Calling Reinforcements

Law enforcement agencies in Santa Fe, nationwide, facing staffing shortages

Santa Fe’s two law enforcement agencies are struggling to fill their ranks—like many other cop shops around the nation—and local officials say the shortages are partly responsible for longer waits when residents call for help and less “proactive policing” which, in turn, has contributed to higher crime rates.

With fewer people entering the profession, departments are competing for new employees out of the same pool. Meanwhile, officials say a combination of retirements and resignations as well as increased scrutiny on officers is exacerbating the staffing crunch.

The Santa Fe Police Department recently hired Matrix Consulting Group to conduct a workload assessment of the force. The group concluded that the department has an unusually high number of vacancies. As of July 15, the department had 24 empty spots out of 83 budgeted positions in the patrol division.

To ensure timely responses to calls for service and maintain a presence in the community, at least 75 patrol spots need to be filled, according to Matrix. Four new hires began work Monday, which after a few weeks of training, will bring the patrol ranks up to 63 officers. A total of 134 cops work for SFPD now, meaning a full complement of officers would put roughly half of them on assignment answering residents’ calls.

Over at the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Adan Mendoza has 15 deputy openings out of 94 budgeted positions. The shortfall makes it difficult to dedicate resources to investigative units, he tells SFR.

“Patrol is pretty much the heart of the sheriff’s office,” Mendoza says. “It’s one of the most important divisions. So with these openings, we’ve held off on filling some of the other divisions because of that.”

Historically, agencies have looked at populations to determine how many badges are needed on the street. However, experts say that method is a fruitless endeavor, because it says nothing about the quality of service that’s provided. Instead, modern staffing assessments are conducted by looking at how officers spend their time. The idea is the more officers on patrol to respond to calls, the more time others have to engage in proactive policing—essentially self-initiated activity to try and deter crime.

The City of Santa Fe has seen a rise in most crimes this year, including robberies, car thefts, sex offenses, burglaries, larcenies and assaults.

Police Chief Paul Joye says if his department can get enough staff so that 40% of patrol officers’ time is spent conducting traffic stops and other self-initiated activities, it will help address the increase.

“If they see a spike in burglaries in a particular area, we want them to be able to have the time to saturate that area and have the time to do community policing…to be that deterrent, because they’re more visible and able to be in more areas,” Joye tells SFR.

According to the study, SFPD officers spend, on average, 33% of their time proactively policing. The figures fluctuate throughout the day. Between 2 am and 6 am, police spend 58% of their time on self-initiated activities. During the busy hours, such as between 10 am and 2 pm, that percentage drops to an average of 10%. At some points, proactive times get down into negative percentages, indicating staffing deficiencies, according to Matrix.

SFPD leaders try to have eight officers on patrol during each shift. Having 75 patrol positions filled would increase the number to around 12-14 officers per shift. The force doubles on what are known as “common days,” when officers’ alternating patrol schedules overlap so that more are out on the street.

Reaching the 40% mark won’t solve all the city’s problems, but it will help, says Thomas Wieczorek, principal of the Center for Public Safety Management, an organization focused on police staffing analysis.

“Just getting there is not going to create utopia across the community, but it will certainly offer the opportunity to do more prevention,” Wieczorek tells SFR.

Police manpower “shortages” aren’t necessarily correlated with increases in crime rates, and there’s no evidence showing more cops equals less crime. It could be a result of inefficient scheduling or misuse of resources. That’s part of the reason agencies across the country, including in Santa Fe, are launching alternative response units and traffic divisions to handle minor calls.

“It matters a great deal more…what you do with officers, rather than simply how many there are,” says Alexander Weiss, a police staffing consultant who’s conducted studies in several cities, including Albuquerque. “For me, the best indicator about whether there are enough officers is the extent to which the agency can find somebody to send on an emergency call.”

In June, the median response time was 24 minutes, 10 seconds for operators at the Regional Emergency Communications Center to dispatch an officer to priority 1 calls, which include incidents of active shooters, assaults, kidnapping and more, according to police data SFR reviewed. After getting assigned the call, it took officers seven minutes, two seconds to arrive. The median response time in May was 20 minutes and 17 seconds. In October of last year it was 15 minutes and eight seconds, while September’s was eight minutes and 27 seconds.

The longer response times are not only a result of fewer officers, Joye says, but of fewer dispatchers at the call center.

To address the shortcomings, agencies are asking officers and deputies to pull extra shifts, delay promotions and take on extra duties. It’s increased SFPD’s overtime expenses as well as officer fatigue.

In the meantime, local departments are trying to bolster employee pay and benefits to remain competitive with agencies throughout the region. The city and police union recently agreed on a 16% pay raise, while the Santa Fe County Board of Commissioners approved an 11.5% increase for the sheriff’s office July 12.

When an officer retires, resigns or transfers, it can take months to replace them with a trained, sworn officer. Since January, SFPD has had eight officers transfer to other agencies, three retirements and one officer leave law enforcement. Valdez did not provide departure figures for previous years, despite repeated requests.

While Matrix says SFPD should account for a 5% turnover rate, it should always hire above the number needed to reach its targeted level of service to account for the fact that “an agency will never be fully staffed, because there will always be vacancies occurring as a result of retirement, termination and other factors.”

“I’ve yet to find an agency that’s at the authorized strength, because there’s always this turnover,” Weiss tells SFR.

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