New Mexico State Police officers pay attention to numbers, if only because there’s that ever-changing odometer on the dashboard of their patrol cars.
Tim Johnson, the new chief of a far-flung operation that has outposts from Clayton to Lordsburg and Hobbs to Farmington, is no different. Asked about reports of division within the department under his predecessor — the kind that spurred lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation — and he falls back on the math.
“Four or five people in an organization of 1,300,” he said, “doesn’t make an organization divided, in my opinion.”
In his 19th year with the state police, Johnson has built a career that spans the gamut (patrolman, instructor, criminal investigator, public information officer) in a department where there’s always a new assignment and a long road to travel.
Knowing that, Johnson said he’s determined to get his department ready for the next decade rather than worry about the one about to end.
Appointed earlier this year by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Johnson said the department needs a variety of technological upgrades — and a new way of thinking about policing — as it exits from the controversies endured under his predecessor, Pete Kassetas. Kassetas’ rocky tenure was marked by out-of-court legal settlements that cost taxpayers nearly $2 million.
Asked in a recent interview about the most important issues facing state police, Johnson said it wasn’t morale or the lingering effects of the controversies from the past few years. Instead, he said, his department is “15, 20 years behind, technology wise” compared to other law enforcement agencies around the country.
“In past years, we’ve struggled to get that done,” he said. “Maybe because we’ve lacked knowledge or we’ve lacked funds. I feel that’s very important with how crime is these days, to have some kind of analytics to ensure we’re doing the right things in the right areas for the right reasons.”
Johnson made a presentation in October to officials at the state Department of Information Technology about proposals to help the department catch up with law enforcement technology. In his pitch for next year’s budget, Johnson is requesting a $5.4 million records management system, which he said will “revolutionize the way we do business.”
He’s also asking for an upgrade to the agency’s computer-aided dispatch system, which would allow rural law enforcement to tie into the state police network “for a very affordable price.”
Johnson said his budget, which will be presented to legislators next month, also will request an additional 60 men and women to its staff 650 sworn officers.
But there’s more to his wish list than just money.
Johnson said it’s important for state police officers to be seen as key members of the cities and towns they serve. Since becoming chief, he has started a community engagement unit that works with people to hear their concerns.
“We’re working to spend more time in the community — being seen by the community, not just in an enforcement capacity,” he said. “I’ve mandated all our patrolmen and agents be at a rural school at least twice a week. They can be there for lunch with the kids or at drop-off in the morning or pickup in the afternoon to be visible to the children.”
Johnson said he’s also asked sergeants, lieutenants and captains to attend as many city council and county commission meetings as often as they can.
“This is to make sure we’re present there to help the local law enforcement agencies and to help the citizens with any problem they may have,” he said. “Everyone in our organization is working to enhance our community policing capabilities.”
Though Johnson speaks sincerely about the central role of state police in many cities and towns throughout the state, it’s clear the specter of recent controversies are not forgotten. The department was wracked at the end of Gov. Susana Martinez’s second term by a settlement involving a member of her security detail and lawsuits against Kassetas filed by officers and a high-profile state official.
Johnson, 43, said he’s confident department policies should keep similar problems from happening under his watch.
“We’ve had a robust system in place since 2012,” he said. “And when it comes to harassment, be it sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, we’ve had a policy since 2002 that’s basically a zero-tolerance policy. It’s been that way since I’ve been in this organization.”
He didn’t say why the policy didn’t work under Kassetas. Johnson acknowledged some of the complaints centered on the department’s promotions process, and said it has instituted a different process in order to “give more folks the opportunity to participate in the process and more opportunity to promote.”
Johnson, who grew up in Roswell, is the father of a 16-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son. He has risen through the ranks from his start as a patrol officer in Santa Fe. He’s had stops in places as varied as Deming and Albuquerque and worked in bureaus that ranged from narcotics to investigations. He even did a stint as a member of the newly elected Martinez’s security detail. It lasted just six months.
He also spent time as the agency’s public information officer. The summer of 2011 was not an easy time to be spokesman for state police. During his brief tenure, an officer was caught on camera having sex with a woman on the hood of his police cruiser. The officer was subsequently fired.
“That wore me out a little bit,” Johnson said, referring to dealing with media inquiries about the incident.
In 2015, he became a major in the Investigations Bureau, where he remained until being named to succeed Kassetas.
Contacted by The New Mexican, Kassetas had nothing but praise for Johnson.
“Chief Johnson and the majority of his staff worked directly for me on my staff and as the former chief I am proud that through succession several members of my staff continue to lead the agency,” Kassetas said in an email. “However, Tim is his own leader and has his own vision which has moved the State Police forward. I think he is doing a great job and will continue to do so moving forward.”
Later, Kassetas wrote: “I also gave him the best advice I ignored: Don’t stay too long!”
Johnson doesn’t seem worried about the length of his tenure. He said that in the changing landscape of law enforcement — and society — it’s important to be thinking ahead. That’s what he’s trying to do.
“Even in New Mexico in the last eight, 10 years, law enforcement has shifted based on some events that have happened around the country and locally,” he said, referring to controversial police shootings. “I wasn’t at any of those events, obviously, and I wouldn’t pass judgment on those decisions those officers had to make at the time, but if organizations aren’t learning from those incidents, I think they’re going to be left behind.
“Citizens are demanding something different from their police officers these days. And we’re trying to stay in line with that.”