ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden says he expects the police department’s ranks to shrink for another year or so, even though the size and number of police academy classes have increased and hundreds of “qualified candidates” are expressing interest in the department every month.
The department has 135 fewer officers than the 1,000 authorized, Eden said, and the number who will become eligible to retire will outpace police academy graduates until about January 2017. A police spokeswoman said police officials anticipate the number of officers on the force will hover around 850 or just below that.
There is no way to add enough new officers to offset retirements, Eden said, because selecting, vetting and training applicants is a lengthy process.
Meanwhile, dozens of officers are close to qualifying for retirement.
“We are behind the power curve,” he said.
Already, wait times for officers to answer calls have increased, as has the city’s violent crime rate.
In an interview, Eden said he does believe current recruiting efforts are finding success, as the frequency and size of Albuquerque police academy classes are increasing.
From October 2012 through October 2013, Albuquerque police completed three police academy courses and just 28 officers graduated.
From May 2014 through October 2015, the department completed four academy classes, with 87 cadets becoming police officers.
There is a class of 41 cadets currently seated that is scheduled to graduate in March 2016.
But around the time that class will graduate and start to patrol as field services officers, about 50 officers will qualify for retirement, Eden said.
The 865 officers in the department include a 17-member police academy class that graduated earlier this month.
The graduates have several months of field training and training courses to complete before they can start to patrol streets themselves.
The size of the force has been shrinking for at least five years. Since 2010, the department has lost 432 officers. The vast majority of those losses were the results of resignations and retirements, according to Albuquerque human resources records.
In the same time period, the city hired 264 police officers. Ten of those were lateral hires from another department.
Eden said the number of officers coming and going from the department should level off around May 2016, but he doesn’t believe the number of officers will start to increase until late 2016 or early 2017.
Eden said return-to-work legislation, which would allow police officers to retire and then come back after 60 days or so and work while collecting a pension, would change the situation earlier than that. But a measure to allow the practice stalled in the state Senate this year.
Eden, the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and Mayor Richard Berry were among those who supported the initiative. Officials from the Public Employees Retirement Association and police union officials have opposed it.
A number of mayors from around the state attending a summit hosted by Berry here last month also expressed support and said they were facing similar shortages of police officers.
Albuquerque police are authorized for 1,000 officers – which was lowered from the official goal of 1,100 the city maintained for a number of years. It was reduced, in effect, as a nod to reality and pressure for more accurate budgeting.
When Eden took over as chief in February 2014, he said he immediately revamped the department’s recruiting strategy to seek out candidates online.
Edit House, a Rio Rancho advertising business, and Real Time Solutions, an Albuquerque Web development company, were hired as part of the recruiting effort.
Since mid-2014, Edit House has been paid $186,440 in city funds and Real Time Solutions has made $54,433 for its work with the city, according to the city of Albuquerque’s website.
People across the country are targeted when they search online for “how to become a police officer” and “a police officer’s salary,” Eden said. The recruiting programs also have the ability to focus on places where police departments and military bases have cut police officers.
Albuquerque police also recently started advertising with online videos that aim to sell the department and Albuquerque to potential officers. The videos have shots of Albuquerque police officers patrolling Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and Old Town, riding horseback in the bosque, rappeling off rock faces and patrolling with the city’s skyline in the background.
Eden said hundreds of qualified candidates from across the country are filling out “interest cards” every month. But those people are a long ways from becoming police officers.
To become an officer, an applicant must pass written, physical ability, psychology and reading comprehension tests and a polygraph test. Candidates also must pass an extensive background check and a medical exam. If they make it through those steps, they enter the academy.
Albuquerque police used to require two years of college or the equivalent. Earlier this year, the requirements were changed so some candidates without the college requirements could complete their needed credit hours after they begin working as police officers.
Once they graduate from the academy, they must complete three months of field training and more crisis intervention and criminal investigation training before they can take to the streets.
Eden said, on average, if 500 qualified people start taking the tests, the pool will be winnowed to about 45 by the time they start an academy class.
“Through each step there’s anywhere between a 40 to a 50 percent failure rate,” he said.
And if they do pass every stage, “The day they start to the day they are out on their own is just short of one year,” he said.
Violent crime up
As the number of Albuquerque officers declined, the calls for service increased, as did the violent crime rate. The average response time to the most serious 911 calls has slowed from 8 minutes and 56 seconds in the 2010 fiscal year to 10 minutes and 43 seconds in the 2015 fiscal year, which ended in June.
In that same time, the number of Priority 1 calls Albuquerque police handled went from 53,000 to about 69,000, according to police records.
In 2010, there were 30,663 violent and property crimes in Albuquerque. In 2014, there were 35,371, according to FBI statistics.
While APD is losing officers and trying to recruit new ones, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office is close to fully staffed.
BCSO Sgt. Aaron Williamson, a spokesman, said the department is authorized for 302 deputies but can have as many as 312 at a time. There are currently 294 deputies in the department, and 16 cadets are in an academy scheduled to graduate in December.
“We’re a small agency in a large metropolitan area,” Williamson said. “It’s a little different environment.”
Albuquerque police are facing reforms after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found APD had a pattern of violating constitutional rights and a “culture of aggression.”
Two of the department’s officers are facing a murder trial for fatally shooting a mentally ill homeless man in the Sandia foothills in 2014.
Albuquerque police also have a strict lapel camera policy that requires them to record most encounters with the public.
At the sheriff’s office, deputies do not wear on-body cameras.
City Councilor Diane Gibson said she, too, is expecting the police department to face problems because of the size of the force for the foreseeable future.
But in the meantime, she said there are some steps APD’s leadership can make to gain respect among the rank and file that could keep the size of the department steady.
Gibson cited an anonymous council-sponsored survey of officers who retired or became qualified to retire in the last year. Gibson sponsored the legislation that created the survey, which questioned officers about why they left or chose to stay on the force.
The primary reasons that officers were leaving was a lack of support from city officials and concerns about the leadership within the department.
“I think what needs to begin is the command staff needs to model the behavior we expect to see from the entire department,” she said.
To achieve that, she suggested two things. One is to get rid of the $6,000 to $12,000 in annual bonuses being paid to officers holding a rank of commander and above who are eligible to retire but commit to another year of work.
The mayor says the bonuses are crucial to keeping experienced leaders on the force.
Albuquerque police officers recently voted down a contract with the city that would have provided a similar bonus structure for experienced officers, though the amount of the bonus was less than that offered to the highest-ranking officers. Talks between the city and the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, which represents the rank and file, are ongoing.
Gibson also recommends requiring all officers within the department, regardless of rank, to have to respond to at least some calls for service. “That will build trust and respect,” she said.
Eden said the results of the council’s survey are being considered as police look for ways to increase the size of the force.