By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE — It’s a commercial that’s been playing across New Mexico for weeks now: A 30-second spot encouraging people to apply to the Hobbs Police Department, offering high pay and good benefits.
But the images in the commercial — of cops shooting guns, helmeted officers bursting into a home, an armored vehicle turning a corner and a canine straining on a leash — has some wondering what kind of image the booming oil patch town of 43,000 is actually showcasing.
“It’s kind of disturbing, the way they play up these militaristic tactics,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “It seemed more like they were looking for people who wanted to join the Army instead of a police department.”
Here’s the commercial:
“I think that was the production company that came in and wanted to look and see what kind of equipment we had to offer,” McCall said in a telephone interview. “It’s a representation of an aspect of the Police Department that is there, what we do every day, the tools that we use and work with.”
But Lynch, who has been a critic of what’s been called an over-militarization of police forces across the country, says the commercial sends the wrong signals to potential recruits.
“The message seems to be, we’re looking for aggressive, confrontational interactions with the public and that is not what the police should be looking for,” Lynch said. “We should be looking for officers that are just fine with a peaceful day at work … But this is all about a very aggressive and confrontational type of policing that most communities don’t want or need.”
The commercial includes a shot of the Hobbs PD’s armored personnel vehicle, which is also featured on the department’s website.
McCall said the vehicle is used “any time we have a call-out involving a high-risk incident where we’re concerned about the safety of our officers or the safety of the citizens in our area.” McCall said it also provides cover because it’s armor-plated.
Hobbs also has a 14-member SWAT team, which in addition to being featured in the commercial has a page on the department’s website dedicated to it with a video attached to the page. The video opens with a man’s voice, intoning, “The rules of engagement of SWAT are simple: Defeat the enemy … any way you can,” and is accompanied with heavy metal music and shots of Hobbs SWAT team members going through exercises with guns blazing.
The commercial is running as New Mexico law enforcement authorities try to cope with at least two incidents that have drawn negative attention to the state.
The first was a $1.6 million settlement in the case of a man in southwestern New Mexico who was forced to undergo anal cavity searches and a colonoscopy after he was suspected of possessing narcotics. No drugs were found.
“This case took my breath away,” said Jonathan Turley, a nationally recognized legal scholar and professor at the George Washington University Law School.
The second and most recent story that made national news was the shooting death of a homeless man in the Albuquerque foothills. The incident was caught on tape and marked the 23rd fatality at the hands of the Albuquerque Police Department in the past three years, prompting protests, including one that turned into a near-riot. Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice declared that APD has engaged in a pattern of excessive force and called for an overhaul of the department.
“By coming on the heels of the findings about the city of Albuquerque, this is another indication that one of the problems seems to be this culture of the style of policing that’s become all to common — of disregarding rules, confronting people and taking them down as the military does,” Lynch said. “That’s exactly the type of culture that leads to problems.”
McCall said that wasn’t what the ad tried to convey.
“Really, what we’re doing (in the commercial) is demonstrating some of the equipment and things that we have available,” he said. “We’ve never really put it into that context. It’s meant to protect the public.”
Spurred by a bursting energy sector, Hobbs has gone through a boom cycle. According to U.S. Census figures from 2012, Hobbs is the nation’s eighth-fastest growing community of between 10,000-50,000 people.
Just three murders were reported in 2012, but overall statistics show the crime rate in Hobbs is higher than the national average in just about every major category, including violent crimes.
Contact Rob Nikolewski at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski