(TNS) - As a day shift supervisor for the Santa Fe Police Department, Sgt. Craig Ernst directs officers around the city, deciding which 911 calls take top priority and how many officers to send to which calls.
But, Ernst told the Santa Fe City Council on Wednesday night, that job is getting more difficult. He has fewer officers at his disposal, he said, because the local police force is “bleeding out officers,” many of whom are leaving for agencies that pay higher salaries.
“It’s getting really hard. We have minimum staffing levels that we are frequently not meeting,” Ernst told councilors and Mayor Alan Webber. “… We need to stop the bleeding.”
Dozens of Santa Fe police officers, their families and members of other law enforcement agencies lined the walls of an exhibit hall at the Santa Fe County Fairgrounds for Wednesday’s council meeting, where police union President Tony Trujillo outlined the department’s struggles to recruit and retain officers.
The biggest issue in keeping city officers? Pay, Trujillo said.
City Manager Erik Litzenberg said he was looking forward to working with the department to try and help with the staffing issues.
And earlier this week, Webber told The New Mexican he is working on a plan to boost incentives, such as affordable housing for officers on the force and signing bonuses.
The City Council did not take action Wednesday to raise police officer pay during an informational presentation to the city leaders.
“Right now, our union anticipates the loss of 30 to 35 officers, if not more by the end of September,” Trujillo told councilors. “… Our officers are leaving our agency for one reason: That is higher salaries in order to support their families. Albuquerque Police Department and other agencies are paying those salaries.”
Since July, Santa Fe police have lost 13 officers to retirement and to other agencies, Deputy Chief Robert Vasquez told The New Mexican. Police Chief Andrew Padilla said there are 26 officer vacancies right now, which is about 15 percent of the force.
Add to that the number of officers who are in training at the state Law Enforcement Academy, and there are 41 officers who are not currently working the streets, Padilla said.
Some day shifts, Ernst said, there are only five or six police officers working the entire city. On some graveyard shifts, he said, he’s seen staffing levels dip as low as four or five. It’s not unusual, he said, for Padilla and the deputy police chiefs to jump in their cars and help officers in the field respond to incidents because staffing is so low.
Ernst said low staffing raises concerns about not only civilian safety but also the safety of officers.
Police can’t catch as many criminals when they’re understaffed, he added, and wait times are climbing: Callers who’ve had their cars stolen sometimes have waited for two to three hours for a response, Ernst said. He’s had calls about fraud stall for five hours.
“I’d like to be able to say that if you want to call a police officer, I can send you a police officer,” Ernst said. “But I can’t.”
In addition to difficulty holding on to officers who leave the Santa Fe agency for better-paying jobs in other cities, Officer Corrine Jones told the council about difficulty recruiting officers.
In her three years in recruitment, she said, she’s seen a dramatic decrease in the number of people testing for police department jobs. While there used to be 20 to 25 people who came in to take qualifying exams, she said, on recent test days, that number was closer to eight or 10.
“To be completely honest, we aren’t attracting the individuals that we used to because our starting pay is not competitive anymore,” Jones said. “We start our cadets out at $19.11 an hour. We’re not even competing with small towns like Edgewood. They are starting individuals out at $24 an hour.”
At the end of the presentation Wednesday, Padilla took the podium to urge the City Council to consider ways to help the police department.
“I know other departments may be feeling envious or ‘What about me?’ ” Padilla said. “Without public safety, everything else would fall apart. We truly are the caretakers of the community.”
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