Police Chief Stewart Steele

In this hectic 21st century, “Nowhere is totally safe,” Rio Rancho Police Chief Stewart Steele said, warning listeners to stay vigilant during his 75-minute presentation Thursday afternoon.
But his department is working to keep the danger as low as possible in Rio Rancho.
Steele was addressing a small group of Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors, and he stressed the importance of his department, where he’s been the chief for just over four years, of “taking care of our own” and trying to do a better job.
One huge problem of the times, he said, is, “There’s no respect for authority — there is none now.”
Plus, sometimes the police are seen as the bad guys.
“We’re all human, so we’re not perfect,” Steele said.
Often using his wry sense of humor, Steele outlined several key internal programs, which the public rarely hears about. He briefly discussed the merits of the Chaplain Program, which now has 16 members; the Peer-Support Program, established in the past 16 months; a Family Support Academy; and the Employee Assistance and Public Safety Psychological Group programs.
The latter plays a role in maintaining trust. Steele said RRPD has 42 current or former members of the military, some of whom still have “issues,” including PTSD.
“I think if we take care of our folks inside the P.D., they take better care of everybody outside the P.D.,” he explained.
Among the external programs is the Internet Crimes Against Children Initiative, with efforts aimed at stopping pedophiles, child pornography and other crimes against that vulnerable population.
“If we can’t protect our future, what are we doing? … We have to protect them,” Steele said.
Soon — he hopes — RRPD will have a Therapy Dog Program. Although the department has three drug-sniffing dogs, it doesn’t have a therapy dog.
“A therapy dog is great to run around the P.D. People turn into children when a dog comes by,” he said. “It’s amazing; if we can run (the dog) through P.D. (and) Communications, that’s great.
“My goal is, especially with the special-victims cases, let’s get the dogs in there with the initial calls, and then the dog will be utilized from the initial call through the courts process — this is a huge thing,” he said. “Again, I’ve seen it work; I think it’s wonderful thing. It makes children, especially, more comfortable in those tough environments, where they have to give statements and all, when the dog is with them.”
Steele also talked about recruiting.
“We are not fully staffed, but we are right there,” he said, noting the city council had just provided his department with two new positions.
“We’re allowed to have, right now, 139 — we’re very close to that,” he said. “Our recruiters have been great.”
Although other departments have sniped from RRPD, Steele said he refuses to poach officers from other departments.
“We lost seven to Albuquerque; we’ve gotten three of those back,” he said. “Two more have tried to come back, but we didn’t take them. Don’t burn bridges when you leave.”
“We do a lot of good things. I’d like to take all the credit for it; I cannot,” he said. “We have a very good police department. I think we try to take care of our employees, from the command staff all the way down.
“That word gets out — Albuquerque (police officers) may make more money than we do, but (officers) know that they’re trusted and valued here.”
Partially due to last year’s pandemic, Steele said crime reports were down about 4 percent, with about half of the calls for service going to the commercial area, which also has the most traffic.
“There’s no surprise in that,” he added, nor that about 16 percent of the calls come on Fridays, 15 percent on Saturdays and 14 percent each of the other five days.
He stressed the importance of having dispatchers recognized as first responders because of what their jobs entail. Dispatchers, he noted, “are our lifeline.”
And, yes, he told his audience, drugs — including the deadly fentanyl — are a problem here. He estimated drug are responsible for about 95 percent of other crimes.
He’s not looking forward to the impact of the legal use of recreational marijuana in the state.
“What frustrates me is (police departments) didn’t have any say in any of this, and we were begging for input,” he said. “If you think that legalizing it is gonna cut out the black market, it has the opposite effect. … You’re looking at it, and ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ It’s not what; it’s when. There’s just so much that can go wrong.”
Steele also gave a brief outline of his goals for reducing crime, emphasizing the role of community support, which he sees at the department’s “Coffee with a Cop” and “Citizens Police Academy” events.
“I’ve never worked anywhere with so much community support,” said Steele, who’s had a law-enforcement career spanning 40 years, including a stint with the military police. “The community policing here, to us, is so important because we never want to break that trust. We always want to have that trust.”
Despite his confidence in his department and the reputation the City of Vision has for being a safe place to live, Steele cautioned everyone to always be aware of what’s going on in their surroundings, even if they reside in a gated community.
“Don’t ever get complacent,” he said.

Gary Herron | Observer staff writer