Most Santa Fe cops commute and take vehicles home with them

Santa Fe police vehicles are among those southbound on Interstate 25 seen last month from the Cochiti exit. The department allows officers to drive their city-owned police vehicles home as part of a larger retention and recruiting effort. But most officers live outside the city of Santa Fe. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican

Here’s what we know: Only about a quarter of Santa Fe police officers live in the city.

Here’s what we don’t: how much it costs taxpayers to subsidize officers’ commutes.

The Santa Fe Police Department, which allows officers to drive their city-owned police vehicles home as part of a larger retention and recruiting effort in the face of the city’s relatively higher living costs compared to those in surrounding communities, doesn’t track mileage or gas and maintenance expenses related to its take-home vehicle policy. Each officer is issued a fuel card to make gas purchases at the consumer market cost.

The department tracks total fuel and maintenance costs but doesn’t separate commuting costs; nor does it document mileage from officers’ commutes, making it impossible to determine the true cost of the take-home vehicle program.

“It would be challenging and over burdensome to separately track how much fuel is going to an officer’s commute or on-duty,” Deputy Chief Ben Valdez said in an email in response to a series of questions about the policy. “Whether it’s two miles or 20, that officer is still in service to the community of Santa Fe and the difference in cost between patrol miles and commute miles is built into the cost of providing that service.”

The Santa Fe Police Department isn’t the only law enforcement agency in the area that offers a take-home vehicle policy but doesn’t track the cost of commuting.

“Santa Fe County tracks mileage, fuel and maintenance costs, per vehicle … as an aggregate cost,” Juan Ríos, a spokesman for the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, said in an email. “Vehicle take-home data is not segregated into its own data set.”

Whatever the price, Santa Fe police say the take-home vehicle program is worth the cost.

Valdez contends the policy is a critical tool for recruiting and retaining officers in Santa Fe, a city that has struggled to fill vacancies in the police department for years. The city also has lost officers to other departments that pay more money.

Valdez said law enforcement agencies in the region all offer a take-home vehicle program and would have a “serious advantage” over the Santa Fe Police Department in recruitment and retention if the city did away with its policy.

“Allowing officers to take home vehicles expands the range of prospective talent available to the SFPD recruiters, people who might not be willing to drive in from Rio Rancho or Española in their own vehicles but would consider a commute in a patrol car,” he wrote.

“If Santa Fe considers ending a take-home vehicle program, this would make the department an outlier in comparison to area agencies who permit their police personnel to have a take-home vehicle and has the potential for personnel to seek employment elsewhere with the loss of this program,” he added. “Recently, the Albuquerque Police Department has relaxed their take-home vehicle radius to allow former SFPD officers, whom they now employ, to commute in their issued APD patrol unit from Albuquerque to their residence in Santa Fe.”

To be clear, no one in the administration of Mayor Alan Webber is calling for an end to the program. But revelations that only about 27 percent of Santa Fe police officers live within city limits raised questions about the cost of the program.

Of the 144 sworn officers who were with the Santa Fe Police Department as of mid-August, 39 lived within Santa Fe city limits, according to numbers provided by the city. Another 33 lived within Santa Fe County but outside the city.

The greatest numbers of officers who lived outside Santa Fe County were in Rio Rancho and Albuquerque, at 34 and 16, respectively. Others lived as far away as Las Vegas, Moriarty, Edgewood, Los Lunas, Ojo Caliente and Sapello.

Only two members of the police department’s command staff, both lieutenants, live in Santa Fe, according to records obtained from the department. None of the captains or deputy chiefs lives in the city, and neither does Chief Andrew Padilla, who recently moved to Rio Rancho.

Under Santa Fe’s police union contract, each officer is issued a police vehicle that he or she can take home. Officers hired before April 2012 can commute within a 60-mile radius. Subsequent hires can commute within a 45-mile range.

Currently, 143 officers, including Padilla, are “eligible” to participate in the program, according to Valdez. Of those officers, 60 were hired before April 2012, which means they can commute 60 miles each way. The remaining 83 were hired after April 2012 and can commute 45 miles each way. The mileage count begins at city limits.

Ríos, the sheriff’s office spokesman, said all sworn personnel, including Sheriff Adan Mendoza, have take-home vehicles. Currently, the sheriff’s office has 91 deputies who have take-home vehicles.

They can drive their take-home unit up to 29 miles beyond the Santa Fe County line,” Ríos said. “To exceed the 29-mile boundary, they’d need to receive approval from the sheriff.”

The city police department has a similar rule.

If an officer’s home is beyond the allowed 60 or 45 roadway miles, he or she can ask the police chief for permission to park their city-owned vehicle at a police department or a sheriff’s office near their residence that is within the authorized limit, Valdez said.

Only two officers don’t drive all the way home. One parks at the Isleta Police Department, and the other parks at the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office.

“The fleet manager conducts periodic checks for compliance to ensure vehicles are not parked outside the authorized take-home limit of the employee,” Valdez wrote.

In 2014, as former Mayor Javier Gonzales and the City Council considered expanding the take-home vehicle policy for new hires, Mike Loftin, executive director of Homewise Inc., a nonprofit that helps low- and moderate-income people buy homes, raised concerns about what he called the “proposal to subsidize police officers’ commute to Rio Rancho.”

“We feel this change would be a step backward, the equivalent of paying officers to leave town,” Loftin said at the time in an email to city officials. “Homewise believes the city should maintain its focus on helping people to live in Santa Fe, not to leave it.”

Loftin estimated the added cost of an officer commuting 90 miles round trip every day of a four-day workweek came to $4,200 annually.

“If the city has an additional $4,200 per officer to spend, those funds should be spent in a way that benefits the city and advances the city’s goal to create an inclusive community where local workers can, and do, live in the community they serve,” he wrote in the email.

Valdez said the take-home vehicle policy offers other benefits.

“For an emergent situation such as a call-out or mandatory call back, personnel are able to deploy immediately to the scene rather than necessitating the need to report to a central storage area where fleet vehicles would need to be maintained,” Valdez wrote.

Valdez also contends allowing officers to commute in city-owned police cruisers extends the life of the vehicles. Assigning a take-home vehicle improves the maintenance and longevity of a vehicle as opposed to a so-called “hot-seat fleet,” he said.

“The term ‘hot seating’ of vehicles is a method used by utilizing the same vehicles in the field among patrol shifts. Vehicles used in this manner have been demonstrated in numerous studies to have a shorter life cycle because they are constantly being run and have an increased maintenance cost in comparison to a vehicle issued to a department member,” Valdez wrote.

“The cost of repairs is increased for damage and wear because there is less of a feeling of ownership and accountability in comparison to a vehicle issued to a single employee who is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the vehicle. Identifying issues or items in need of repair on a vehicle that is hot seated is also more challenging to identify for the vehicle operator in comparison to a vehicle the employee operates every day.”

In other words, Valdez said, officers have a sense of ownership and responsibility to their patrol car if they get to drive their assigned vehicle home.

Staff writer Ari Burack contributed to this report.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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