A Night Ride with the Santa Fe Police | Local News
For the first time in weeks, Santa Fe Police Officer Andrew Laur is having a quiet night. It is 1:30 a.m. on August 25 and the cemetery shift has been unusually quiet.
Over the past few weeks, Laur says, he and his fellow cemetery officers have been going non-stop from call to call from the start of their shift at 8:30 p.m. to the end 10 hours later. This night was different.
As he begins to conduct a close patrol of the Las Palomas apartment complex on Hopewell Street, his proactive policing night appears to be shattered. He receives a report from 911 dispatchers of a possible active shooting at Bella’s Casitas apartments on Cerrillos Road.
Laur’s demeanor changes as he shifts into high gear.
Being a police officer can mean that no two workdays are the same. For those who work at the cemetery, no two minutes are the same. While patrolling in the dark of night, when most residents are sound asleep, the duties of cemetery attendants can change from mundane to intense at any time.
The suspect Laur is looking for at Casitas de Bella is a man police encountered earlier in the night after being beaten at the resort by several other men, but declined to press charges.
As Laur walks to what could be a deadly encounter in the apartment complex, he grabs the AR-15 rifle that has stood still by his side. He prepares the weapon with one hand.
He looks at his patrol SUV’s computer-assisted dispatch system and sees a row of fellow officers behind him – all on their way and prepared for a high-stakes situation.
When Laur pulls into the Casitas de Bella parking lot, he swaps out his AR-15 for a less-lethal 40mm launcher. He says no other officers at the scene are equipped with this alternative, which gives them more options in their response to the suspect.
Laur and the other officers then rush into the building – unaware that the gun that lured them to the scene is an airsoft gun that fires non-lethal plastic pellets. The incident will end peacefully.
Shortly into his shift, Laur and other officers were dispatched downtown in response to reports of a man spitting and yelling at a woman. They discovered that the man had hit the windows of the St. Francis Hotel. He and the woman were a “celebrity couple” in Santa Fe, Laur said, adding that officers knew them by first name because of their frequent disruptions.
This incident also ended without charge and the couple hugged on a sidewalk.
For a passerby, the meeting could have seemed out of the ordinary. For officers who patrol the streets of Santa Fe almost every night, this was far from unusual.
“It’s all about perspective,” says Laur.
Atypical hours, reduced staff
Laur has worked at the cemetery for two and a half years.
Officer Michael Romero, whom Laur stops to accompany during a routine traffic stop on St. Michael’s Drive, has been with the Santa Fe Police Department for a year and a half and has worked at the cemetery since March. Department veterans told him that every recruit should work at the cemetery for at least a year, he said.
Romero loves the night shift. After working as a corrections officer at the New Mexico Penitentiary south of Santa Fe for four years — three of them on cemetery duty — he’s used to unconventional hours.
He has also grown accustomed to the effects of the ministry’s staff shortage.
Chief Paul Joye said the agency now had 30 vacancies out of 169 sworn positions. However, he added, a number of experienced officers from other law enforcement agencies will join the department on September 19 as lateral hires. The cemetery shift has fewer staff than others, he said, because it typically receives fewer calls for duty. He noted an overlap between the cemetery shift and the duty shift, which ends at midnight, putting more officers on the streets for several hours late at night.
During the night shift that runs from late August 24 to early August 25, seven officers are on staff, along with two sergeants and a desk officer on duty.
Romero says he spoke with senior officers from a time when there were 17 officers on the shift, a number that helped prevent burnout.
Laur and Romero both drive into town and say they’re spending the ride decompressing.
Laur commutes to work every day from her home in Albuquerque. With a young daughter and a fiancée who works as a 911 dispatcher in Sandia Pueblo, he says coming home gives him time to go from “Officer Laur” to just “Andrew.”
Romero commutes from Edgewood. The young officer, also a father, says it was difficult at first to separate the things he sees at work from a different set of responsibilities he faces at home. Like Laur, he says the commute helps him manage and ease work-related stress so he’s ready to be there for his young son.
“Every agent has to learn how to do that – learn to balance work and personal life,” he says. “I keep learning.”
“Damn, someone’s shooting”
Each night during the cemetery shift provides an opportunity to learn.
The Casitas de Bella incident was one such occasion.
“‘Someone’s fucking shooting,'” Romero said he thought at the time. “We all treated him like an active shooter.”
It was his first experience with eventual active fire in service, he said. He was one of the officers who responded to the fight at the compound earlier that evening which led to the beating of the man with the airsoft gun.
“I felt like we were coming back,” he says.
According to a police department incident report, the tenant’s girlfriend told Romero and other officers that several men beat her boyfriend outside her apartment after the couple returned home from a night out.
The tenant, who was bleeding profusely from his head, grabbed his airsoft gun after police left because he felt unsafe, he told officers. He said he fired the gun several times out of frustration, prompting a maintenance worker to report a shooting.
Each officer responding to the shooting report, including Laur and Romero, ascended from an opposite side of a stairwell at Casitas de Bella to a second floor hallway. Romero’s body camera footage of the incident shows the officer knocking on residents’ doors and asking confused tenants if they heard gunshots.
That prompted officers to tone down their approach slightly, Romero says.
The police report says an officer called the suspect on his cell phone and asked him what was going on and if he had any weapons. During the call, the tenant’s girlfriend came out of the apartment and was secured by officers.
Her boyfriend then came out with what appeared to be a gun in his hand.
A police sergeant yelled at the man to put down his gun and get down on the ground. Romero says he’s never heard a sergeant scream like that. Tensions were high.
The tenant quickly complied and was detained.
The tension eased after Laur inspected the man’s apartment and took a closer look at the airsoft gun.
Romero looked at his smartwatch and saw that his heart rate had increased to 130 beats per minute.
The incident ended around 2:20 a.m. and the seven officers at the scene debriefed in the parking lot, talking about the incident and joking among themselves.
Laur and Romero say the situation has moved closer to a much worse outcome.
But the problems of the week at Casitas de Bella were not over.
Police responding to a request for a wellness check on a resort tenant on August 26 found Michael Trilling, 63, dead in his apartment. A state medical examiner determined the man died of blunt trauma and classified the death as a homicide.
Santa Fe Police Capt. Aaron Ortiz said the department is investigating whether the homicide could be linked to prior violence at the resort. So far, no suspects have been identified.
“You’re not bored”
After a night full of traffic stops, a search for license plates for stolen vehicles, and the incident at Casitas de Bella, Laur and Romero reunite near the end of their shift in Dunkin’ to pick up the little lunch.
As they eat breakfast sandwiches in the parking lot, Laur recalls a recent time when he and four other officers were called to a scene amid a lull in a long shift. Romero was already at the site, the Las Palomas apartments, responding to a report from a man down.
Laur remembers thinking the call wouldn’t need any additional backup. But it was a homicide – the first Romero had ever responded to. The fatal June shooting of 19-year-old Juan Emmanuel Vazquez-Salas remains unsolved.
“We all literally got up, threw our food… ran to our cars,” Laur says. “It was just a convoy of all of us flying to the apartments.”
This rush to the scene just when the night seemed to be over encapsulates the highs and lows of graveyard shift work — or any shift — for a police officer in Santa Fe.
“Every day really is something different, and that was one of the good things and positive things about being an officer,” Joye said. “You’re not bored.”