Two men are dead, felled by bullets Santa Fe police officers fired in 2017. In one case, the officer has been cleared of criminal wrongdoing; in the other, the city is now facing a civil rights lawsuit after the SWAT team shot a man who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Questions remain about both deadly encounters.

Santa Fe officers and City Hall have faced harsh criticism—and legal action—for the arrests of eight people who were protesting the Entrada pageant at the annual Fiestas de Santa Fe in September. Charges against each of the eight have been dropped.

The city's longstanding policy of keeping secret any information about police officer discipline drew the ire in June of New Mexico's leading government transparency group, and could be reversed by the state Attorney General.

And a past president of the police union here tells SFR that officer morale is at an "all-time low." Many rank-and-file cops, he says, are dissatisfied with comparatively low pay, insufficient manpower and what they see as an unfair internal discipline system.

The union itself has seen some disarray: Its outgoing president retired amid an internal affairs investigation after SFR revealed in February racist and violent posts on his Facebook page. He wasn't replaced until many-times-rescheduled elections installed new leadership just last week.

The 167-officer Santa Fe Police Department has swerved into some potholes this year, bending axles on controversies old and new. Some mirror difficulties law enforcement agencies across the state and the nation are facing as the spotlight on policing brightens; others are specific to Santa Fe.

But there's still some shine on the SFPD badge, SFR has found.

In less than three months, Santa Fe will elect a new mayor. Three city councilors, an ex-city worker and a deep-pocketed businessman have lined up to replace outgoing Mayor Javier Gonzales. Also departing is Patrick Gallagher, whom Gonzales named Santa Fe Police Chief in July 2015. Gallagher's last day is Friday Dec. 15.

That means new leadership at police headquarters on Camino Entrada, too, although the two deputy chiefs—Mario Salbidrez and Andrew Padilla—who will serve as co-interim chiefs through the early part of 2018, both tell SFR they want the top spot full-time.

Deputy Police Chiefs Andrew Padilla (left) and Mario Salbidrez will take over the department as interim co-chiefs this week. Both tell SFR they’re planning to apply for the permanent chief job.
Deputy Police Chiefs Andrew Padilla (left) and Mario Salbidrez will take over the department as interim co-chiefs this week. Both tell SFR they’re planning to apply for the permanent chief job.

Despite 2017's troubling headlines and intensified scrutiny, defense attorneys, civil rights lawyers, the city's top prosecutor and immigrants' rights advocates interviewed for this story say that, by and large, the department is professional and respectful of Santa Feans' varied approaches to living.

Some expressed mild concern that the department's missteps this year and penchant for secrecy could portend a shift toward a more aggressive police culture—the kind that has dogged other departments, including in Albuquerque, where the US Justice Department is forcing sweeping reforms.

But for now, they say, whoever takes the reins will inherit a department whose officers and administrators have embraced new technologies such as body cameras, modern techniques that include moving away from handcuffs and toward treatment for people struggling with drug addiction, and working with other players in the criminal justice system to solve the city's problems without resorting to the nightstick, the Taser or the rifle.

"They have had some problems this year, for sure, but some of those incidents seem aberrant rather than systemic," says Mark Donatelli, a longtime, Santa Fe-based civil rights and defense attorney. "The problems over there really seem to have been internecine fighting rather than the big civil rights or corruption problems we've seen in other places."

Sgt. Matt Martinez, past president and current board member of the Santa Fe Police Officers Association, says that—the union's concerns with unequal discipline and short-staffing aside—he isn't surprised to hear praise for the department from disparate interests around the city.

"That aspect of the job where we're helping the community: That part is still working just fine," he says. "The officers we've heard from, some of the joy is being taken out of the job by problems with the command staff, but they love their jobs anyway."

The department's two deputy chiefs respond differently to Martinez' claim of tanking morale: Salbidrez says the former union president doesn't speak for everyone.

"I think morale is doing well," he says. "I think a greater percentage is happy. I've heard it from them themselves."

Padilla disagrees.

"Morale is low," he says flatly. "You speak to the officers and the detectives who are out there doing the shift work … we've had our ups and downs here within the police department."


SFPD has had seven chiefs in the past 15 years. The union passed near-unanimous no-confidence votes against at least two of them: Aric Wheeler and Ray Rael. Then-chief Eric Garcia left abruptly in 2015 after four lieutenants wrote an 11-page memo outlining their grievances against him. The union hasn't taken such a step against Gallagher, but Martinez says insurgence is boiling against most of the command staff these days.

The internal discipline system, he says, looks the other way when command-level officers break policy, but brings the hammer down on front-line cops for minor offenses.

Both chiefs challenged Martinez to provide specific examples that prove it, saying they weren't aware of any. Martinez says he has been targeted in a handful of internal investigations, all but one of which was launched after he became involved with the union in 2014.

"I got in it to try to help officers," he says. "No good deed goes unpunished."

Martinez declined to discuss specifics of any of his cases, or those of fellow union members, citing the city's secrecy policy on internal investigations and officer discipline. He and others in the union leadership prefer greater transparency—releasing the outcomes of internal investigations to the public—and he expects that debate to be an issue as newly elected association President Tony Trujillo and Vice President Patrick Trujillo (no relation) take office.

It's also an issue Attorney General Hector Balderas is weighing after Mayor Gonzales sent him a letter in October requesting clarification on whether the state's sunshine law allows for such secrecy.

Padilla and Salbidrez say they can see both sides of the argument but, for now, they take their cues from the City Attorney's Office.

Meanwhile, the number of "operational complaints" from citizens and fellow officers, which range from rudeness to speeding to false arrest, dipped from 50 in 2015 to 38 in 2016 (the most recent information the department would provide). In the vast majority of those cases, the officers were cleared.

Internal Affairs investigations, which often involve more serious allegations, rose from 20 to 30 during those same two years, the department's figures show. SFPD did not provide the current status of those cases.

Martinez says that as of mid-November, 24 or 25 Internal Affairs investigations and operational complaints hadn't been resolved. Some of them date to early 2016. He'd never heard of such an extensive backlog.

"You have to worry about doing your job every day, doing it right, doing it correctly, and you have this IA hanging over your head," he says. "Some of our officers have applied elsewhere and can't get jobs because of it. It's definitely distracting for a police officer."

The functions of a police department go deeper than internal grievances and officer misconduct.

Officer Celestino Lopez watches the driver of a soon-to-be-impounded car on a recent snowy morning. Lopez is one of 167 SFPD officers.
Officer Celestino Lopez watches the driver of a soon-to-be-impounded car on a recent snowy morning. Lopez is one of 167 SFPD officers. | Anson Stevens-Bollen

Padilla and Salbidrez point to what they call a number of successes and innovations at SFPD the past few years: The creation of an "intelligence unit" that monitors social media and uses mobile cameras in an attempt to address crime—property crime, in particular, which comparatively consumes SFPD's resources; speed-detecting technology that helps the traffic unit decide where to set up; rejiggering the number of officers on the streets based on when crime occurs; a new narcotics team; and the use of body cameras, which they say have improved transparency and exonerated wrongly accused officers.

"I believe the department is in a lot better shape than it was two and a half years ago," Salbidrez says.

But the department has 10 vacancies, with 11 cadets in the police academy who aren't due to hit the streets for another nine months. Even when they do, a handful of retirements will keep the department below where both the union would like to see it—195 or so—and where the chiefs think they could be most effective in serving the community—220 or more.

With a population of about 80,000, Santa Fe has roughly 2.1 officers per 1,000 residents. That's right in line with the national average and what law enforcement think tanks say approaches ideal. But SFPD officials cite heavy tourism and commuters that inflate the city's population as an argument for more cops.

The short-staffed department has responded to 108,275 calls for police service this year, as of Nov. 30, SFPD figures show. That's up from 97,901 in 2011, and on pace to come up a little short of the 128,654 calls in 2014, a peak year.

The deputy chiefs touted short response times-—the time from when a call comes in until an officer arrives on scene—that SFPD has maintained through the years. Santa Fe compares well to New Mexico cities such as Albuquerque and Las Cruces, although the chiefs acknowledge flaws in the department's tracking system.

Officer Chris Mooney directs traffic on in an eastside neighborhood after an attempted suicide. One thing union officials and command staff agree on: SFPD needs more cops.
Officer Chris Mooney directs traffic on in an eastside neighborhood after an attempted suicide. One thing union officials and command staff agree on: SFPD needs more cops. | Anson Stevens-Bollen

For the most serious calls, in which someone's life is in danger, officers arrived on average in seven minutes, 42 seconds in 2011. That figure slipped down to roughly five minutes in 2014, but has ticked back up to 7:13 this year. For less serious calls, the average response time has been between eight and 12 minutes. Those numbers are down significantly from 2011, but about the same as last year.

Another success, the two chiefs say, has been the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program. Launched in 2014, its aim is to help people struggling with drug addiction get help rather than a rap sheet.

"We recognize that we can't arrest our way out of every problem," Salbidrez says.

But other mental health issues in the community have led to problems that are certain to persist under the new administration next spring and beyond.

In July, SFPD officers Jeremy Bisagna and Luke Wakefield shot and killed Anthony Benavidez, a 24-year-old man with schizophrenia, after the SWAT team was called to an apartment in which Benavidez had barricaded himself after wounding a social worker with a knife. Minutes before emptying his 16-bullet magazine into the apartment and Benavidez' body, Bisagna appeared to turn off his body camera.

"Too few [SFPD] officers are trained to identify and interact with citizens afflicted by mental illness who are unable to comply with officer commands through no fault of their own," reads a lawsuit filed on behalf of Benavidez' family. "As a result, officers antagonize mentally disabled suspects, needlessly escalating citizen/officer encounters into unlawful searches, seizures, and arrests instead of engaging in de-escalation techniques. Then, after creating a dangerous situation for all, officers deploy force, both lethal and not, unnecessarily."

All SFPD officers receive 40 hours of basic "crisis management" training in the academy, according to the department. SWAT officers receive an additional 40 hours of training in basic crisis negotiations, provided by the FBI.

Salbidrez says the department has doubled its trained crisis negotiators this year from four to eight. He says officers aren't necessarily dealing with more people in the community who are living with mental illness since he started at SFPD in 2004, but that residents and politicians have demanded that police deal with that population differently.

"We're not doctors, so when we need the help, we ask for the help," he says.

Salbidrez declines to comment on the Benavidez shooting case, citing the lawsuit, but says he doesn't see his department tilting toward a more aggressive approach. However, he says, it's the chief's job to educate City Hall about which of the city's problems police are trained to solve.

Praise for the department doesn't just come from the deputy chief or others with institutional pride. Allegra Love, the Santa Fe-based attorney who works mostly on immigration issues, says the department has been an ally in upholding the city's sanctuary policies. She'd like to see that continue.

"It can only be improved, but we would obviously like to see that relationship continue—the relationship between the immigrant population, and immigration lawyers, and the police department," Love says, adding that she hopes city officials continue their refusal to use local police resources to aid in federal immigration enforcement.

Morgan Wood, district defender in Santa Fe for the Law Office of the Public Defender, tells SFR that, for the most part, city police officers have been "good ambassadors for our town and less aggressive than officers in other parts of the state."

Wood, who has been in her job two years, says she hasn't heard many complaints from clients about officers roughing them up or treating them unfairly. "There are always going to be a few officers you have to keep your eye on, but that's really been the exception," she says.

Bennett Baur, the state's chief public defender and Wood's predecessor in Santa Fe, said SFPD has been open to alternative approaches to law enforcement. He cited the LEAD program and open communication lines.

"It's one of the few departments in the state where we can reach out to the administration and get a meeting," Baur says. "That doesn't mean it's perfect or that they're always going to accept other ideas. But they're willing to be challenged."

Wood says she hopes the department will remain open and collaborative, regardless of who wins the mayor's race or takes over SFPD.

So does First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna. He tells SFR that his first year in office has been marked by a solid working relationship with the police department. And the vast majority of cases city officers turn over for prosecution are complete, Serna says, which makes his prosecutors' jobs easier.

"Especially with the felonies, they'll typically call our office to go over the law in advance," he says. "The same with search warrants and arrest warrants. Like anything else and with any team, there are disagreements sometimes, and sometimes we decline to prosecute because we just don't see it. But that's definitely not widespread."

The DA says that if he could advance one aspect of the relationship, it would be that the new chief "goes all-in with LEAD." Gallagher, the outgoing chief, was an early skeptic of the program and did not always agree that it had the kind of potential Serna and others saw. The competing philosophies created some minor friction between the two, Serna says.

He would also prefer the next chief be "someone local, someone who has been here long enough to have seen the changes in our criminal justice system, someone who understands the drug problem and has seen everything that hasn't worked in the past."

Salbidrez says he wants that someone local to be him, saying he, his wife, three daughters, and his brothers and sisters all live in Santa Fe. "I consider it my department—I'm a part of this community," he says.

Padilla wants the job, too. "This is a great department," he says. "I feel I have the support of the police officers. I've worked with them, I have no hidden agendas or groups or ties to anyone. I'm here for the city of Santa Fe and the officers that are here."

Donatelli, the civil rights lawyer, didn't express a preference. But he has some cautious optimism for the future of SFPD.

"A transition is always a time to be a little bit nervous," he says. "But better to be transitioning from what we have in Santa Fe now than from what they have in Albuquerque now."

SFR Staff Writer Aaron Cantú contributed reporting.