With police departments across the country struggling to attract officers, we doubt the Santa Fe Police Department will give up any advantage it has in recruiting and keeping cops. Given the perennial officer shortages, that’s probably wise. It doesn’t change our opinion that Santa Fe residents would be better served if more police officers were our neighbors, living next door and not the next town over.
Instead, only 39 officers live in Santa Fe proper, with another 33 in Santa Fe County. That’s compared to 34 in Rio Rancho, 16 in Albuquerque and 22 in other cities. Should the city face an emergency — whether a mass shooting or a wildfire raging into town — many of the men and women we need keeping order will be a long way away.
What’s more, police officers are allowed to take home their patrol cars. That is designed to give hardworking cops a perk, as well as make neighborhoods safer because bad guys can see cop cars on the streets where they otherwise might be planning mischief. Trouble is, most of those cars aren’t parked in Santa Fe.
None of this is particularly new. Take-home cars seem to be a part of doing business. Under the police union contract, hires before April 2012 can commute 60 miles each way; after that date, the limit is 45 miles each way, with mileage starting at the city limits. Cops who go farther than that can park their patrol cars at a police department or sheriff’s office within the authorized limit but near their homes.
All of that is spelled out. Yet, taxpayers don’t know how much paying for take-home cars costs.
According to reporting by Daniel J. Chacón, the department tracks total fuel and maintenance costs but does not separate out the costs of commuting. There also is no documentation from the officers’ commutes. This lack of bookkeeping is not uncommon. Santa Fe County, which also offers a take-home vehicle policy, does not track the data separately from the costs of mileage, fuel and maintenance costs per vehicle.
Because all law enforcement agencies in the region are offering this benefit, Santa Fe likely can’t eliminate it now. The recruiting disadvantage would be too great. However, it is not too much to ask that taxpayers know the costs. The take-home car is offered to all officers, but obviously the benefit is worth more the farther an officer drives. That begs the question — do in-town officers, or even ones close by in the county, feel a bit cheated? After all, their benefit is much less than that enjoyed by commuters. What should be done to equalize perks?
If nothing else, focusing on this issue should make city leaders consider more carefully what kind of police force we want to build. Police department bosses and city officials need to develop policies that will better support officers who choose to live in the city they serve. The cost of housing obviously needs to be addressed. But educational opportunities for children and jobs for spouses have been mentioned as other concerns. Some officers want a safe place to return to, away from people they might arrest someday. All of this needs to be tackled so that police officers become a part of our community more fully.
Community policing, after all, starts with community. And right now, that community is being built somewhere south of Santa Fe.