ALAMOSA — About fifteen years ago, Alamosa Police Chief Ken Anderson had a nickname. Coined by some of the local high school students, Anderson was called “the Terminator”, based on the physical resemblance students saw between him and Terminator 2: Judgment Day actor Robert Patrick.
The students eventually graduated, and the nickname was forgotten. But the moniker was still vaguely prophetic. While he may not always be exactly sure how to do what he knows needs to be done, Anderson is deeply and personally committed to that oath – “to protect and serve” – he took more than two decades ago.
Born in Oxnard, California, just north of Los Angeles, Anderson moved to Alamosa when he was thirteen, and he has been here ever since. But his perspective of the world was, in some ways, shaped by factors that transcend coming of age in a relatively small, mountain community.
“I was raised in a military family,” he says, adding his father is a Marine and a Viet Nam veteran.
Both parents were hard-working and supportive of his decisions in choosing law enforcement as a career.
When he was twenty-one years old, Anderson joined the Alamosa Police Force (APD) and was “grateful to have the job.” He moved up the ranks over the next eighteen years – patrol officer to corporal to sergeant to captain, capping off with promotion to chief of police in 2018.
And now, at 42 years old with half his life spent in law enforcement, Anderson oversees a department of 31 employees responsible for policing a town of close to ten thousand people. Five of the staff are non-certified personnel, including three community service officers. The remaining 26 are certified law enforcement – the chief, two captains and 23 officers of various ranks.
“Our patrol division – our entire department is extremely busy. We work four 10-hour shifts and average 15 to 30 calls a shift with three to four officers on duty. That’s a lot of dispatched calls to respond to per shift.”
Alamosa is also the hub for the entire San Luis Valley as well as northern New Mexico, bringing significant numbers of people every day to go to work, to shop or as tourists. At its busiest, the population ends up being closer to around twenty thousand during daytime hours. But the size of the police force stays the same.
Being chief of a police force has always been complex, but it’s even more so now. Police departments are under intense scrutiny with voices calling for reform. Nationwide, there is a mass exodus of officers in a profession that was already fighting shortages. Denver and Aurora have unprecedented unfilled positions. Nearby Pueblo recently reported their police force was down 31 police officers out of a total 110. That 30% vacancy means officers can only respond to the most serious offenses while the crime rate is simultaneously spiking.
APD is defying what has become the new norm. For the first time in several years, the police force is fully staffed, but it is a hard-won battle.
“It’s more difficult to get people – the right people – into this line of work. I go in-depth on backgrounds before I get these guys and gals hired. I want to make sure to get a feel if they’re going to be a good fit for the job, this agency and this community. I’m interviewing all the time.”
Departments also have to develop something “to attract people beforehand.”
Anderson created a recruitment team where officers, interested in selling the department, travel the state, talking to groups. APD also has a hybrid approach to recruitment, largely dependent on the nine-month, part-time Police Academy at Trinidad State College. In some cases, Anderson hires recruits straight out of the academy. After passing the certification exam, new hires go through a 16-week Field Training Officer (FTO) course where they learn “how to be a police officer in Alamosa.” They have an apprentice program where the candidate, while still in the academy, goes on ride-alongs with senior officers and learns from watching experienced police on the job. If the recruit graduates and passes the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) test, they’re hired. If not, “they’re unemployed,” he says. Recently, four of those apprentices were sworn in as new officers on the force.
But hiring new cops is only half the battle. Keeping them is a battle all its own, especially those who have been with APD for a while.
“Sometimes, it’s a revolving door,” Anderson says. “We recruit, we hire, we train and then, after a while, sometimes they move on to new opportunities.”
Anderson believes good training is key. “We’re always training, in-person and online. Now we have these de-escalation classes. There’s always something new to learn—the job is always evolving. And any officer who thinks he or she has nothing new to learn…well, it’s time to reevaluate their chosen profession.”
Those are challenges that police departments have been facing for years. But things got tougher when the pandemic hit.
“This community has dealt with so much over the last year and a half,” Anderson says. “I don’t want to blame it all on Covid because it isn’t just about that. I think Covid started something. We’ve had more mental health issues, more barricaded suspects and more people who just don’t care. And we’re dealing with a lot of people we haven’t dealt with before from other parts of the state or other states.”
Yet, despite the challenges and Alamosa’s reputation as a “crime-ridden community”, the spreadsheet Anderson holds in his hand paints a different picture.
“Compared to this time last year, we’re down on sexual assaults by five.” He continues down the list. “Aggravated assaults, down. Vehicle thefts, down. Liquor violations, down. DUIs, down. And total violent crime? We investigate every death as if there’s some type of suspicious cause until determined otherwise, so that’s included in some of the numbers. But yes, we have the high-profile cases, and it’s uncommon to have as many as we’ve had in recent years. What’s that connected to? Anything I say specific to our cases would just be speculation, but it does seem like the underlying factors may be drug-related.
“And yes, drug arrests are up,” he says, anticipating the question. “But that’s because we’re being extremely pro-active in our investigations.”
As recently as two years ago, APD was not able to be “working on the drugs” as they are now because the resources were not available. The change came when Alamosa City Manager Heather Brooks and Alamosa City Council empowered Anderson to move manpower around where he felt it was necessary. After discussions with Brooks, Anderson decided to create a full-time narcotics investigator position.
He immediately credits city council, the new detective and officers involved in each narcotics operation. But it was Anderson’s decision that got the momentum going. Since March, when the narcotics investigator position was created, APD has carried out roughly thirty successful narcotics operations, dwarfing numbers in previous years.
That success also carries a price.
“People have to understand. Yeah, these drug operations are great, but they’re also dangerous. I’m approving narcotic operations with known drug dealers on the street causing problems. I’m not doing it so I can look at Facebook or get a phone call that says, ‘hey, Chief, you’re getting a lot of great feedback on these drug operations.’ I don’t care about that. I don’t.
“All I care about is making a difference and making sure that the community where I live and where my kids go to school is safe. And I’ll tell you, it’s been difficult.
“I took an oath to protect and to serve my community, and these cops are my family. Outside of my blood relatives, these guys are my family. So, yes, I worry about them getting hurt. And I worry about community members getting hurt because something unforeseen happens. It’s just dangerous.”
Anderson shifts his focus to the bigger picture. “I’ve only been chief for 3 years, but I’ve seen a lot of the same things happening. And I think it’s finally the time when we need to be progressive. We need to find new ideas on how to deal with the drug problem. And I’m trying,” he says. “That’s all I can say. I am trying. I’m trying to be that progressive chief. I’m trying to come up with new ideas because what we’ve done in the past clearly isn’t working. Putting everybody in jail? Yes, there’s a time and a place for jail. But not every offense or encounter we deal with needs to end up there.”
He says the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program is helpful. Instead of arresting and charging a person with a low-level offense that puts them in the criminal justice system, LEAD gives officers discretionary authority to divert an individual to a community-based intervention program where they work with a case manager to help with the unmet behavioral needs causing the person to commit the crime.
“LEAD’s really intended for repeat, minor violations. It’s helped with situations like shoplifters where we were seeing the same people three and four times a week for shoplifting just to feed their habit. We’re not seeing them as much anymore.” He stresses that LEAD is not for the drug dealers. “When we get to the bigger fish, that’s where my narcotics division plays a pretty strong hand in things.”
Anderson has also been keeping “stats” on calls that involve mental health issues. “We’re answering about three to four calls a week. That’s a lot. We do the best we can, but we’re not mental health clinicians.”
He wants to integrate a co-responder program where a mental health professional “responds with officers, rides with officers and assists on mental health calls”. City council has approved the program, which he expects will go into effect sometime in 2022.
But even with new programs and training, Anderson is still dealing with factors he can’t control, including an uptick in the animosity toward law enforcement. Although he describes Alamosa as a small-town community that is very supportive of their law enforcement agency, it’s hard to ignore what is going on in larger cities.
“What happens in these other bigger cities all flows out to every single department. We wear a similar uniform that represents the same thing, right? So we all catch a lot of flak because there are some bad cops? That means the rest of us are bad? No, it does not. Cops are also the ones that, if they drive by and see you broken down by the side of the road, stop and say, ‘Ma’am, do you need some help?’ Cops are the ones who do that, and that’s who I try to have on the force.”
But the other challenge, maybe the most profound challenge of all, is just the nature of the job itself and those things that come with being a cop in 2021.
“I don’t think any of the people who work here expect a thank you. We’re all trained on what to expect. We know what we’re getting ourselves into. But we also see things that 90% of the population never see. We see things…doing CPR on an eight-year-old kid for example…? It changes a person. It can get in your head and…it just changes a person.”
When asked what he needs or wants to do his job better, Police Chief Anderson thinks for a moment. “We’re lucky. We’ve got a city manager and city council who support us and give us what we need as we need it. All this new equipment, resources and technology? That’s because of them. But dealing with the bad stuff that goes on…that part is up to us.”