Law enforcement agencies throughout New Mexico are set to receive enough state funding to support the hiring of 317 officers as part of a bipartisan crime package passed by lawmakers this year.
In a news conference Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat seeking reelection this fall, said the award of about $42 million to 29 departments will help pay for the officers’ salaries over the next three years.
The goal, she said, is to provide enough money for robust recruitment in cities big and small, avoiding competition among agencies.
“What New Mexicans deserve is to be safe in their homes and in their communities statewide,” Lujan Grisham said.
Albuquerque and Las Cruces are set to receive the largest allocations – almost $8.8 million to help pay for 67 officers in each city. Hobbs is next in line, with $5 million for 38 officers.
Bernalillo County is getting enough for 18 deputies.
The announcement comes as public safety is on voters’ minds approaching the Nov. 8 election. In a recent Journal Poll, 82% of likely voters described crime as a “very serious” problem facing the state.
Mark Ronchetti, Lujan Grisham’s Republican opponent, has made tackling crime a centerpiece of his campaign, saying he would push for stiffer penalties and appoint tough-on-crime judges.
“We’re at a crisis point,” Ronchetti said during a campaign appearance Friday. “We have to create safer streets.”
Lujan Grisham, in turn, has touted increased salaries for State Police officers and other measures to boost law enforcement funding.
To that end, Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said he sees reason for optimism. The incoming cadet class for December, he said, is expected to have 67 people, much larger than the typical group of 37 to 50.
“This is funding we can put to use right now,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said.
Cities and counties identified their needs in applications for the funding, which comes from the state’s $8.5 billion budget. The money will pay the officers’ full salary the first year, 50% the second and 25% the third year.
Growing the number of police officers in New Mexico is a key part of the anti-crime strategy pursued in recent years by policy makers at the Capitol.
The bipartisan crime legislation passed this year established a new state program to help law enforcement agencies recruit and retain officers. The main state budget bill included $50 million to support the effort.
Lawmakers have heard expert testimony that increasing the police presence in a community reduces violent crime and that swift, certain punishment is a more effective deterrent to crime than longer prison sentences.
But progress has been slow. The number of law enforcement officers working for city, county and state governments grew just 1.8% in a recent 10-year period, according to analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee.
New Mexico, in fact, would need to add roughly 400 more officers to reach the national average per capita, LFC research said.
Some New Mexico local government leaders have expressed frustration at the difficulties they face trying to fill, and retain, the ranks of law enforcement.
Española Mayor John Ramon Vigil said this week at the opening of a new police substation that his northern New Mexico town currently has 24 officers – out of 33 budgeted police positions.
Part of the challenge in hiring new officers stems from Española’s proximity to Santa Fe and Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has its own security force that pays officers at a higher salary level, Vigil said.
Dan Boyd of the Journal Capitol Bureau contributed to this article.