One truth about hometown politics is self-evident.
An election year expands the number of cops on the beat, no matter how peaceful the day.
Six city police cars and almost as many officers were on the Santa Fe Plaza by 8 a.m. Saturday. Vendors hadn’t yet set up their wares on the portal, and only a few tourists were out for a stroll. Yet officers were positioned as though they expected a crush of humanity for the burning of Zozobra.
Why the heavy police presence?
“We just want to make sure everybody’s safe. It’s a holiday weekend,” said Sgt. Patrick Sanchez.
It was a holiday weekend one year ago, too, but police officers weren’t conspicuous on the Plaza then. Far from it.
Police in 2020 knew violent demonstrators had arrived in town to break laws as Indigenous Peoples’ Day approached. Yet few police officers were on the Plaza.
Dozens of officers had been mobilized at Fort Marcy Park, more than a mile from the heart of downtown. The police command staff was well aware a mob was defacing and hammering the Soldiers’ Monument on the Plaza. But the brass told rank-and-file officers to stand down — to let criminals rule the day.
Emboldened by the absence of police, vandals destroyed the 152-year-old monument.
Now that the stone obelisk has been broken to bits, there’s little reason to expect another violent uprising on the Plaza.
But one significant difference exists between last year and the present: The city election is underway.
Early voters are casting ballots. Election Day itself is only about three weeks away.
Mayor Alan Webber is seeking a second term. He said he agreed with the police command staff’s decision to cede the Plaza to the lawbreakers. Police prevented injuries by backing down, Webber said.
His rationalization can’t mask a hard truth. If police officers been deployed properly throughout the holiday weekend, they could have kept the peace. They could have saved the obelisk.
Webber always ignores this point, as if “To serve and protect” is nothing more than a slogan.
Because he is on the ballot this fall, Webber cannot afford a repeat of violence, especially in the most famous part of Santa Fe. Lawlessness while voters are going to the polls could only help his main challenger, City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler.
Law enforcement should not shift direction with the gales of politics.
Destruction of public property was as much a crime last October as it is today.
Yet, when the threat to public safety was the greatest, the police presence on the Plaza was small and then nonexistent. This time, there were so many police cars and officers that tourists were puzzled.
By a little after noon Saturday, the number of police cars had increased to eight. Officers took a prominent stand in front of the vehicles.
A man from Wisconsin approached three police officers who were chatting among themselves. He wanted to know why so many cops were on hand.
“We’re just hangin’ out,” one officer responded.
It wasn’t much of an answer. But why bore visitors with the politics of policing?
Native dancers finished a performance on the bandstand. Tourists clicked cellphone photos. Other people shopped for jewelry or looked for something to eat.
Another tourist asked the assembled trio of police officers if he could buy Indian fry bread nearby. He walked away disappointed by their answer.
Kevin McKown, visiting from Albuquerque, learned about the destruction of the obelisk as he and his friends from Las Vegas, Nev., wandered through the Plaza.
The mayor and many in his political base wanted the Soldiers’ Monument removed from the Plaza. The criminal element knew Webber’s leanings.
Webber said it contained a racist panel that once referred to “savage” Indians. That word was removed in 1974 by an objector wielding a chisel.
Other panels of the obelisk lauded Union soldiers who helped save the country by stopping the Confederacy’s westward advance in New Mexico.
The obelisk was a complex mix of messages, a point not lost on McKown.
“If you hide history, you’ll never learn anything about it,” he said.
The crowd on the Plaza had grown to a few hundred by early afternoon. It was calm, orderly, polite.
Nowhere were hooligans like the ones who arrived last year to destroy the Soldiers’ Monument.
Mostly from other towns, the lawbreakers had no reason to return to the Plaza this year. They had nothing else to break. Even if they did, police would have shut them down. It’s campaign season.