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“It makes sense to go now,” Las Cruces Police Chief Patrick Gallagher said about his decision to retire.
When he was interviewed before accepting the job in January 2018, Gallagher said he told then-City Manager Stuart Ed that he would only accept a two-year contract.
“I knew I would leave at the end of this year anyway,” Gallagher said. And with a new city manager about to be hired in a community where “people want some change,” he said, “let me move aside.”
Dealing with COVID-19 beginning in March and the aftermath of the May 25 death of George Floyd meant police officers went “from hero to zero,” said Gallagher, whose retirement is effective Aug. 1.
He met with Las Cruces Police Department (LCPD) supervisors after Floyd’s death and asked if anyone thought police actions in that case were justified. No one did, Gallagher said. They all thought it was wrong, and the officers involved should be held accountable.
Gallagher’s message to LCPD officers after Floyd’s death was, “You’re all going to be blamed for it. You didn’t do it, but you are part of the same profession.”
Gallagher said he told his officers to remember that people are upset about what happened, but it is still the officers’ job to police the community.
Las Cruces is dealing with the case of former Las Cruces Police Officer Christopher Smelser, who has been charged with second-degree murder in the Feb. 29 death of Antonio Valdez. That case is now in the hands of the New Mexico Attorney General’s office. Because the case involved an LCPD officer, city police did not take the lead in the investigation, Gallagher said.
Calls for police reform nationwide should include how mental health emergencies are dealt with, he said. “Take us out of the equation,” the chief said. That police officers have been forced to take the lead in dealing with the mentally ill on emergency calls is “a manifestation of the failure of society as a whole” to deal with the issue, Gallagher said.
The state requires police officers to have 40 hours of training in handling calls involving the mentally ill, the chief said, and more than 90 percent of LCPD officers have at least 80 hours of training, he said. “I’m very proud of that.”
Even so, Gallagher said a “multi-disciplinary approach” is needed in dealing with those calls. A team of responders should include medical and mental health professionals, along with a police officer, to “make sure the team is safe,” Gallagher said. “We’ll be a member of that team, but let somebody else take the lead. Don’t look to us to run it.”
The Las Cruces City Council is “very interested” in that team approach, he said.
Gallagher said LCPD would also benefit from having a civilian attorney in charge of its internal affairs office, as other departments have. But, he said a civilian police-oversight committee is “a slippery slope.”
Reviews of police officers’ behavior should be done by “members of their own profession,” who can give an “outside opinion on how the department is working,” make objective judgements based on the evidence presented and recommend “valuable, real-world best practices from other places,” he said.
“Deciding on the best way to oversee the police in Las Cruces should include input from the city council, the city manager and the community,” Gallagher said. “That’s where opinion counts.”
“LCPD is comprised of “a fine group of motivated professionals,” he said. “They know how to police (and) keep the community safe. They are the community,” the chief said, noting that 90-95 percent of LCPD officers live in the city.
LCPD is successful in part, he said, “because they know the bad guys. They know who to talk to, where to look” when a crime has been committed.
Gallagher also said that “the support from the community is incredible.”
He remembered hearing about LCPD Sgt. Patrick Doyle passing a group of children in his police car one day. After one child saluted him, Doyle bought ice cream for the entire group. “That’s the stuff I’ll miss,” Gallagher said. “It happens every day.”
Gallagher said he has “always appreciated” Mayor Ken Miyagishima’s “consistent and unwavering support for law enforcement.” The mayor is “a genuine person who cares about the community,” Gallagher said. He "listens intently and is always looking for the middle ground.”
“I respect them and what their positions are,” Gallagher said about the city council. “Individually, they are very lovely people,” he said. “Personally, I enjoy their company.”
The council, he said, is dealing with “a call for a lot of change. I hope they don’t try to manage the police department, because that would be a mistake,” he said. The city’s current Peak Performance program is “a great method of performance management,” he said.
The city’s 25-year plan includes “no major overhaul of the police,” and that’s because LCPD “is doing a good job. You can’t have economic development and growth if people don’t feel safe,” he said.
Reform should include the entire criminal justice system, Gallagher said, including how it deals with violent criminals. Killers, those who commit sex crimes and crimes against children and other “people who scare us … should be in prison,” he said.
Change should be based on research and the best interests of the community, he said, and shouldn’t be made impulsively.
“Listen to constituents,” Gallagher said.
In Las Cruces, he said, there should be more of a focus on criminal recidivism because 50 percent of local crimes are consistently committed by the same people.
Under his leadership, LCPD has already made “a lot of changes,” Gallagher said.
For example, while New Mexico was rated the most violent state in the country in 2018, LCPD has reduced violent crime locally in part by paying more attention to where and when crimes occur, and by establishing an intelligence unit to anticipate crime through predictive policing. The department has also increased its focus on neighborhoods and on cooperation with other law enforcement agencies, he said.
“Change is going to continue,” Gallagher said, adding that he will leave LCPD “better prepared for the changes that are coming.”
Gallagher retires with more than 32 years of police experience. He was a 911 first responder during a 20-year career with the New York City Police Department and was chief of police in Truth or Consequences and Santa Fe before coming to Las Cruces. His wife, Lynn Gallagher, Ph.D., is director of the city’s Quality of Life Department and is a former secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health.
Chief Gallagher said they love Las Cruces and have no immediate plans to leave.
Gallagher said his advice to the new Las Cruces police chief is to “go on a listening tour,” as Gallagher did when he became chief, gathering input from police officers, city leaders, local organizations, community members and from other police chiefs.
“Remember why you’re there,” he said. “Listen. Don’t make change for the sake of change. I live here. I talk to my neighbors.”
Right now, he said, it’s hard to listen because “everybody is so angry.
“It’ll calm down,” Gallagher said. “Real, meaningful, lasting change will take place.”