LCPD, Then And Now

Below is information regarding LCPD from my era (1979-2001) and I also included tidbits that were provided during my career by officers who served in the 1950s through the 1970s. It is good to know the history of your police department. It serves as witness to adjustments that departments make over time to facilitate changes that benefit the public and its employees.


Before I get into the topic, congratulations to Miguel Dominguez on his promotion to chief of police. LCPD is in dire need of leadership and needs a strong presence at its helm, and I sincerely hope that Chief Dominguez is the man who can provide that. It is not a great time to be a cop or a police chief. The images of departments around the country have been negatively impacted by special interest groups and certain politicians, including some locally, who do not understand, or care to acknowledge, the challenges that police officers face on a daily (and nightly) basis. It is going to take a strong personality and iron will to stand before the city council and public and say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done. I wish him well.


LCPD, then and now:


The uniform wasn't always blue. Up until 1983 LCPD wore a dark green uniform with a gold stripe down the outside of the trouser leg. The navy blue of today was suggested and voted in by the officers. Why the change? As I recall, the primary reason was that the uniform was too similar to that of Border Patrol (although the BP Class A uniform has a dark blue stripe on the legs). Prior to the green was the LCPD uniform of the 1950s, which was similar to that of El Paso Police: a two-tone blue shirt with epaulets and pocket covers a lighter shade of blue, and light blue trousers sporting a dark blue stripe.


And speaking of the 1950s, when Las Cruces was more of a town and not a city, there were usually two officers on duty in cars that did not have radios. So how were they dispatched? There was a downtown hotel on the corner of Griggs & Main called the Herndon. On the roof of the Herndon was an antenna with a red light on top. A flashing red light on the antenna was a signal to the officer(s) to make their way to a call box and telephone dispatch to see what was needed.


Hadley Avenue, before the softball and soccer fields, residential homes, I-25 and retainer dam, was an airstrip.


The "old" police department operated from the building where Codes Enforcement and Fire Station One are located on Picacho. Built in the 1960s, the building was designed to accommodate police and fire (sound familiar?). Before it became Spruce Avenue, the road in front of the station was Picacho Street and it turned into a single lane one-way at Campo east to Solano. To get to the station from Solano it was necessary to take one-way Piñon westbound to Campo.


The old station had no security. Patrol cars were parked in the parking lot on the west side and employees parked their POVs in the lot below, where CVS pharmacy is now. There were no take home cars, with the exception of motor officers and their scooters. Into the 1980s, before the formation of MVRDA, LCPD and DASO had their respective dispatch systems. DASO dispatch was in the old jail located at Amador & Alameda, and dispatched from inside the control room. Those dispatchers had additional duties of buzzing officers and deputies in and out of the jail, and also signed in people visiting prisoners on Wednesday and Sunday. LCPD dispatchers, records division and municipal court were all in the old station. The courtroom had wooden pews and also doubled as the briefing room. There was one supervisory office with a single desk and chair. Access to dispatch was through that office. Many a patrol officer's rear end was chewed in that office.


Employees used the west side entrance of the station and the public used the front door located on the south, or Picacho, side of the building. The front doors were locked after 5 P.M. but the west doors remained unlocked. In the early 1980s a buzzer system had to be installed because a 58er (10-58 in police code, which means a mentally unstable subject), upset over his latest arrest. made good on a promise to torch the station after he got out of jail. Just inside the west entrance to the right was the LCPD men's room, and the 58er went in and torched the restroom but there was no major damage. He set the trash can on fire along with some toilet paper and was arrested for arson.


Criminal Investigations was housed in the basement of the old hospital located at Amador and Alameda, across the street from the jail.The building was composed entirely of city offices and there were some king-size cockroaches and rats in the basement. It was haunted, too. The basement is where the morgue was in the old hospital. Every detective that worked there could tell stories about being on call and doing paperwork in the office at three or four in the morning and hearing footsteps in the hallway and doors opening and closing.


CID was originally called Detective Division but that moniker changed in the 1980s (more on that several paragraphs below). There were 16 detectives when I switched over in 1987. We had to wear coat and tie, no exceptions, but did get permission to wear jeans on "casual Friday." The coat and tie rule was relaxed in the 1990s to allow detectives to wear open collar shirts. Eventually they were allowed facial hair besides mustache.


I cannot find any history on Metro Narcotics (police agencies are terrible about keeping records of their history, which is too bad because so much significant information is lost over time), but I believe it was formed in the late 1960s and consisted of LCPD & DASO. I switched over to it in 1982, and was one of two city officers along with two deputies assigned there. The boss was an LCPD sergeant who would be promoted to lieutenant. We worked closely with NMSP and DEA, but SP was not part of the unit as they are today. The original Metro office was in the business complex located on Montana St. behind the Sonic Drive-In on El Paseo. A couple of doors down was Samson's Gym, where a few of us cops worked out. Metro moved to California & Española several months later and stayed in that location for a few years.


Patrol cars in the late 1970s were the Plymouth Fury. The cars were white with two gold stripes running horizontally down the sides front to rear, with the CLC emblem stenciled on the front doors. The light bar was two red cherries. Those Fury's hauled ass, brother. 140 mph was nothing for those monsters. In 1980 we switched to Dodge Aspens, the worst police car I ever drove. The city decided to put propane tanks in those cars as a cost saving measure to rising gasoline prices, and the tanks were installed in the trunks. We had to wear special gloves to fuel it, and the odor of propane was constant. Top end on those cars was 65-70 mph going downhill with a tailwind. Crooks outran us all the time. The first red and blue light bar ever put on an LCPD car went on a Dodge Aspen, Unit 6. I remember the unit number because I was driving that car when it was demolished by a drunk driver while I was sitting in it on a traffic stop. The drunk, in fact, took out two police cars.


In that era, our radio callsigns were designated by the district we worked, and there were six patrol districts numbered one through six. Patrol cars were numbered one through about ten, with 10 being the supervisor's car which in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a station wagon that carried special equipment (tear gas, etc.). The unit number had nothing to do with the district worked. The shift lieutenant drove an unmarked white police car.


Around 1984 we got Ford LTDs, the best police car I ever operated. The LTDs were fast, cornered well at high speeds, and comfortable. We drove LTDs up until I retired in 2001. Patrol got take home units in the mid 1990s but I'm not sure of the year. Motor cops rode Harleys when I first joined, then switched to Kawasaki until the year 2000. Barnett HD donated ten police bikes to the LCPD that year on the condition that when we were finished with them we give the bikes back.


The paint job you see on the car today? You're welcome! In the early 1990s, a petition to change the look of the police car was put forward. I submitted several diagrams and the chief liked one of them, which is the design you see today: blue with gold stripes. It has been modified slightly over the years, but is basically the same design. One of our cops, a graphic artist, did a painting of what the new unit would look like and was interviewed by the newspaper. He conveniently forgot to mention who designed it and took credit for my work. We had a come to Jesus talk the day the article came out.


During the 1980s we only had a few handheld radios per shift. It's not like today, with officers issued their own radio and charging system. We had a rack that charged the radios in a supply room that had been converted from its use in previous years as a drunk tank (I spent time in that tank, but not for drinking! At the age of ten I planned an adventure with another boy of the same age that involved leaving home and being on our own. Back then it was called "runaway." We made it as far as the old Sands Motel on South Main, where we tried to check in for the night using silver dollars the other boy had taken from his parents. They called the cops on us and that was my introduction to LCPD!).


The radios worked okay most of the time, but were often in the shop for repair. It wasn't unusual to work a 40 hour week without ever carrying a handheld.


Departmental-issued flashlights were unheard of. We had to buy our own, along with the batteries, and usually we carried cheap plastic flashlights that held two "D" cell batteries. I subscribed at that time to Police Magazine and read an article about the Streamlight. I invested in one, a rechargeable. It was $80, big money in the early 1980s. A few cops carried the Maglight, which was bright but used standard batteries. After several months of using my Streamlight, word got around and I was called into the chief's office one afternoon before the evening shift began. I was told to bring my Streamlight. The chief had heard about it and wanted to see how bright it was. I closed the door to his office, shut off the light switch, and flipped on the Streamlight. He was so impressed he ordered Streamlights for all uniformed officers. At the time I retired, the department was still buying the flashlights for officers, including the smaller Scorpion.


There was no authorization to carry rifles back then, only shotguns. Shotguns had to be checked out at the beginning of shift and checked back in when the officer went end-of-watch. They were Remington 870 riot guns loaded with 00 buckshot. We shared patrol cars, and quite often those units were driven around the clock for days in a row. If a situation arose that, by today's standards, would qualify for a SWAT/HNT call out, the supervisor on duty handled it over the phone or in person, and patrol stood by outside the location.


The issued nightstick, or baton, was made of ash or hickory, depending on the manufacturer. In the late 1980s we switched to the expandable baton, which was made of aluminum or lightweight steel, but I never carried it except in training. I preferred the wooden stick even though I only used it two or three times during my career. The wood stick was thicker, had a longer reach, and would not collapse if jabbed into somebody's body. Pepper spray was issued but I only used it on vicious dogs, never on people. Put someone who has been sprayed with it in your patrol car and it is necessary to drive with the windows down and head sticking out the window. As a shift lieutenant told me in the early 1980s, when I asked why he did not carry pepper spray, "Did you ever hear of the wind blowing a nightstick back in anyone's face?"


LCPD officers had to buy their own firearm. This has pros and cons. On the one hand, officers got to carry the caliber they wanted as long as it was between a .38 and .45. Typically, female officers did not want high-powered handguns and they desired a pistol grip that would fit comfortably into their smaller hands. The obvious downside of buying one's own weapon was the expense to the individual officer. In the 1980s uniform services were only allowed to carry revolvers, although detectives and Metro could carry semiautomatic pistols. In the 1990s uniformed officers were allowed to switch over from revolvers.


Officers also had to buy their own handcuffs, leather gear, and footwear.


Police academies in the late 1970s were eight weeks. In the 1950s and early 1960s it was possible to be hired right off the street. That still goes on in some NM sheriff's departments today, where, by law, a deputy can be hired and work one year before having to attend the law enforcement academy.


When I joined the LCPD, there were supervisors and officers who predated Miranda. That means they were cops before the Supreme Court handed down the landmark Miranda warning case.


In 1991 we moved into the "new" station, which is the current LCPD headquarters on Spruce. It had luxuries we had only heard about from cops in other agencies: full size lockers, showers, and a gym (the gym equipment was donated by the owner of Powerhouse Gym, which was located at Solano & Colorado). The new building also had a designated briefing room which doubled as a training classroom. Each patrol lieutenant had his own office and his subordinate supervisors had cubicles.


In that era, the rank of corporal existed. In some departments a two-striper was considered a senior officer, but in LCPD corporal was considered a supervisory role. In the late 1990s, a police chief hired out of New York decided to promote all corporals to sergeant, a move many of us considered a mistake since those affected had not successfully passed the requirements for the position (written exam, oral board). Additionally, it was a slap in the face to the existing sergeants, because they had competed for that rank and not had it handed to them. After that, the rank of corporal was eliminated. Why were corporals made sergeants? Several corporals argued that when citizens asked for a supervisor and they arrived on scene, citizens thought that the corporals were just senior officers and refused to recognize or acknowledge their actual authority. My response to that was, 'If your authority is not being recognized, go look in the mirror." I said that because there were plenty of corporals who had no issues commanding respect from the public.


Every LCPD officer wore the same uniform and memos were put out twice yearly, spring and fall, advising when we would switch to short sleeves or long sleeves, respectfully. A dayshift officer working in the warmth of fall or early winter was not authorized to wear short sleeves, just as a graveyard officer could not wear long sleeves no matter how cold it got at night until the memo came out. All uniformed officers in long sleeves had to wear a black clip-on tie. It was common to see officers with the top button of the shirt undone and the tie clip hooked into the button hole. Some supervisors strictly enforced the tie regulation and wrote up officers for being "out of uniform" when the tie was not properly worn. When K9 was introduced in the early 1990s. they were allowed a dungaree type uniform because of the work they did with dogs. Shortly after that, community policing was introduced to the department, which put officers on bicycles wearing shorts, T-shirts, sneakers and bicycle helmets.


There was no uniformity pertaining to name tags. Some were shiny gold with initials and last name (J.R. Lonsway), others were dull gold with first initial only and surname, still others were first and last name. I think that was because the LCPD used whatever vendor was available during whatever academy was preparing to graduate and that resulted in the lack of consistency.


Smoking in public view was prohibited by regulation, but anyone who smoked ignored that rule, but we generally did not smoke when face to face with the public. Chewing and dipping tobacco when dealing with the public was also prohibited, but officers ignored that, as well.


Specialty patches designating what unit an officer belonged to came much later, although Traffic always wore the traditional "wings" and I believe they had "Traffic" sewn on to one patch.


The original SWAT Team was formed in the early 1990s. It was trained by the U.S. Army's 5th Special Forces Group. The original team had Colt 9mm semiautomatic rifles. In the late 1990s the team switched to Bushmaster .223. Snipers carried the .308, but I'm not sure of the brand (Winchester) or scope on those weapons.


At one time, LCPD had two Thompson submachine guns, one magazine fed and the other drum fed. I was told that those mysteriously disappeared following the retirement of a certain firearms instructor. We also had a fully automatic M-16. They were fun to shoot.


Up until the time the Community Policing unit was formed uniformed officers always had to wear the issued police service cover, and there were no exceptions to that rule. There were plenty of officers with write ups and suspensions in their files over the years for violating that regulation. Since bicycle cops did not have to wear headgear, except for the helmet while operating the bicycle, the hat rule was relaxed and eventually the service cover became an item worn only for official ceremony. Only K9 wore baseball caps up until my retirement.


Ballistic vests today are mandatory and issued to each officer, but we didn't have that luxury back in the day. Sometime around the mid to late 1980s the city bought them and made their use mandatory. We had always had a few old ballistic vests lying around the supply room but they were seldom worn. Once in a while a detective or narc going on a raid would check one out and return it after.


In the 1970s and early 1980s the LCPD had a police chief and director of public safety. The director oversaw both police and fire and I don't recall ever seeing him in a uniform, I only remember him in a coat and tie. He was retired U.S. Army CID enlisted, and changed the name of Detective Division to CID. LCPD had the same police chief from 1979-1991. The rank insignia he wore on his collar was a colonel's eagle. The assistant chief wore a lieutenant colonel's rank insignia, the silver oak leaf. There were no deputy chiefs but we did have three captains (patrol, admin, CID).


I joined the PD in 1979 for $600 a month. After insurance, retirement and taxes there wasn't much to live on. In the late 1980s we voted to change our retirement plan. Under the old system a cop had to work 35 years to max out and retire at 80% of salary. 30 years of service got 70% of pension, 25 years 60%, and 20 years 50%. The change meant an officer could retire at 80% of pay after 22 years and 10 months, and 20 years earned 70%. To pay for that change our retirement contributions went from roughly 6% of our check to 16.9%.


Patrol had a five-day workweek for more than half my career. Traffic had switched to a four-day workweek sometime in the 1980s but no record was kept of why they went to it. In the early 1990s, as a young sergeant, yours truly petitioned police administration for a switch to a four-day workweek. Research with other police departments indicated that 4/10s reduced sick and annual leave significantly. After writing it up and submitting the proposal, permission was granted to make the switch. I kept a record of patrol division's sick/annual leave use for a one-year period. Sick leave was reduced over 60% and vacation leave dropped about 25%. The department also benefited with reduced overtime, because of overlapping shifts at peak hours: 2100-0200. After I retired, I heard that a new police chief put patrol back on a five-day workweek, which I considered a mistake, but I believe they were put back on the 4/10 rotation in later years.


Ask any business owner: if you could reduce sick leave among your employees by 60% and double your manpower during peak hours, plus cut back on overtime, and doing so wouldn't cost you a dime, would you be willing to switch over? We all know the answer to that question. After LCPD patrol switched to the four-day workweek, CID did the same. Great for morale.


Up until 1997, I only remember one staff meeting being held by a police chief. The usual SOP was to give written directives in memo form, and if police administration wanted the opinion of a supervisor, they'd ask for it. In January of '97, when a new chief was hired out of New York, weekly staff meetings began that included lieutenants and above. Once per month, and later on once every couple of months, sergeants and corporals were invited. Those meetings were good for information sharing.


Polygraphs were used for hiring purposes during the 1980s and on. LCPD always sent its polygraph students to the Backster School of Lie Detection, an institution with a sterling reputation. I didn't see a point to polygraphing prospective employees since there were always a few who came up deceptive but were allowed into various academies anyway. Some of them were, predictably, terminated for thievery, or worse, after graduating and being on the job a few years. The most common reason I heard from police administration for allowing them in was that bodies were needed to fill slots, and don't worry "we'll keep an eye on them."


DASO was, for many years, a dumping ground for LCPD rejects. Guys would get fired over credibility and integrity issues, and within a few weeks they'd be on patrol in the county.


I hope you have enjoyed reading this.There is probably some history I overlooked, so if you have information pertaining to this article and would like to share it, please do so in the comments section so others can benefit from it. Cheers.












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J.R. LONSWAY

AUTHOR | RETIRED DEPUTY CHIEF OF POLICE

J.R. Lonsway served 22 years with the Las Cruces, New Mexico, police department and retired as a Deputy Chief of Police. After retirement he served with the U.S. Department of State as a police advisor in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Liberia, Haiti, Lebanon, and South Sudan. He is a former U.S. Marine.

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