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DATELINE: SANTA FE, N.M. : Lawman Besieged in Land of Disenchantment : Hired to reform the Police Department, Chief Don Grady is now under fire, and he says racism is partially to blame.

October 18, 1995|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When he took over as Santa Fe police chief 13 months ago, Don Grady's promises were as expansive as the desert sky.

He would restore the people's faith in their police, put more officers on the street and cut crime. His mission was to reform a police department that had resisted change for too long.

Now Grady's performance is polarizing residents in a city that would rather be known for its distinctive pueblo architecture than for controversy.

He faces open revolt from his officers, who in May took a 103 to 5 no-confidence vote on the department's leadership. A majority of the city councilors want him fired, and 3,000 people have signed a petition calling for him to leave.

Equally troubling are charges that some who oppose Grady, who is black, are racists.

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"This whole situation has harmed the city and is not really reflective of the community as a whole," observes Steven Farber, a city councilor and Grady supporter. "We're in the eye of a hurricane and we need to figure out how to calm this down."

The chief has refused to resign. He is supported by Mayor Debbie Jaramillo and her brother, City Manager Ike Pino, who says he's satisfied with Grady's job performance.

Grady, 42, who previously ran the University of New Mexico Police Department, was hired with a mandate to implement community policing.

He maintains that his critics are mainly disgruntled police officers who fear change and their relatives, many of whom work in city government.

"The citizens are in sync and they really appreciate what we're doing," Grady says. "It's the cops that hate it."

Frank Novelli, president of the Santa Fe Police Officers Assn., says Grady has gone about changing things the wrong way. He blames the chief for a "lack of communication" and a poor understanding of the department's personnel policies.

He also faults Grady for, among other things, instituting 12-hour work shifts for officers instead of the traditional 10-hour shifts and for reassigning detectives from specialized squads to a new general investigations unit.

When Grady ordered detectives to wear neckties instead of bolo ties--the unofficial New Mexico tie--critics charged he was "insensitive" to the largely Latino police force.

Novelli, who campaigned for the union presidency on an anti-Grady platform, also charges that the chief has punished opponents with transfers and spurious internal affairs investigations.

"We do not think that the chief of police in Santa Fe is competent," Novelli says. "He's not a policeman and he's not an administrator."

Grady says Novelli's criticisms lack substance.

"He'll tell you that I'm a tyrant, that they can't work for me, and that I'm the most unreasonable person they've ever met," Grady says.

But he says the 12-hour shifts saved the city a substantial amount in overtime and notes that Novelli and other union officials endorsed the new schedule, which has since been abandoned. Restructuring the detective division eliminated "fiefdoms" that promoted inefficiency, he says.

"We despecialized because we have people with skills to do all these things," Grady says.

As for the neckwear dispute, Grady says bolo ties--and conventional cloth ties, for that matter--offer suspects a dangerous handle to grab onto. He wants officers to wear break-away cloth ties.

Grady says Novelli and his City Council allies don't want to talk about the real issues.

"It's about three things that keep popping up over and over and over again," Grady says. "Racism, political affiliation and outsider status."

Grady says he began hearing racist taunts even before he arrived in Santa Fe.

"There have been officers in this department that have called me the 'big N' on more than one occasion," Grady says.

He also received a threatening letter before he even started the job. Still, Grady avoids blanket condemnations.

"Nobody said the whole department is racist," he says. "I would venture to say a small number of people fall into that category. But they're active in trying to get me fired."

Novelli says he resents being painted a "good old boy."

"Race has nothing to do with it," he says. "Competence is what counts. Policemen only come in one color--blue."

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Meanwhile, Frank Montano, who leads the City Council faction seeking Grady's dismissal, considered amending the city code to enable the council to seize Pino's hire-and-fire authority over Grady, but dropped the idea. He says he's still committed to Grady's removal, however.

Montano contends Grady caused his own predicament by promising too much too soon, and alienating people with an abrupt, authoritarian manner.

"He came in like a lion," Montano says. "He signed his own death certificate by the way he came in."

Farber, one of three city councilors opposing efforts to dump Grady, thinks the chief is doing what he was hired to do. He notes that Pino recently offered to resolve some of the officers' grievances through binding arbitration.

"It is important to lower the level of the debate to take away from the stridency," Farber says. "We're working diligently to solve this problem."

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