The search for Santa Fe’s next police chief is in full swing—a citywide survey is ongoing, and closed-door meetings with criminal justice professionals and community groups wrapped up last week.
Former Chief Andrew Padilla announced his retirement in late September, after three and a half years overseeing a department of 135 sworn officers with a $27.87 million budget, a 20% vacancy rate and a recent history of high-profile blunders that has one person helping with the search process calling for “cultural change” within SFPD.
The city also has seen an increase the past couple years in some violent crimes, and police brass have remained allergic to transparency around the department’s internal workings, including how officers are disciplined for on-duty misconduct.
The new chief will inherit problems, to be sure, as well as goodwill from many residents who have praised the department’s decision to place “life over property” by stepping back when protesters tore down the Plaza obelisk in 2020, and for forays into alternative programs to divert those with addiction and other mental health issues from the criminal justice system.
City Manager John Blair and Community Health and Safety Department Director Kyra Ochoa are leading the search, which began in mid-November, two weeks before Padilla officially stepped down.
They received a relatively paltry 13 applications over two and a half months. No women applied.
Officials whittled the list to 10 who met the minimum requirements, then two, both from out of state, dropped out. Blair and Ochoa expect to announce their choice by the end of March.
Three of the eight who remain are locals, including SFPD’s interim chief and two other department higher-ups.
Two others are from Albuquerque—one of them has overseen APD’s troubled path toward resolving a long history of use of excessive force. The other, a former Aviation Police Department chief, has been suspended for abusing his position of authority and once called Immigration and Customs Enforcement after a dubious traffic stop, leading to the deportation of a young man who had spent nearly his whole life in the United States.
Blair says the city had not researched any candidate’s past troubles in law enforcement before SFR brought them up in an interview.
Here are the candidates, along with their current or most recent posts in law enforcement, for the job, which has an hourly pay range of $47 to $70.50:
- Paul Joye, deputy chief of police operations and interim chief, SFPD
- Benjamin Valdez, deputy chief of police administration, SFPD
- Thomas Grundler, lieutenant of support operations, SFPD
- Mizel Garcia, retired police commander/deputy chief, Albuquerque Police Department
- Marshall Katz, retired chief of aviation police, City of Albuquerque
- Andrew Rodriguez, deputy chief of police, Rio Rancho Police Department
- Scott Ebner, lieutenant colonel, New Jersey State Police
- Frank Rodriguez, deputy commissioner, North Carolina Department of Insurance Criminal Investigations
The city advertised the position in seven places: its own website, LinkedIn.com, Indeed.com, New Mexico Municipal League, GoLawEnforcement.com, GovernmentJobs.com and the National Minority Update.
City officials didn’t know how many applications they received the last few times the chief position was open, but they say they’re pleased with the applicant pool.
“I think we have some very, very strong candidates and we’re happy with the result,” Ochoa tells SFR. “I think for us it’s about quality, not necessarily quantity.”
(For comparison, the Albuquerque Police Department, which is about six times larger than SFPD, has averaged about 40 applicants during its last three chief searches.)
Successes and failures
SFPD has garnered its share of support in recent years from some corners of a community that largely leans progressive.
The department’s decision to stand down as protesters yanked down the 150-year-old Plaza obelisk—a monument to Union Civil War heroes or a racist monument to the slaughter of Indigenous people and stolen land, depending on who you ask—marked a shift for local police.
They’d taken criticism for a heavy-handed approach to demonstrations against the now-vanished Entrada portion of Fiestas de Santa Fe. But as protests against racist, militarized policing roiled the nation in the wake of a Minneapolis cop’s murder of George Floyd, SFPD chose a different tack on Indigenous Peoples Day in 2020.
They placed “human life over property”—a decision Webber and then-Chief Padilla defended in the wake of the obelisk’s toppling.
Department support for the city leadership’s steps, however small, toward sending social workers and mental health professionals to certain calls instead of police has also earned some praise. The depth of the city’s commitment to such programs, however, remains in question.
There have been persistent problems at SFPD, too.
An audit conducted by a private firm and released in 2020 found dozens of deficiencies with the department’s collection, handling and storage of evidence. Last September, First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies’ office sent a letter to SFPD brass citing a shoddy investigation and laying out numerous missing elements from a high-profile 2020 homicide case that forced the DA to drop charges against the accused. And in October, SFR discovered that the department had been grossly underreporting crimes in annual reports submitted to the FBI for at least three years.
That’s all on top of SFPD’s persistent refusal to make public any information about its internal disciplinary system or even basic facts after an officer has been punished for policy violations and misconduct—information even the transparency-averse APD releases upon request. (SFR is suing the department over the practice, and the case is pending in the state Court of Appeals.)
“The last four or five years, there have been issues with the evidence room, with the quality of investigations, with turning over discovery and police reports and testing reports,” Carmack-Altwies tells SFR. “I would say there’s been an organizational lack of communication between SFPD and my office.”
The DA adds that the relationship has improved in the past few months—since Joye took over as interim chief and Blair assumed the city manager role.
Asked about problems in the department, Ochoa points to recruitment as one of the main “challenges” the new chief will face.
Asked the same question, Blair says that’s for the community to determine.
“[We’re] asking everyone in Santa Fe to please let us know what they think are the priorities,” Blair says. “What are the concerns they have about the existing department? What characteristics and traits should the next police chief have? We’re even telling them to ask us what questions they think we should be asking.”
Problems in the past
When SFR contacted Blair and Ochoa for interviews about their candidates last week, the city had yet to vet any of them.
Valdez, SFPD’s deputy chief of administration and a candidate for the chief position, factored prominently in the run-up to one of the department’s most high-profile shootings in recent memory. He was the on-scene commander in 2017 when officers Luke Wakefield and Jeramie Bisagna shot and killed Anthony Benavidez, a 24-year-old man who was living with paranoid schizophrenia. Benavidez’ family sued the city for wrongful death and, while Valdez wasn’t a named defendant, his failures as a supervisor were cited repeatedly in the lawsuit, which led to a $400,000 settlement.
Some of the other candidates, including Ebner, the New Jersey State Police supervisor, have faced lawsuits for alleged civil rights violations.
Garcia, the retired Albuquerque police commander, also was targeted in a federal civil rights case in which he allegedly omitted information in court records that led to the plaintiff spending weeks in jail after an illegal arrest.
Further, Garcia indicated in the resume he submitted to Santa Fe officials that his time at APD included ensuring that all mid-level supervisors had been trained on the department’s use of force and use-of- force-reporting policies. The independent monitor overseeing a yearslong, federally mandated reform effort at APD has asserted in court documents that the department has failed time and again to meet standards related to officers’ use of force.
Katz, the former Aviation Police Department chief in Albuquerque, has perhaps the most checkered history of any of the SFPD chief candidates.
In 2010, Katz, who worked 22 years for APD before taking the top spot with the aviation department, pulled over a truck on northbound Interstate 25 near Downtown Albuquerque, according to a source with knowledge of the encounter who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. Inside were then-19-year-old Ramón Dorado Jr., and a teenaged passenger. Katz refused to provide a reason for the stop and immediately began asking questions about the pair’s immigration status.
They were undocumented, though both had spent nearly their entire lives in the United States. Katz became suspicious, the source says, called another officer, then summoned ICE. An immigration agent handcuffed Dorado, and the passenger called his father, who rushed to the scene and asked what was happening. “We are deporting him,” the agent said, then his father said: “Then deport me, too.”
That’s exactly what happened, the source says. Dorado spent years in Mexico, tried unsuccessfully to reenter the US legally but was unable. He eventually returned to the US, earned a college degree and remains here today. It is not clear what became of his father.
Katz is seeking a job as police chief in a city whose residents and leaders have for years overwhelmingly supported immigrant-friendly policies.
In 2015, Katz’ last year as aviation chief, he was suspended for 90 days—the maximum punishment short of termination, which Katz successfully appealed, in part—for “misusing aviation department resources for personal gain,” the Albuquerque Journal reported. Among the allegations: Katz ordered subordinates to respond to calls outside their jurisdiction at the airport for his friends and demanded that a female subordinate pluck his eyebrows. Katz created a hostile work environment for those who refused such orders, employees told investigators.
And a KRQE-TV investigation published in 2016 found that Katz oversaw an ongoing program in which aviation cops, working on the city’s dime, provided security for jewelers who transported large shipments of diamonds and other precious stones from the airport to stores in and around Albuquerque.
Katz declined to be interviewed for this story. He issued a statement through counsel in which he said he stopped the car in 2010 for speeding and swerving and did not inquire about the pair’s immigration status (but another officer did). He acknowledged contacting immigration authorities, claiming that he was “required to.”
Katz noted that he believes he had an “all but spotless 38-year career” and wrote “there were some lessons learned on my part with respect to supervising civilians and sworn personnel but I did not abuse my authority.”
Blair, the Santa Fe city manager, says the city had not yet thoroughly conducted background checks on the candidates.
“I can tell you that we are doing that research now,” Blair says. “And again, it was important for us that we not prejudge any of the candidates, and by [SFR] asking those questions about these candidates, by us hearing from residents of Santa Fe about the backgrounds of these candidates, that’s the system working. That is the public telling us either they have concerns about the things you’ve mentioned, or they don’t.”
When the application deadline hit, Blair says, the Human Resources Department sent over a list of the candidates who met the minimum qualifications: 10 years experience in police administration and law enforcement, at least five of them in a management or supervisory position, no felony convictions and other conditions.
No applicants were women
The city’s list of candidates is noteworthy for who’s on it—and who’s not. (Two candidates withdrew their applications, one from New York and another from Illinois.)
“We feel like we have a good diversity of candidates, at least in terms of where they’re from,” Blair says, adding that the candidates are white, Hispanic and African American. “I would have liked to have seen some female applicants applying. I was sorry we didn’t see that.”
A city news release announcing the qualifying candidates issued on Feb. 4 noted that no women applied for the position.
“I wanted us to flag that because my suspicion was that, had we not clarified, Santa Feans would have been upset if they thought women had applied but had not qualified,” Blair says in an interview.
Multiple studies over the last 40 years have found that female officers are less likely to use force and are better at communicating and defusing potentially violent encounters than male officers.
Those findings line up with the experiences of Beth Paiz, who retired from the Albuquerque Police Department in 2012 as the first woman to rise to the rank of deputy chief.
“I can’t speak for any other women but what I saw in my own years in the police department and what I experienced, I think I did have a greater level of empathy going into a call than my male counterparts,” Paiz tells SFR. “I saw a lot of my female peers, when we would go into a call, a lot of it was just listening…and really trying to problem-solve. It’s not always about slapping on the handcuffs and taking the bad guy to jail.”
Paiz, who spent much of her career as a detective investigating sexual assaults and crimes against children, says those skills carried over when she stepped into an administrative role.
“You can walk into a meeting and you can just dictate how things are going to be done or you can take the time to listen,” Paiz says.
Ochoa—while noting that “it’s not a hard and fast rule”—agrees that women have in some cases brought unique skill sets to the city’s police force, which, she says, she’s discussed with leaders in the department. (The police chief reports to Ochoa, as part of a larger reorganization the city undertook in fall 2020.)
“When I did a ride-along with a detective who’s female, one of the things she said was, ‘Well, because some of the people I encounter in the field might be physically stronger than me, I have to have a very well-developed set of skills around deescalation,’” Ochoa says. “After she said it, it seemed obvious.”
Of SFPD’s 135 officers, 22 are women—none ranks higher than sergeant. That’s a rate of about 16%. Nationally, women make up less than 13% of full-time officers, according to 2018 data from the FBI.
“I think there’s an opportunity for us, as we engage in this process, to ask the candidates what can be done in Santa Fe to both recruit qualified women and how to make sure that there’s a career path for them to work their way up to positions of leadership,” Blair says.
Unlike most American police departments, SFPD has had a woman at the helm. Bev Lennen served as chief from 2003 to 2006 before retiring. Particularly during the period two decades ago when even fewer women worked in law enforcement, she was seen as a trailblazer.
Lennen moved out of state and has been largely gone from the public eye for years, but she turned up in 2021, casting what could be seen as a critical eye on how Mayor Alan Webber and other city officials are running things. Lennen appeared in campaign materials for then-City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler, Webber’s opponent in the mayoral election.
Lennen declined to be interviewed for this story.
Another prominent local woman in law enforcement sat in last week on a series of closed-door meetings with candidates for the SFPD chief position, peppering the candidates with questions.
Carmack-Altwies tells SFR she was “disappointed” no women applied for the job.
“I don’t know exactly how recruiting for candidates actually went out, and I do wonder if that could have been improved to diversify the candidate pool,” she says.
Community weighs in
Blair and Ochoa hosted “public safety and community partner dialogue sessions”—panels that were closed to the public—last week with each of the candidates.
Tony Trujillo, one of the panelists and president of the Santa Fe Police Officers Association, says Padilla, the former chief, maintained a good relationship with the union, and he’d like someone who can keep that up to get the position.
“Being that the next chief is going to be our boss, obviously we would like to have a chief that we can work well with and respect, have confidence,” Trujillo tells SFR.
DA Carmack-Altwies points out that she will be among those who work most closely with the new chief and says she hopes the city hires someone with solid management skills.
“Santa Fe PD needs someone with really strong leadership to come in and change the culture, such that there’s less worrying about whose job it is to get a certain task done and more focus on, ‘I am going to make sure that job gets done,’” she says, adding that she doesn’t have a preference for whether the city hires from inside SFPD.
Tomás Rivera, another panelist and executive director of local organization Chainbreaker Collective, tells SFR he’s glad that the city is prioritizing public input.
“It’s kind of refreshing to be able to have this level of community participation in something that’s such a key role for the city,” Rivera says. “This is more than I’m aware of ever happening for a position like this.”
Rivera is concerned about officers who work in Santa Fe but don’t live in the city and “how that affects the dynamic.” Padilla, like many of the department’s officers, did not live in Santa Fe.
One of the department’s biggest challenges, Ochoa says, is Santa Fe’s rising unaffordability.
“The commute times that a lot of folks have to do and the strain that can put on folks makes it challenging,” Ochoa says.
While Rivera thinks the input the city is collecting is “a step in the right direction,” he says there’s still work to be done to build community trust with the police.
“It’s not just about the police chief, it’s about larger, systemic issues,” Rivera says. “It’s much broader and healing the city from all of these divisions and trying to bring trust…It took decades to get us here and it’s going to take time to get us back out.”
Ochoa’s department, which oversees police, fire, community services, recreation and emergency management, was created in September 2020, months after the murder of George Floyd ignited nationwide protests.
“The mayor really had that vision that one of the ways Santa Fe could respond to the national moment and the deep questioning about policing and how policing needed to be working was to think about the continuum from prevention to intervention,” Ochoa says.
Ochoa speaks with the police cheif nearly every day “about various issues that arise,” she says, and the pair has weekly meetings with other department heads.
With about a month left before their target hiring date, city officials say they hope all Santa Feans will weigh in.
The clock is ticking. The city’s community survey closes at 5 pm on Friday.
The city is seeking input on the police chief search. Surveys are available in English and Spanish as hard copies at all three library branch locations and recreation centers and at santafenm.gov/sfpdchiefsearch2022.
SEARCH PROCESS TIMELINE:
Sept. 27, 2021: Andrew Padilla announces he will retire at the end of the year
Nov. 15, 2021: Applications opened
December 2021: Paul Joye begins serving as interim chief
Jan. 28: Applications closed
Feb. 4: Shortlist announced
Feb. 14-18: “Public safety” and “community partner” panels that are closed to the public
Feb. 25: Community survey closes at 5 pm
Date to be determined: The city initially said it intended to begin community question-and-answer sessions with Mayor Alan Webber, city councilors and the public on Feb. 28. Officials had no plan for the events as of presstime.
End of March: City Manager John Blair’s target date for hiring