Martinez' budget this year proposes a salary increase for state police officers, part of an 8.5-percent increase in the Department of Public Safety's budget. DPS oversees the state police as well as the Law Enforcement Academy that trains SFPD officers.
Deputy Chief Andrew Padilla, who is currently co-leading the police department with Deputy Chief Mario Salbidrez, tells SFR in an email that the outstanding vacancies as of Jan. 16 included "10 police officer vacancies, one public safety aide vacancy and two animal service officer vacancies." City Manager Brian Snyder also identified at last week's Council meeting 15 potential recruits who will begin training at the state academy on Jan. 29.
One potential concern, raised by Councilor Joseph Maestas, was whether formerly retired police who joined SFPD would be recruited as higher-ranking officers. This, he argued, would limit upward mobility within the department for younger cops. He also wondered whether relaxing some hiring standards, such as the requirement recruits abstain from marijuana three years before applying, could boost officers' numbers.
In the absence of guidance from state legislation, Salbidrez says, Santa Fe could decide where and how the department would rehire retired cops so that they wouldn't block newer officers from promotions. He claimed that the Santa Fe Police Officers Association approved of the idea, but no representative from the union was present. The association did not return a request for comment by press time.
SFPD is funded to the tune of about $26 million though September, according to the city manager's proposed budget for the current fiscal year. The department says its officers took 132,677 calls for police service in 2017, over 10,000 more than the previous year.
Snyder says that retirements expected this year, plus the department's stated need for officers in parts of the city annexed by the county, mean the total shortage of cops could be 25 by year's end.
There are no uniform standards for how many officers police departments should have on staff. The decision of how many to hire is "political and arbitrary," argues Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College and a consultant on police accountability practices.
"Just the last maybe three years or so, New York City, Chicago and other places have all been saying we need more police, despite falling crime rates," Vitale says. Violent and property crime ticked up slightly in Santa Fe over the past two years, according to numbers the city reported to the FBI, but most staffing plans for police departments aren't tied to crime rates either.
Vitale points to an analysis on police staffing by James McCabe, an associate professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut and a retired 21-year veteran of the New York City Police Department. In the study, McCabe writes that the officer staffing decisions cities like Santa Fe make—where officer numbers are based primarily on city budgetary decisions—are easy, but risk "becom[ing] politicized or predicated on an artificial figure."
"[P]olice departments must embrace the use of more sophisticated data analysis and must identify benchmarks to evaluate staffing decisions," McCabe concludes. He proposes three benchmarks to determine staffing allocation and deployment decisions: the number of officers assigned to patrol, the workload level of those officers on patrol, and the amount of time a police department expends on calls for service. No department nationwide was using such analysis to determine hiring decisions when his white paper was published in 2016, McCabe wrote.
As of now, the 177 SFPD officer positions for which the city has budgeted brings the number of cops per 10,000 residents to roughly 21, which is on the higher end of cities with populations above 50,000. If the Legislature decides to allow some of those slots to be filled with retired cops, it will have the city's support: All councilors except Maestas voted to support the non-existent legislation.