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Citizen Police Advisory Committee discusses trends with Farmington officers

Hiring, retention are biggest challenges for Farmington Police Department
Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe reports to the Citizen Police Advisory Committee. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)

The Citizen Police Advisory Committee meeting on March 21 focused on the impact of legislative changes and use of force trends in the Farmington Police Department.

Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe reported on how changes enacted at the recently completed New Mexico state legislative session will impact the department.

Hebbe said PERA’s retirement and rehiring policy likely will alter retirement plans for some officers.

Senate Bill 252 changed the years of service required to receive full retirement pay from 28 to 30. Hebbe said this may help with current staffing issues by enticing officers nearing retirement to stay with the department longer in order to receive the full pension.

With current national attitudes toward law enforcement tending toward the negative, hiring and retention is the primary challenge for law enforcement.

Hebbe said the department has 18 open positions and the department has had to shut down its four-man impact team.

“I need the bodies on the street,” he said.

“We actually see good numbers applying for positions,” Hebbe said, but the numbers of qualified applicants are “alarmingly” down from when he began his career in law enforcement.

Civilian park rangers, of which there are 10, help with some of the day-to-day demands of patrol and community safety.

“They’re kind of eyes and ears for the officers with their visible presence,” Hebbe said. Rangers carry radios and tasers for protection, but they do not enforce laws. “They’re more our presence to keep problems from coming up in the first place and to report problems to patrol if they encounter one.”

Hebbe recently traveled to Albuquerque to make a statement in the sentencing phase for Elias Buck, 23, who shot Farmington police officer Joseph Barreto last year. It had been 30 years since an FPD officer was shot in the line of duty.

In a phone interview, Hebbe said the shooting incident was “extremely traumatic for the department” and that it hurt their ability to recruit and to retain officers.

“You know, there’s a lot of second-guessing of the police, a lot of scrutinizing of them,” Hebbe said. “We have a tendency to gloss over when the officers are the victims of something as significant as this.”

Hebbe said he called on the judge at the sentencing hearing, saying it “was her moment as a federal judge to deliver a clear message that this kind of violence toward police is absolutely not acceptable.”

“And I thought the judge did a very good job of delivering that message,” he said. Buck received the maximum sentence of 120 months for a felon in possession of a firearm. State charges related to the shooting are still pending.

Capt. Nathan Lacey stated that Charles Scheer of the University of Southern Mississippi will travel to Farmington and Durango to conduct departmentwide surveys on retention and career perception.

Citizen Police Advisory Committee members (left to right) Michelle Meyering, Terry Hayes, Patricia Simpson, Matt Clugston, Traci Neff and David Bratcher, serve for three-year terms. (David Edward Albright/Durango Herald)

    Legislative changes also addressed law enforcement use of force policies.

    “The legislature wants to make sure that everyone has … modern use of force policies, consistent with best practices,” Hebbe said in a phone interview. A database is being developed which will track officer certifications and all other official actions. The database will be easily referenced by agencies across the state.

    Currently, every officer must attend the state police academy to become certified, but that certification can be suspended or revoked. Hebbe said that if an investigation sustains an accusation of lying, the officer’s certification will be handled accordingly.

    Across the nation, the public is seeking greater transparency and accountability by law enforcement and governmental agencies. Hebbe said that peer intervention training will help to minimize excessive use of force.

    Hebbe referenced the “George Floyd case and the Memphis case, where there were multiple officers on scene when criminal use of force was being applied.” He said Farmington, along with many other departments, are sponsoring active bystander training for law enforcement officers to help prevent this type action.

    The push is for officers to be “trained and then charged with intervening when they're seeing criminal behavior on the part of other officers … and to report it,” Hebbe said.

    FPD changed their use of force policies in 2016 after bringing in consultant Eric Daigle. Hebbe had worked with Daigle previously in Anchorage, Alaska as chief of police.

    “He helped us rework our policies, and then through the years as we've gone into more CIT (crisis intervention team) training and more deescalation being the emphasis,” Hebbe said.

    Officers were trained to “slow down” and focus on the case at hand, rather than the next call, Hebbe said. The emphasis is on “deescalation, calming folks down and getting more officers on the scene to better control circumstances if things don’t go so well.”

    Hebbe emphasized that with more officers on the scene, use of force is less likely. The whole department is trained in CIT, and new officers receive the training early in their employment.

    Lacey said officers face a wide variety of problems on a daily basis, whether drug or alcohol influence or mental illness. “For us to eliminate use of force, there's just some people that no matter how good a job the officer does, they're probably not going to be able to avoid the use of force,” he said.

    The new building planned for FPD will include a permanent space to train officers on how to best handle situations that may give rise to use of force.

    “The nice thing about the new building is we’re going to have some dedicated space where it's going to be set up full-time. Right now, that takes a little bit to set it up, take it down and work through those issues,” Lacey said.

    Sgt. Luther Mosley reported on the use of force statistics, noting year-over-year changes from January and February 2022 to 2023.

    “Use of force” incidents showed a slight increase from nine to 10 in January 2022 to 2023, with an increase from five to nine in February 2022 to 2023.

    “Total officers utilizing force” showed increases in both years, from 18 to 22 in January 2022 to 2023 and from 12 to 13 in February 2022 to 2023.

    The “application of force” rose from 24 to 29 in January 2022 to 2023 and from 14 to 20 in February 2022 2023.

    Incidents that were “resolved utilizing unarmed arrest techniques” rose from 19 to 29 in January 2022 to 2023, and from 13 to 20 in February 2022 to 2023.

    There were zero incidents of the use of impact weapons, Tasers, pepper spray, canines or firearms in January or February 2023, compared with two uses of Tasers and pepper spray and one use of a firearm in January 2022, and one use of a canine in February 2022.

    Officer injuries rose from two to three in January 2022 to 2023 and from one to two in February 2022 to 2023. Suspect injuries decreased from two to one in January and increased from three to four in February from, 2022 to 2023.

    To put these numbers into perspective, Lacey reported that there were 73,000 calls, 4,000 arrests and 96 uses of force in the calendar year 2022. He also noted for incidents of use of force in 2021 and 2022 there were “significant decreases from the three years prior.”

    When speaking to the reasons for overall decreases in use of force, Lacey said, “There’s a lot of moving parts … and a variety of factors” but that the department has “invested a lot into training when it comes to deescalation and crisis intervention training,” as well as better training on how to interact with individuals with mental illness.

    While the shooting injury to Barreto highlights the risks law enforcement officers face, Hebbe said that he was happy with where his recruiters are now.

    “They're doing a great job on getting out and talking to people,” Hebbe said.

    He expressed hope that the upcoming survey will show that most officers find their job to be meaningful.

    “They like being part of the solution in the community,” Hebbe said.