By Sami Edge, the Santa Fe New Mexican, August 15, 2018
Photo: Sgt. Celestino Lopez, who runs the Santa Fe police bike patrol team, participates in a training session Wednesday on the Acequia Trail. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican
Dozens of people gathered Wednesday at the end of Kathryn Avenue, celebrating the opening of two new bridges added to Santa Fe’s Acequia Trail — a walking and biking path that runs from Railyard Park to an area near Baca Street.
Mayor Alan Webber hailed the trail as an example of Santa Fe’s increasing friendliness to families and eco-friendly transportation. Neighbors and visitors to the area applauded the tree-lined aesthetics of the path. After the ribbon-cutting, children ran carefree in a nearby arroyo, dodging in and out from under the new bridges.
But after a woman told police she was knocked unconscious, robbed and sexually assaulted in early July along the same section of the Acequia Trail, just west of the St. Francis Drive underpass, concerns about safety have been raised by some residents. Some have voiced their concerns on social media; others met with Santa Fe police officials at a community meeting.
As of late last week, the case was still actively being investigated and police had no new leads, police spokesman Greg Gurulé said.
Is the Acequia Trail safe?
“I would say, for the most part, all of the trails we have here are safe,” said Sgt. Celestino Lopez, who runs the Santa Fe police bike patrol team that keeps an eye on city trails. “The bicycle officers patrol the main trails on their bikes, and they mainly interact with other cyclists, people walking their dogs.”
Officer Anthony Currey, one of two full-time bike patrol officers who travel the city’s trails, said the trail does see a lot of traffic from people experiencing homelessness, many of whom walk south on the trail from Railyard Park — especially in the summer, when the local homeless shelter is closed to men.
Still, Currey said, the main problems that officers see along the trail are related to substance abuse and other nonviolent crimes.
“We’ll get, maybe somebody being aggressive, maybe panhandling,” Currey said. “We’ll get the occasional call that, ‘Hey, there’s somebody passed out on the side of the trail, or there’s people drinking on the trail, or maybe smoking or doing some drugs.’ … Every so often, something aggressive, but generally not assault.”
The report of rape on the trail took Currey by surprise.
“I was a little shocked that it happened here,” Currey said of the report. “It’s fairly well-traveled, it’s pretty well-lit, especially down here by the [St. Francis underpass]. So I was a little shocked that it happened over here.”
Currey and Lopez said police have seen no change in criminal activity on the Acequia Trail since the incident in early July, nor have the officers heard of any similar incidents on other trails.
Still, Currey said, the cycling-patrol unit has tried to get over to the area more often in the last month, “just to keep an eye on things.”
However, the bike team is without its usual complement of six bike patrol officers. Only two full-timers currently are manning the unit, Lopez said.
Police Chief Andrew Padilla said the issue is symptomatic of a larger staffing shortage. Overall, the department is short more than two-dozen staff members, he said.
“We’re feeling the shortage,” Padilla said. “… It’s a luxury to have officers on the Plaza, a luxury to have pedal-bike officers, a luxury to have officers on motorcycles.”
Padilla said officers on Segways sometimes ride from the tourist-heavy Plaza all the way past the St. Francis underpass to patrol the area. He added he sometimes joins other officers who walk the trail.
Police urge trail users with concerns to call 911 or contact police dispatch.
Barbara Fix, 72, and Margaret Gray, 69, both said they feel safe walking or biking along the trail that runs close to their homes.
Fix has lived in the area for more than 30 years, she said. With each layer of development of the Acequia Trail — including the addition of the underpass, new lighting and the two new bridges — she thinks the area gets safer. Parts of the trail, she said, tend to be a gathering place for homeless people, but she really doesn’t mind.
“I’ve never had a bad experience with homeless people. They say, ‘Hi how are you?’ ” Fix said. “If you treat people like human beings, they will respond like human beings.”
Gray, who has lived in the area for 10 years, said she walks along the path nearly every day, sometimes picking up trash. She said she heard some locals had stopped using the trail as frequently following the rape report.
But more than a month afterward, she said, she gets the sense that traffic is picking back up.
“The more people that use it,” Gray said, “the safer it’s going to be.”