The University of New Mexico is playing an integral role in the well-being of the residents across the state. The Center for Social Policy (CSP), led by Political Science Professor Gabriel Sanchez, just provided the City of Santa Fe with data from the community to help provide a more well-informed path to policies to make the city a more vibrant place, thanks to its recent citizen surveys and focus groups.
“They asked residents a series of questions to gather their views and experiences in their community in terms of public safety and overall economic well-being. The city council's task force wanted to make sure they had actual resident voices as they crafted out a series of recommendations on what the city should consider doing to reform,” Sanchez said. This approach of providing city residents with a voice in the policy-making process at the start of the process is ideal and a strong example of how to use research and data to inform policy discussions.”
The results of what CSP found were impactful; a Santa Fe task force that requested the information recommended nearly three dozen changes to law enforcement policies and city services following the completion of the research.
“They wanted to make it more in line with what city residents think. The research project analyzed what would make Santa Fe a more vibrant community. The city council's recommendations were crafted based on what we found in our study,” Sanchez said.
When crafting questions for hundreds of people in Santa Fe, Sanchez was asked to nail down something as broad and important as well-being, health and safety. That begins with a conversation.
“Learning that there were going to be a series of recommendations that would be based on our content gave me a pretty clear idea of the need to capture all experiences,” he said.
“We're trying to make sure that respondents in the survey see how their voice landed, the decisions that were made based on their input, and down the line that things have changed for the better.” – Center for Social Policy Director Gabriel Sanchez
One of the big priorities was understanding public opinion on the Santa Fe Police Department. While the fire department and ambulance services received positive approval ratings of 65%, 64%, and 59%, the police response was deemed “fair” with 34%.
“We asked folks directly if they had any interactions with the police force in Santa Fe and how they would rate the police force relative to many other service providers,” Sanchez said. We also had to have some of these broad measures of policy reform or policy actions. These weren't intended to give the task force some sense of the communities support for restorative justice approaches and utilization of highly trained professionals to take some calls to allow the police force to focus on higher-level priorities. The recommendations that the task force ended up coming out with were therefore able to be focused on specific actions within the restorative justice framework.”
The city had also recently launched an alternative response unit to focus on mental and behavioral health needs. The survey provides some insights on how this is performing. Overall, 32% of respondents rated mental health services as very poor. Homeless services and addiction/substance abuse services also fell to 18% and 21%, respectively.
“Do they feel that there's some calls, for example, that might come to the police force that mental health providers might be able to take so that police officers can really focus on more extreme crime? Those kinds of questions give the task force a broad sense of what the public was hungry for in crafting the recommendations,” Sanchez said.
Some questions centered around the everlasting state of crime.
“It's not as though we're not familiar in this community with crime and the need for reform and policies to address that. That's an area where things have waxed and waned over time. Addressing crime has, as far as I can remember, been a priority for policymakers across New Mexico,” Sanchez said.
Something particularly important was a representation of all sub-groups of the City population. It was critical for Sanchez to target Spanish-speaking and low-income residents in the study. These communities are often outliers when it comes to assessments such as these. The study, therefore, included focus groups and interviews in addition to the survey.
“There were some segments of the population which weren't going to be big enough in a survey sample to speak to in-depth,” he said. “There were also people who might not be comfortable filling out a survey, even though we stressed it was anonymous, so we made sure we worked with our community and nonprofit organizations in Santa Fe to help identify some of those folks and make them more comfortable to talk to our people.”
The tone of the focus groups and interviews was also a crucial part of that, ensuring people felt safe to express their thoughts.
“I've been doing surveys in New Mexico for the better part of 15 to 20 years. I have experience knowing the nuances of how to talk to people specifically in this state. I think this work has become more important over time, as the public demands, I think, more engagement in the process than they did in the past,” Sanchez said.
Although the city sought feelings on policing and safety, the most overwhelming response centered around something else entirely: the economy. A staggering 70% of respondents said there needed to be priorities in creating jobs that pay affordable wages. 64% of respondents said creating affordable housing should also be top of mind.
“I think that's just a sign of the times across the country and here in New Mexico, but especially in a city like Santa Fe that has some of the greatest inequalities in terms of being able to afford to live there,” Sanchez said. “That was a take home message that was a bit of a surprise to everybody because I think we all expected to be talking mostly about the police and crime.”
Whether it was housing, income, or overall economic well-being, those surveyed had a lot of opinions on the general affordability of life in Santa Fe. 29% of survey respondents reported their financial situation has gotten worse in the past year. 12% had to move or change their housing situation over the past year due to the price increases and rising cost of living specifically. 61%, similarly, expect they may have to join that 12% with housing or rent prices getting too expensive. This was especially common among Latinos and young adult populations.
“People are smarter than we give them credit for. They understand that if people had good paying jobs, maybe they would not need to commit crimes. That’s why making things a little bit more affordable for people was probably the main take-home message regarding how people would feel better about living in the city of Santa Fe,” Sanchez said.
While that may be a different priority, or a different reported level of need, it’s not an issue specific to Santa Fe right now. Still, each city is different enough to know what changes would make the most difference.
“For the City of Santa Fe side, that's a pretty robust study. It gives them a pretty good vantage point because this was representative of the population,” Sanchez said. “We do all of our job of making sure that the demographics match what the cities look like. You're not just talking to the first 300 people that say they're willing to talk to you, but you're randomly drawing a sample to make sure it's representative of the full population.”
It’s also a good sign, Sanchez adds, that this survey even happened. Often, it can seem like politicians and leaders ask for feedback for the sake of asking.
“I think it's just a time where governmental bodies understand the need to at least think about what the public wants, and it just makes sense, right? You're going to probably be viewed more positively by voters if you're actually trying to be responsive to what voters are saying they want done. Governmental bodies are less likely now to just do this for show,” he said.
Sanchez presented the main findings of the research report to the full City Council last week, followed by the recommendations given by task force members. The City Council and Mayor will consider these recommendations.
“The main goal of what we do is not just to collect data, but use these opportunities to educate the public,” he said. “That was like the main methodological advancement that we made as a team back then, and guess what? The City of Santa Fe did something very similar in terms of community engagement to get these answers.”