NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – The pandemic has changed everyone’s lives, forcing people to adapt. It’s no different for New Mexico’s own law enforcement academies, where police officers get their start.

“COVID is causing problems in law enforcement that are compounding on each other,” said New Mexico State Police Chief Tim Johnson, back in August. Johnson has since been promoted to Interim Secretary for the Department of Public Safety.

During their quarterly board meeting held in August via Zoom, New Mexico’s Law Enforcement Academy Board had a lot to discuss. Kelley Alzaharna, LEA Director, addressed concerns over staff shortages and sustaining an academy that runs through weekends. It’s part of the state’s ‘bubble-life’ strategy to keep cadets isolated, and the COVID-19 virus at bay.

“We received concerns from agencies on all the ramifications that had for them,” said Alzaharna, referring to the state’s directive to run a 24-7 academy.

“We are obviously very concerned about the safety and well-being of our instructors and our young cadets,” explained New Mexico Attorney General, Hector Balderas. Balderas also serves as the LEA Board Chairman.

This year, nine satellite academies and the main law enforcement academy in Santa Fe trained and certified 209 new law enforcement officers for departments around the state. Normally, an academy runs 16 weeks long, and cadets are paid for 40-hour work-weeks. However, to prevent potential COVID-19 exposure, the state stopped allowing cadets to go home on weekends, forcing extra overtime hours for cadets.

New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy in Santa Fe.

“We also understand that we have to stay open, and continue to provide quality training for officers,” said Balderas. “Because public safety is so important to the state of New Mexico.”

Much like schools across the country, keeping the academies running in New Mexico during the pandemic poses challenges. Santa Fe County Sheriff, Adan Mendoza, raised financial concerns during the board meeting.

“My experience with my cadets that are in there, at a seven-day academy now, are accruing 84 hours of overtime per cadet, per pay period,” Mendoza said during the August board meeting. “To me, that’s just not gonna be fiscally possible for some of these small departments to comply with overtime requirements.”

“I think we need to take that into consideration,” Mendoza added. Sheriff Mendoza said over the summer, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office paid more than $24,000 in overtime hours to just four cadets during a seven-day academy.

When asked if this is something the state can afford to keep up, Balderas responded, “Small departments that already have shrinking budgets, obviously it’s a very big burden. I think some of the larger departments are able to absorb these additional costs.”

Balderas said he plans to address these issues during the next legislative session. “I believe that the state of New Mexico needs to provide better incentives, student loan forgiveness, additional mental health training,” said Balderas.

“The stakes are much higher,” said Balderas. “I’m asking the legislature and the governor to really look at how we train officers on the front end, and how we discipline officers.”

The LEA Board also discussed the state hiring freeze. Law enforcement is exempt since they’re deemed essential, Balderas said. However, hiring and recruiting new officers in a pandemic is tough.

“It has delayed the state’s ability to hire-up,so to speak,” Balderas explained. Plus, local municipalities face their own budget shortfalls and directives.

The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s office, for example, is operating on a mandatory 10% vacancy rate until next July, keeping 13 positions open, with even more to fill after fall retirements. The LEA currently has a 53% vacancy rate, with nine positions open. “We’re doing everything we can possibly do,” said Alzaharna.

New Mexico competes with departments across the country to both hire and keep good officers, which Balderas explained is even more challenging in rural communities. “We are asking law enforcement to do much more than they ever have in the history of this country,” said Balderas.

“I think many law enforcement officers are starting to question whether they should go into this profession, so it is a concern for the Law Enforcement Academy Board to make sure that we are drawing from the best of the best,” he added.

Amid a suffering economy and nationwide protests, Balderas argues the focus on reform in New Mexico should start at the front-end.

“If you care about jobs or education, you really should know much more about what these academies do,” said Balderas. “Because in my mind, you can’t have prosperity in our communities, or public safety, until you’re really investing and making sure we have the best, top-of-the-line, world-class law enforcement workforce in the country.”

During the 16-week academies, newly-hired officers receive classroom instruction, hands-on training for dangerous situations, and ultimately earn their law enforcement certification. “You have individuals that are solely for law enforcement, and then you have another group that is pushing for reforms, calling for defunding,” said Balderas. “Both sides are forgetting that there’s been very little emphasis on the training and the graduating of law enforcement when they’re young cadets.”

It’s an issue the LEA Board says impacts each community, and one Balderas says they’ll continue working to improve. “This is really the way for long-term progress,” said Balderas.

Balderas said he’d like to see New Mexico provide better incentives for new recruits, student loan forgiveness, and additional mental health training for officers. The next Law Enforcement Academy is set to take place in January. If the academy is expected to operate on a seven-day work schedule, Sheriff Mendoza said he’ll have the same financial concerns, especially for the state’s rural departments.

The extended interview below with New Mexico Attorney General and LEA Chairman, Hector Balderas, on issues law enforcement academies are facing.

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