They are called “essential services” for a reason. Police, firefighters, teachers, nurses, emergency medical personnel, etc., are the professions we rely on every day to maintain our safety and health and to educate our children. They are at the core of our quality of life and we all want the very best people in these positions, but we don’t pay them as such.

Police departments across the country have for decades faced recruitment problems. I’m not aware of a single agency flush with qualified staff; with all positions filled; with all the equipment and training needed.

That the Albuquerque Police Department is luring Santa Fe police officers away with a dramatic increase in pay and benefits should come as no surprise. That city is doing what is necessary to fill its ranks.

Agencies are desperately seeking qualified new hires anywhere they can find them including, sometimes, looking overseas (as one of my former departments did). In some cases, perhaps many cases, hiring standards have been lowered. The civilian population has no idea how rigorous the requirements are (or should be) for applicants. We expect spotless backgrounds, a good level of education, physical fitness, level-headedness, courage. The list goes on.

And yet, the compensation we offer is, basically, blue-collar. Make no mistake — done properly, policing is not a job. It’s a profession. A good cop must be a combination of warrior, counselor, advocate, listener, lawyer and arbitrator. He or she must be compassionate, wise, forthright, courageous and work from a level and fair head and a good, unbiased heart.

I have believed for many years that to attract the kind of men and women we need in law enforcement, we need to forget the old standards of compensation. Imagine the applicant pool we could attract with a starting salary of $100,000 a year. Imagine the standards we could require when offering such pay. I was fortunate enough to receive an Ivy League education.

For me, law enforcement was (if you’ll forgive the cliché) a calling. I could have earned more money doing almost anything else. I believe most officers are motivated by the same desire; to serve and protect, to help those unable to help themselves and to contribute to their communities in a very positive, essential way. Unfortunately, as we are aware from the news, we find some officers in the profession for the wrong reasons — to bully and abuse or to serve themselves instead of the citizenry. With far more applicants from whom to choose, we would be far less likely to hire a bad apple.

Our society has no problem paying athletes and other entertainers tens of millions of dollars a year. The disparity in pay between the professions we need and those that distract us is ludicrous. Santa Fe is the capital city of this state. How can we not demand the finest, fully staffed, best-trained police department? If we don’t address this problem immediately, we will pay a severe price in more ways than one.

MacKenzie Allen writes from Santa Fe. He is a retired sheriff’s deputy who worked in Los Angeles and Seattle.

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