By the time District 4 City Council candidate Amanda Chavez had finished knocking on a few doors for the
Nov. 2 election, she had added a new priority to her platform: public safety.
Chavez, the special education director for Santa Fe Public Schools, a former principal at César Chávez Elementary School and a former member of the city’s Planning Commission, said concerns were clearly beginning to boil over in the south-central district.
“As I started going door to door, it was public safety that was mentioned the most,” she said. “Repeatedly, a lot of individuals were thinking of public safety.”
Opponent Rebecca Romero expressed similar sentiments, saying it’s an issue not just in her district but throughout Santa Fe.
Romero, a management analyst with the state Department of Health, said a primary focus for her is addressing staffing issues within the Santa Fe Police Department to more evenly spread out law enforcement resources.
“We need to find out a better way to recruit officers to keep them in our city,” she said. “If we can figure out and maintain successful recruitment, we would have enough officers to keep in each district.”
In March, the department reported its highest number of vacancies in five years — 33 officers — straining already-limited resources.
Chavez said she recently met with the Santa Fe Police Officers Association alongside Councilors Roman “Tiger” Abeyta and Signe Lindell to gather feedback and came away believing the city should examine some of the ways it recruits.
She said would-be officers might be attracted by amenities such as newer vehicles and a more streamlined and accessible path for professional growth — offerings the city might be overlooking.
“A lot [of the vehicles] are old,” Chavez said. “That is not great when we have a new recruit. I know it sounds like it’s not important. But it is; that is their office.”
Romero said one of the primary complaints she heard as she knocked on doors involved police responsiveness, which she said was a byproduct of the department’s staffing.
“They aren’t ignoring calls,” she said. “It’s they can’t make it to every single call that is out right now.”
The city revamped its recruitment efforts as it approved its fiscal year 2022 budget, but Romero said she doesn’t believe it goes far enough to edge out area departments such as the Albuquerque Police Department.
The city offered a $15,000 recruiting bonus for experienced officers who started the hiring process before April 30, as well as 160 hours of leave. The department also has a car take-home program for officers who commute to work.
Romero said she favors pay raises for police officers, to help recruit and retain them and help them deal with Santa Fe’s higher-than-average cost of living.
Chavez said she also favors pay increases, but the city needs to get more creative and engaging with its recruiting process. Candidates are attracted by more than just a paycheck, she said.
“The bonuses are great, but then what?” Chavez said. “They ask that question. And I think that is a great question. What do I look forward to?”
Without being critical, both candidates said they felt police Chief Andrew Padilla’s recent retirement announcement offered a good opportunity to start rethinking certain department approaches.
Chavez said she saw it as an “exciting” moment for Santa Fe.
“I am sure the department is uneasy about the change,” she said. “But I feel like with new city leadership and within that department, I actually think we’re in a great place to have those conversations.”
One of the conversations Chavez hopes to have involves the interplay between gun violence and crime, and wellness and trauma.
“They have to address wellness,” she said. “We’re ranked as one of the worst states to raise a child. Those rankings are not changing. Every community from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, wellness is something we have to start paying attention to.”
Romero said she is concerned about a lack of programs for children in District 4, especially after the pandemic shuttered schools and other vital resources last year.
“If they are not busy and they are bored, they are going to find something they’re not supposed to be getting into,” Romero said.
Chavez said a stronger communication among the city, police and the City Council would lead to a more robust discussion about how to tackle issues like youth gun violence and homelessness.
“We have the dedicated people,” she said. “I want to emphasize that. Our police officers are often so criticized, but here in Santa Fe, we have people who are stretched so thin. But they are OK with it because they know it is what it takes to keep Santa Fe safe. Communication will fix a lot of those issues.”
Romero agreed, stating she wanted to bring “trust” back between the department and the council.
“It can’t just be the governing body,” she said. “To make these decisions, ideas have to come from within the police department. It has to be a partnership.”