The Santa Fe Police Department, which was on track to reduce its rate of open positions in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, now has its highest number of vacancies in five years, Chief Andrew Padilla told city councilors this week.
The department has 33 vacant police officer positions and 19 open civilian jobs, Padilla told the Quality of Life Committee at a meeting Wednesday. That compares with an average of 28 officer vacancies since 2016, when the agency began to see a rise.
Due to budget cuts tied to the economic effects of the pandemic, a number of positions are not only vacant but unfunded — or “frozen,” Padilla said in an interview Thursday. Out of the 33 officer vacancies, which range from cadet positions to police captain, 15 are unfunded, he said.
The city force long has struggled to retain officers, largely because of higher pay offered by other law enforcement agencies in the area — in particular the Albuquerque Police Department. Following a report by the nonprofit National Police Foundation that found low pay and lack of significant raises were among the top challenges to filling open jobs at the Santa Fe agency, the SFPD boosted its starting wages and increased hiring incentives in February 2020. In May, it hired 10 cadets and two lateral officers — certified law enforcement officers with experience at other agencies.
Then the city began feeling the financial hit from the pandemic.
Padilla said he commends the police department’s staff, especially officers, for the work they have been doing over the year.
“They’re doing more and more with less,” the chief said. “We’re strapped and we’re stretched pretty thin.”
The New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy, which had been shut down due to a surge in virus cases, resumed operations in January. Padilla said that likely will lead to new recruits. Currently, there are six cadets in training who are expected to graduate in May and join the Santa Fe force.
Another factor affecting the overall vacancies was the suspension of the department’s public safety aide program, which allowed applicants as young as 18 to work as aides, assisting with patrols and handling low-level incidents, Padilla said. Those six positions were not funded for the current fiscal year.
Padilla noted it’s more common than in the past for police officers to move between departments. His force also has seen a high rate of retirements in recent years.
“What it just comes down to is retirements, and it’s a tougher time to be police officer nowadays,” Padilla said. “More officers are willing to jump from this department to that department because they offer a little bit more, whether it’s better pay, better vehicles or better technology.”
The most important thing, he said, is that the police department “remain competitive” with larger agencies nearby, such as the Albuquerque Police Department.
City Councilor Chris Rivera, a member of the Quality of Life Committee, acknowledged the pandemic has amplified an ongoing issue.
“It’s been a tough to find and hire police officers for some time, but again, it’s just gotten worse because of the academy shutdown and really not being able to fill positions in a timelier manner than we have been,” Rivera said in an interview Thursday.
Still, Rivera said he doesn’t believe more funding would solve the problem.
“It’s kind of a progressive thing that takes time as people start to make it through [the academy],” the councilor said.
He added: “It will be nice to finally get back to a state of normalcy, where people are applying and we’re getting them into the academy as soon as possible and getting them into the streets, where we need them the most.”