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This ain’t your grandpa’s PD: Hobbs commercial raises eyebrows

By   /   April 14, 2014  /   4 Comments

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:

SHOCK AND AWE: This photo from the police department website in Hobbs, N.M., reflects the image a 30-second commercial the department is airing to lure recruits.

SHOCK AND AWE: This photo from the police department website in Hobbs, N.M., reflects the image a 30-second commercial the department is airing to lure recruits.

Hobbs Chief of Police Chris McCall told New Mexico Watchdog the images in the commercial were not intended to send out an overly aggressive image of the department.

“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.

ON PATROL: A photo from the Hobbs PD website features the department's armored personnel carrier and its 14-member SWAT team.

ON PATROL: A photo from the Hobbs PD website features the department’s armored personnel carrier and its 14-member SWAT team.

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 rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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Since 2010, Rob Nikolewski has covered New Mexico politics and investigated fraud, waste and abuse in government. He also writes an opinion column in the Sunday editions of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Rob joined New Mexico Watchdog after 20 years in television as a sports anchor and reporter. He anchored at MSNBC, New York City, Boston, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Reno and Boise, winning three regional Emmy awards along the way. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in public administration from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a bachelor's degree in journalism from Trinity University in San Antonio.

  • Henry Bowman

    When cops have “To protect and Serve” on their vehicles and elsewhere, what they really mean is “to protect and serve ourselves”. Modern cops are essentially cowards.

    In this particular advertisement, they are simply being honest. They’d love to use their weapons and APCs to crush some hapless citizen.

  • L.E. Liesner

    “To protect and Serve” is as passe as “Peace Officer”. Today it is more like “Revenue Inhancement”, the feeding of the tax coffers. But to have the Department of Justice criticize them as abusing their powers is like the kettle calling the pot black. The city of Albuquerque showed it’s want of political correctness when it invited the Federal Government in to solve it’s problems, shooting yourself in both feet will not solve anything. It has been said before, that the police carry weapons is for their protection not yours, but few listen.

  • Royce Perry

    It appears the citizens of Albuquerque would prefer a pre-Wyatt Earp Dodge City-type town than one where a person can walk down the street and not be afraid of being shot at for no reason other than they happened to be in that particular place at that particular time. It’s true some of the police shootings in Albuquerque were beyond the call of duty. But what are they supposed to do when someone is aiming a gun at them, or better still, shooting at them? “Now be nice and put the gun down. You don’t want to hurt anybody.” Punish the police who go beyond what’s necessary. But keep a police force that is willing and able to keep your city (any city, not just Albuquerque or Hobbs) safe.

  • Michael taylor

    I think the true problem derives much deeper than just the police..yes I agree some of the actions from several police departments were very un excusable and the officers involved should be held accountable. ..However I also believe there is a place in our society for law enforcement they do performed a difficult job and often times there hands are tied.. Here in new mexico we need stiffer penalties and these penalties need to fix the crime…. It does no good to arrest someone if there just going to be put back on the streets to do it again…And if you take someone’s life unjustifiable your life should be taken….There are a lot of problems that need attending to both on fed state and local levels….My personal impression of law enforcement in this state is they seem to be just a bit trigger happy……..