Police Chief Andrew Padilla divulged the decision on a Wednesday.
Public pressure was mounting in a summer of street protests. Marchers demanded an end to racist, militarized policing, often shouting and chanting at what would have looked 30 years ago like an occupying military force.
A few city councilors had joined the chorus, peppering Padilla with questions about why the police in Santa Fe sometimes looked and felt like a combat unit. So the chief, a former Marine, announced at a council meeting that he'd ditch a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle and a military Humvee, both obtained from the US Defense Department and perhaps the two highest-profile local symbols of police militarization. It's a move he now tells SFR he'd have preferred not to make.
Four months after Padilla's revelation on July 29, documents obtained by SFR through a request under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act show the chief kept his word.
But what happened to the two beefed-up vehicles after they left a Santa Fe Police Department parking lot has a city councilor, civil rights and police reform advocates questioning whether Padilla's action did much more than earn him a few pats on the back from the press and City Hall.
That's because the Humvee's voyage totaled just over 60 miles—to the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office. And the MRAP? It was transferred an even shorter distance to the Rio Rancho Police Department.
Over-aggressive policing is a statewide problem in New Mexico, where officers have fatally shot 116 people since 2015. That total accounts for the highest rate of deadly police shootings in the nation during the last five years, according to data gathered by The Washington Post and analyzed by SFR.
Concurrently, military gear has permeated the state during the past decade-plus. It helps drive excessive force and sets officers apart from residents, experts say, by ratcheting up an already confrontational culture.
"Most people don't make distinctions between law enforcement agencies. A cop is a cop," says Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. "So, if one of these vehicles still makes an appearance in a neighborhood or on the front page of the newspaper, transferring it from one department to another does nothing to detract from the message that our police are militarized."
And in Santa Fe, residents can still get a first-hand look at an MRAP without the hour drive south—the county sheriff's department has one of the vehicles, which are often mistaken for "tanks" when they're used by domestic police. That department received the MRAP from the Rio Arriba County Sheriff's Office in 2015 through the same transfer process Padilla used to send his two vehicles to Bernalillo County and Rio Rancho this year.
Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story. Other law enforcement officials, including Padilla, defended the transfer program and, more broadly, the use of MRAPs and other military equipment, saying they come in handy for desert search and rescue, hostage situations and protecting officers during high-risk calls.
But City Councilor Renee Villarreal, who was among those pushing Padilla to discard the vehicles, says they have no place in Santa Fe. Shipping them down the road to other local law enforcement agencies was "not at all" what she envisioned when Padilla promised to get rid of them.
"We don't want those kinds of vehicles in New Mexico in general," Villarreal tells SFR. "So I think that has to be a state-level decision…Hearing that we just moved them along to another jurisdiction is disappointing to me."
None of the advocates interviewed for this story were aware of the transfers before SFR contacted them. Villarreal learned about it at last week's Santa Fe Health and Public Safety Task Force meeting. They all say it amounts to a game of equipment musical chairs that leaves in place a status quo of police militarization in an already-troubled state and they wonder how widespread the practice is.
In-state transfers for big-ticket military equipment such as the ones Padilla executed are relatively infrequent, says Kelly Hamilton, deputy secretary for the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which administers the federal program that handles military equipment for New Mexico law enforcement agencies. Hamilton writes in an email to SFR that on average, about three large-vehicle transfers take place each year.
When military musical chairs began
What makes all this receiving and transferring of military equipment among local law enforcement agencies possible is the National Defense Authorization Act, first passed by Congress in 1990 and reupped in 1997. Section 1033 gives the defense secretary the power to spread used military gear around the country.
It has come to be known as the "1033 Program," and the vast majority of equipment distributed has been mundane—everything from a box of pencils to a digital camera to a sleeping bag. But alongside came high-powered sniper rifles, body armor, bayonets, night-vision scopes and MRAPs.
The program has changed the public face of law enforcement in America.
Michael McGarrity, a local mystery novelist who spent 20 years working in criminal justice, including three with the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office in the 1980s, keeps tabs on the state of law enforcement as part of his book research.
He is not a fan of what 1033 has wrought.
"It's a completely different world than it was 35 years ago," McGarrity says. "When I was a commissioned officer, we were issued a .357 revolver as a sidearm and a pump shotgun, and that was it…Today, I don't think there is a police department in the country that issues anything less than a 9mm handgun as a sidearm and a semi-automatic assault rifle. And that's before you get to anything like these armored vehicles."
Militarization diminishes the role of police in America, McGarrity says, but it shouldn't come as a surprise. Like soldiers, police have become conditioned to believe that demonstrating an ability to handle more dangerous, specialized skills leads to promotion. That's partly because of how police work is depicted on television and in the news media and partly due to police culture, which has become increasingly insular and opposed to the people officers are sworn to protect.
"The more you put things out there that are nothing but for primary military purposes, the greater the chasm between citizen and cop," he says.
There are plenty of chasms in New Mexico.
The 1033 Program has ushered thousands of pieces of equipment into the state, both the innocuous items (known as "non-controlled property") and the gear that has concerned communities and civil libertarians (known as "controlled property").
A look at the data visualizer from the nonprofit Institute for Transparent Policing shows 1033 equipment in nearly every New Mexico city, including a couple dozen armored vehicles.
According to documents turned over to SFR by the city, Santa Fe has 16 classifications of items obtained through 1033, including a reconnaissance robot and an ATV.
When the military decides it's finished with a 1033-eligible piece of equipment, it gets listed on a password-protected Defense Logistics Agency website on which law enforcement agencies can go shopping. Very few items are restricted from the list after the Trump administration rolled back some Obama-era limits in 2017.
"I hate to describe it this way because it's not as friendly, but it's almost like an eBay, a 1033 eBay-type store," says Bernalillo County Undersheriff Larry Koren.
Local and state law enforcement agencies aren't charged for the equipment—just the shipping. Police officials in New Mexico and elsewhere have cited the budget savings as a defense of the program, an argument that resonates even with reformers for items like cameras, but less so for MRAPs.
The flow of 1033 equipment has slowed in New Mexico in recent years, records show.
As the former policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, Steve Allen has monitored the program closely.
Allen credits the slowdown to community outcry and pushback. He points to Padilla's decision to give up the MRAP and Humvee as another signal that residents don't want to be policed with armored vehicles and weapons of war.
"I would call this a step in the right direction. For the chief to get rid of these vehicles, whatever his motivation was, should be applauded," Allen says. "But what happens next is just as important. There needs to be better follow-through, follow-through that's in the spirit of our whole community. Policing is a statewide problem in New Mexico, and New Mexicans should not have to play whack-a-Mole with this kind of equipment."
Santa Fe’s forced move to demilitarize
SFPD welcomed, with great fanfare from some in city government, the Humvee (valued at $50,548) and the MRAP (valued at $658,000) in July and November of 2013, respectively, through the 1033 program.
Fast forward seven years, and Padilla was fielding sharp questions about the vehicles at that July City Council meeting, driven by a few councilors suddenly eager to question resources put toward local militarization in the burning face of a national police reform movement.
They forced the chief's hand, and his department sent out a statement saying, in part, "we can and should dispose of the two vehicles," according to a story published in The Santa Fe New Mexican at the time.
Padilla has since tiptoed away from that sentiment, telling SFR last week that the department "would have loved, obviously, to hang on to those vehicles." He says they were used for SWAT and crisis negotiations.
"But it was the overall consensus of the city government that just because of the stigma that came along with them, we turned them back and offered them up through the state program," Padilla says.
So he contacted Hamilton, the state Homeland Security official who coordinates the 1033 program for New Mexico, to ask what his options were.
Hamilton says that, in normal times, Padilla could have chosen to send the vehicles straight back to the Defense Department. But the department's receiving centers have been closed since spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was up to Hamilton, then, to seek takers for the equipment. He sent word to every law enforcement agency in the state that participates in 1033; Bernalillo County and Rio Rancho responded.
Rio Rancho added the MRAP to its collection—it now has two—and BCSO took the Humvee for its fleet of two other identical, though older, vehicles. It is not clear which agency paid for the shipping of either vehicle.
Santa Fe residents could still be confronted with a tank-like vehicle cruising the streets. A short drive down the road from the city center, in the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office parking lot across from the county jail, sits a MRAP obtained through 1033. It arrived by the same means by which Padilla shipped his two vehicles out: a transfer from the Rio Arriba County Sheriff's Office in 2015 for the vehicle with a $733,000 price tag. It's the newest model the department could get after discarding an older version, which it received in 2009 from the Albuquerque Police Department.
Sheriff Mendoza's is an elected position, meaning he is not answerable to a governing body on policy or equipment decisions in the same way as Chief Padilla, who was appointed by Mayor Alan Webber.
However, the Santa Fe County Commission does control Mendoza's budget.
County Commissioner Hank Hughes tells SFR via telephone he was not aware the sheriff has an MRAP. A short time later, he called back to say the vehicle is mainly used as a backup to the department's Bearcat, a smaller armored rig that was not obtained from the military.
Hughes says he'd prefer to see the MRAP discarded.
"My opinion is that we should get rid of ours as well as soon as we are able to, budget-wise, because we would probably need to replace it with some kind of vehicle that can withstand bullet fire," Hughes says. "When we have the increase in revenue that would allow us to replace [the MRAP] and give it back, I would be in favor of that."
‘It’s not a weapon’
Military equipment in the hands of domestic law enforcement can leave communities confused and scared, wondering what role the police really play, says McGarrity, the author and former deputy.
Allen, the former ACLU executive, agrees. He says this year's protests pushing for fundamental changes in policing have shone a new, brighter light on the issue.
"It's very problematic, and we've seen it once again all year in 2020, particularly with racial justice implications," Allen says. "It's becoming obvious to a wider and wider swath of Americans: When protesters took to the streets this summer, they were met with a heavily militarized police force. That's the legacy of 1033."
Top Rio Rancho and Bernalillo County officials see it another way. Neither addressed criticisms of the message residents receive by encountering an MRAP during a police action, but they defend the decision to keep such equipment around.
Rio Rancho Lt. Richard Coschade tells SFR the department wanted a Bearcat but couldn't afford one. The used, but free, MRAP from SFPD was the best option.
Coschade says people who don't work in law enforcement don't understand the purpose of the armored vehicles, which is "to protect officers or the public."
"It's not a weapon," he says.
Koren, the Bernalillo County undersheriff whose department took the Humvee from SFPD, tells SFR it made "good sense" given the cost savings. He says the department plans to use it mostly for search-and-rescue purposes as well as chasing suspects eluding law enforcement in the desert.
As for higher-grade military equipment such as an MRAP, Koren echoes Coschade's sentiments about the usefulness and even necessity for these types of vehicles.
"Law enforcement in general that are involved in these 1033 programs, they're trying to make things work and they realize the hard financial times that we're facing…It's not because of the cool factor, I guess," Koren says. "It's because that's what they have available to them and they're going to utilize their resources to protect their personnel. But I don't have any objections to any law enforcement leader working towards protecting their own personnel."
Councilor Villarreal isn't opposed to officer safety. But she says local governments should consider not just their own constituents, but the rest of the state as well.
"There's a combination of political pressure from constituents as well as political will," she says. "I think it helps to then have another level of scrutiny from the public, saying…why they don't think it's needed to militarize our law enforcement offices in New Mexico."
The MRAP and Humvee transfers left her feeling like Santa Fe officials were passing equipment they considered problematic down the road.
"It was really disappointing to me," she says, "because the whole intention is to return them to the entity that is distributing military equipment."