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Armed and Dangerous: Can we stem the onslaught of armed robbery?

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque is in the throes of an armed robbery epidemic, but police, prosecutors and business leaders have joined forces to fight back.

“We’re not sitting on our hands, nor are we wringing our hands,” said Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.

Berry and District Attorney Raúl Torrez, together with business leaders, are working on strategies that range from making businesses and their employees less vulnerable to overhauling how police and prosecutors do their jobs.

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One of those strategies is “target hardening” – a phrase business people are hearing when they ask what they can do to protect their stores and employees from armed robbers.

This isn’t theoretical. Several quick service restaurant owners described to the Journal how they worry about their workers, many in their teens and some in their 60s, being confronted by gun-wielding robbers. They train their employees to turn over the money, and police advise them to keep as little cash in their registers as possible.

TOP: APD cameras linked to Real Time Crime Center. BOTTOM: Some stores will no longer accept cash after 3 p.m. because of armed robberies.

In some instances, they have installed timed safes so employees can’t open them when robbers hit. They have spent thousands of dollars installing digital cameras and have links to APD’s Real Time Crime Center in case of a robbery.

Some don’t accept cash after 3 p.m.

But still they worry.

Armed robberies are being committed more than five times a day in the city, a rate that equals the high water mark of 1996.

Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said the “business community is very worried” about the sharp increase in armed robberies.

“Armed robbery is a serious, serious crime that puts workers and business owners at risk,” Cole said. “We are aggressively working with the police department, the mayor and district attorney to create a system that takes these high risk repeat offenders off the streets.”

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Many attribute the rapid rise in armed robberies, from a low of 940 in 2010 to almost 2,000 in 2016, to a number of factors, including cheap and widely available methamphetamine and heroin from Mexico and access to cheap firearms on the street. Changes in court procedures to speed up trials, clear case backlogs and help empty an overcrowded jail are also considered factors by police and prosecutors.

Case loads for District Court judges hearing criminal cases are now half of what they were in 2011.

The U.S. Attorney stepped in during a rash of pharmacy armed robberies.

A shorthanded police department in the midst of reforms under an agreement with the Department of Justice is trying to restructure shifts and assignments to cover crime hot spots instead of running from one 911 call to the next on every shift.

“People forget that there were major disruptions in the criminal justice system, 2,000 fewer people in jail for instance, but we are working together across party lines, across governmental lines, to reduce the problem,” Berry said.

New initiatives

Berry, Torrez and others are working on a number of initiatives to help police and prosecutors pursue high risk offenders.

Among them:

A Crime Strategy Unit that would use police and court computer systems to help identify high risk and low risk offenders when they are arrested, allowing prosecutors to direct resources at the higher-risk criminals.

The Security Camera Analytic Network, a voluntary registry of commercial and home security camera systems that would let police and prosecutors know if there is potential video of crime scenes or near crime scenes.

ABQ i-team, which has used a Bloomberg Philanthropies Grant to develop in-depth information on crime in the city to let APD assign officers based on the frequency of crime.

Improving the flow of criminal case information from APD to the District Attorney’s Office in order to meet tighter timelines for turning over evidence to defense attorneys in criminal cases.

Taking advantage of a U.S. Attorney’s Office program that cross-trains state prosecutors to pursue criminal cases in federal court.

A few weeks ago, Berry, Torrez, Cole and Police Chief Gorden Eden met with the news media Downtown to announce the Security Camera Analytic Network, or SCAN.

The Real Time Crime Center will search the network as calls for service come in and advise officers in the field when cameras are near the scene of the crime. Officers will be able to see the security camera map along with contact information for the system owners.

“It’s a networking capability and an investigative tool for our detectives,” Eden said.

Criminal Investigations Commander Paul Szych said in an interview that photos from videos of suspects and vehicles are circulated throughout law enforcement.

“We’re looking for someone to put a name to the face,” Szych said. “Probation and parole officers are sometimes the best sources. Once we have enough information, we can put together a tactical plan to target the suspect.”

APD’s Real Time Crime Center also has a program that allows businesses to tie their security cameras into APD’s center and allows APD to immediately view and monitor the cameras when an alarm is activated.

Both programs are what police consider “force multipliers” for a department with fewer than 900 officers, when Eden and Berry have said they need 1,000. Critics say that even the 1,000 number is too low.

APD has also changed how officers bid on shifts so that more officers are in the field when calls for service are highest and assign them to crime “hot spots” around the city that have a tendency to move to different areas when police presence increases.

ALeRT

In the last few months, APD and federal agencies formed ALeRT (Analysis Led e Recidivism Team) that meets weekly to target habitual offenders, try to get charges filed against them in federal court and make sure prosecutors have all the possible information to give to judges in state court cases.

The FBI, DEA and ATF all participate.

Getting an offender prosecuted in federal court is what Szych calls a “work around.”

“We see time served plus probation in state court. In federal court, they get 10 to 11 years.”

And pending trial?

“Someone charged with a violent crime stays locked up awaiting trial in the federal system,” he said. “In the state system, they’re out in 24 hours. The feds have it right, and the state has it wrong.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in recent years has been the backstop for local law enforcement and prosecutors.

In 2014 and early 2015, there was a sudden rash of pharmacy robberies by crooks looking to steal drugs like Oxcycodone they could sell on the street.

While APD handled many of the initial investigations, the cases were turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.

The indictments were announced with a lot of media attention.

The cases ended in guilty pleas, and the prison sentences handed down by federal judges ranged from 10 to 15 years in federal prison.

Something similar happened when the city saw an increase in carjackings, which is also a federal crime.

The cases, investigated by APD, were taken over by ATF and prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Again, sentences ranging from 10 to more than 20 years were handed down.

And the rate of carjackings dropped.

The FBI has been adopting APD investigations into serial armed robbers, because many of the chain restaurants and stores targeted by armed robbers are involved in interstate commerce.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office indicted all 104 defendants in an APD/ATF operation aimed at getting drug dealers who were also selling guns off the street.

But there are limits to how many local criminal cases the U.S. Attorney’s Office can take.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico and the federal courts here are among the busiest in the country for criminal prosecutions, and the office has only 10 prosecutors assigned to “general crimes.”

The office also handles immigration cases, felonies on Indian lands, white collar crime, drug trafficking networks and cases developed by the FBI, DEA, ATF and other federal agencies – along with civil lawsuits involving the United States Government and its agencies.

The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office has slightly more than 100 prosecutors – 20 below its authorized number.

Torrez and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are working to cross train and deputize two local prosecutors to handle some cases in federal court to help handle any increased caseloads.

Torrez would like to have at least four prosecutors cross-trained to handle cases in federal court.

‘Prioritize cases’

An APD crime scene technician arrives at a bank robbery scene to aid the federal investigation.

Both APD and the District Attorney’s Office are overwhelmed by the number of criminal cases ranging from drunken driving to felony murder.

“Law enforcement in Bernalillo County develops about 25,000 criminal cases – felony and misdemeanor – each year,” Torrez said in an interview.

Even after screening the cases to determine if they can be prosecuted, the District Attorney’s Office is left with more than 18,000 cases it could prosecute in state District Court or Metropolitan Court.

That is simply too many for the 100 plus prosecutors to handle.

Torrez wants to develop a computer-driven model that would identify, not just the important cases, but the defendants who are committing the most crimes.

“We need to prioritize cases based on who is the most dangerous, charged with violent crime, used a weapon, possible gang affiliation, and past history.

“A small portion of criminals drive the numbers, so we are in fact trying to play Money Ball here. Who are the 5 percent driving the 60 or 80 percent of crimes,” Torrez said. “We need to focus on the over-performers.”

His proposed Crime Strategy Unit would use the data and other computer tools to help bring strong cases against repeat offenders. “It will also tell us who the untreated heroin addict without a history of violence is so we can put him into a diversion program early in the process and not expend a lot of prosecutorial resources on that defendant,” he said.

That data-driven system will take money to establish, and Torrez intends to ask the Legislature for it.

Mayor Berry and the Chamber of Commerce are supporting Torrez’s push for a system that targets high-risk repeat offenders.

Torrez, Berry, business leaders and legislators recently visited San Francisco to see how the system works in the district attorney’s office there.

“We think a data-driven system is the most effective way to more intelligently fight crime,” the Chamber’s Cole said. “Our current system is broken.”

Szych said APD is on board with changes Torrez is trying to make.

“The DA’s engagement has been tremendous, a real ray of hope,” Szych said.

Communications problems

Police officers and prosecutors blame judges and new court rules for problems in cases getting dismissed or releasing people from jail that they believe should be locked up pending trial.

But both agencies historically share in the blame.

Both are short-handed, and the computer systems they use are so different that they have spent the last six months connecting the District Attorney’s Office to APD’s internal email system.

That’s just one example of the problems plaguing the flow of criminal case information between police and prosecutors.

The Case Management Order (CMO), which was designed to speed up the court’s handling of criminal cases and clear huge backlogs of cases, put the communication problems between APD and DA’s office front and center.

But the case management system was put in place in early 2015 and had been under public discussion for much of 2014. During that time, the relationship between APD top brass and Torrez’s predecessor, Kari Brandenburg, was non-existent.

The issue of criminal case “paperwork” flow was never worked out.

As a result, prosecutors had difficulty meeting the original 10-day rule for turning over to defense attorneys the information on which the criminal charges were based. The Supreme Court extended the time period to 20 days, but cases are still dismissed by prosecutors and judges for failure to meet time lines.

The city has assigned three paralegals to work within APD on the case flow problems and identify where the bottlenecks are.

When Torrez took office, around 8,000 case files were sitting in boxes in the hallways of the District Attorney’s Office.

Many were cases dismissed during 2015 and 2016 for failure to turn over evidence to defense attorneys under the time lines of the CMO.

The cases were dismissed without prejudice and could be reopened.

But there isn’t the staff to review the cases to decide which of those cases should be prosecuted.

Torrez said his office is working with APD to get these problems fixed.

While success in the initiatives would no doubt put a dent in the problem, some question how effective any response will be as long as Mexican heroin is plentiful and methamphetamine sells for $30 a gram on the street.

“The cartels, cheap heroin and access to cheap firearms all contribute to the problem we’re dealing with,” Torrez said. “But we’re going to continue to find new ways to fight crime. We have to.”

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