Mayor Richard Berry's Repeated Claim Untrue, ABQ Free Press Weekly of Every Police Agency in N.M. Finds
BY DAN KLEIN
There is no police shortage in New Mexico, a new ABQ Free Press Weekly survey shows. The state’s 102 police agencies are collectively staffed at 90.3 percent of the officers they’re budgeted for, and 79 agencies are 90 to 100 percent staffed, the survey shows.
The state’s 102 law enforcement agencies are authorized for 4,920 officers, and they have 4,446 officers on their payrolls, the survey shows.
ABQ Free Press Weekly queried all 112 agencies in the state. Ten of those departments have been absorbed by other agencies.
The bottom line: The staffing levels don’t point to a hiring and retention crisis among police departments – a crisis that Mayor Richard J. Berry and others have said exists.
Berry has told the Legislature that APD’s staffing problem and hiring problems at other New Mexico police agencies are so dire that retired police officers should be allowed to double dip – to come out of retirement and collect paychecks while at the same time collecting their pensions. State pension officials said the proposed exception would pose a threat to the solvency of the state’s public employees pension fund.
At the 2016 regular session of the Legislature last January, Berry made a stir when he threatened to raid other New Mexico departments if his proposed double-dipping exception didn’t pass. Four bills related to police retention and police pensions were introduced; all died.
The results of the newspaper’s survey mirror those of a survey the newspaper did in October 2015 of 70 police agencies. At that time, county sheriff’s offices were collectively staffed at 91 percent, and cities, with the exception of Albuquerque, were at 93 percent.
Albuquerque Police Department spokeswoman Celina Espinoza said APD has 833 full-time sworn police officers, which puts APD at 83 percent of its authorized strength. Thirty-one more officers are expected to graduate in December. That would raise the department’s staffing level to 86 percent of its authorized strength.
APD is also recruiting 25 lateral officers – officers from other agencies – to attend a shortened academy in November. Lateral officers are already certified officers, and thus are counted as sworn once hired. If those 25 hires happen, APD would be at 89 percent of its authorized strength by the end of the year. APD is budgeted for 1,000 officers.
New Mexico’s poor economy and changes to the state pension plan appear to be reasons that departments are having success in hiring and keeping officers.
The Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Department is 100 percent staffed. Rio Arriba Capt. Robert Sanchez said his agency has a waiting list for future hires: “Many of our deputies want to stay in their hometowns, and police work allows them to do this,” Sanchez said. “They don’t want to have to move to find work.”
In 2013, the Legislature passed comprehensive pension reform for the Public Employee Retirement Association. PERA Executive Director Wayne Propst said the reform increased the maximum retirement pension benefit for all PERA members, including public safety officers, to 90 percent of their final average salary.
That means that municipal police officers who work five years beyond their first retirement eligibility after 20 years of service could see an increase in their lifetime PERA benefits of as much as $600,000. That’s a big reason for officers to put off retirement, Probst said.
Other departments are using federal grants to increase their numbers. The Las Cruces Police Department saw its budget for officers increase from 181 in 2015 to 200 in 2016 thanks to such a federal grant, Las Cruces Police Chief Jaime Montoya said.
The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department, the third largest police agency in the state, has been fully staffed for two consecutive years.
New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said that since the July 1, 2015, merger with the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, NMSP has had an authorized strength of 745 officers. NMSP currently has 670 officers, corresponding to a staffing level of 89.9 percent. State Police are currently hiring for a large academy class set to start in December.
The Raton Police Department is budgeted for 14 officers and currently has 10, giving it the worst staffing level in the state at 71 percent. The Taos Police Department is budgeted for 24 officers and employs 18, for a 75 percent staffing rate. Police chiefs for those two departments didn’t return messages seeking comment on their staffing levels.
Fourteen departments in the state were budgeted for nine or fewer officers. Those agencies all had vacancies of one or two officers. Because they are so small, any vacancy dramatically affects their staffing percentage.
One New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy instructor said there’s a reason that training academies across the state are full. “Law enforcement in New Mexico offers good benefits and pay, while allowing people to stay in their community,” the instructor said. “It’s a win-win for the officer and the community they serve.”
Dan Klein is a retired Albuquerque police sergeant. Reach him through Facebook.