ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Albuquerque police plan to poach more than 60 officers from other law enforcement agencies in the coming months as part of an effort to grow the size of the department by 100 officers in the current fiscal year.
New Mexico’s biggest police department is expecting to grow from a current force of 853 officers to 973 by next summer, according to a recruiting status report.
Mayor Tim Keller said that will be the closest the department has been to fully staffed in 10 years.
That forecast is taking into consideration that 20 officers are expected to leave the department during the same time.
Keller said he’s heard some concerns from municipalities about taking officers from surrounding departments, but he said addressing crime in Albuquerque is his main priority. In 2017, Albuquerque had some of the country’s highest crime rates for a city its size and during that year had a record number of murders.
“As Albuquerque crime is dealt with, that is definitely good for the whole state,” Keller said recently while signing a bill that will set aside $3 million to fund lateral hires for the rest of the fiscal year. “We also have to make up some ground.”
Because of the Albuquerque Police Department’s pay structure, some of the officers who are leaving other agencies to join Albuquerque police are the most experienced and highly trained officers at their respective agencies, said Deputy Chris Toledo, president of the deputies union at the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office.
Starting pay for an APD officer is $29 an hour, significantly higher than what officers and deputies make in surrounding agencies. And that pay increases as officers gain experience.
The city also has specialty pay and longevity bonuses that can add $100 to $600 to an officer’s paycheck. Officers from outside agencies will qualify for those bonuses.
Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office deputies make $27.03 an hour. Rio Rancho police officers start out making $20.30 an hour. Santa Fe police officers make about $19 an hour.
Toledo said almost all of the deputies on the BCSO’s K-9 unit, who also serve on the SWAT team, have transferred to Albuquerque police. Deputies in the aviation unit have also made the move, he said.
And he said some officers with 13 or more years of experience may make the switch next year if the county doesn’t offer deputies similar incentives for training and experience.
“It’s definitely a start,” he said of the exodus. “I think it could be catastrophic.”
Later this month, Albuquerque will graduate a lateral academy class of 29 officers. Nine of those officers are from the BCSO, and five had worked at the Santa Fe Police Department, according to city documents.
APD also has a lateral police academy class that is projected to graduate in January with 30 officers, and the city is planning for a mixture of about 50 laterals and regular police academy cadets to graduate next summer.
Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said his office remains fully staffed. He said the Sheriff’s Office plans ahead to recruit new officers to compensate when deputies leave or retire.
“You are always gonna have a concern at a head of an agency when it comes to retention and recruitment,” Gonzales said. “But I don’t think they are leaving in droves. To paint a picture that they’re leaving for morale is not accurate.”
Rio Rancho police Capt. Ron Vigil said city and police officials are aware of APD’s recruiting efforts and are discussing ways to keep their officers on board.
The Santa Fe Police Department said this month that it is offering new bonuses to new officers and those who transfer to the agency. University of New Mexico police officers recently got a 13 percent pay raise.
“It is a topic that we are looking at,” Vigil said. “It is difficult. Eight to nine dollars an hour is a pretty significant pay disparity.”
It’s not the first time that APD has grown in size by taking officers from other departments. From 2000 to 2010, the department hired a significant number of officers from outside agencies.
According to a lawsuit brought by the family of Alan Gomez, who was killed by a police officer in 2011, the city did so by violating its standards for hiring officers.
The department allegedly stopped doing independent psychological evaluations of candidates, accepted officers from departments with lower training standards and overlooked prior misconduct cases, according to the lawsuit, which was settled for $900,000 in 2013.
Keller and police officials said they are closely vetting all lateral hires during the current hiring push.
“We are fortunate to have more demand … than we can process. That allows us to be more selective,” Keller said. “We’re doing everything we can to pick the best and brightest from other agencies.”
Cmdr. Angela Byrd, who oversees the police training academy, said all lateral hires are vetted just as stringently as new hires.
They must pass a psychological evaluation and a polygraph test, even if they already had completed those at their other departments.
Once they are selected, they are put through a nine-week police academy that covers Albuquerque police firearms and use-of-force training. The lateral academy also covers training that is required as part of the city’s settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which aims to correct a pattern of excessive force found during a review of 20 police shootings from 2009 to 2012, and other use-of-force cases that happened from 2009 to early 2013.
Hunter Weaver is one of APD’s first lateral hires this year. He has worked as an officer in Farmington and other smaller cities around the state, and will graduate later this month.
Weaver is an Albuquerque native and decided to leave a quieter town for what he expects to be a faster-paced assignment.
“In Farmington … you could do what you wanted. You could go out and do traffic stops, look for DWIs or drugs,” he said. “APD is call volume. But police work is police work.”