Once again, Albuquerque is confronted with its long-standing crime problem. As a new mayor, and likely a new police chief, are about to take over the responsibility for law enforcement in our state’s largest city, we can hope for a change of culture in how we approach our justice problems. For this to happen, it is essential to look back and learn from the mistakes of the past.
According to a Sept. 15 Journal article, “APD chiefs often in the firing line,” Albuquerque has been plagued with high crime rates and police scandals for over 40 years. Since the 1980s, mayors have been answering questions about excessive force and a practice of unconstitutional policing. The article reminds us of corruption in the system that has reared its head repeatedly. From burglary detectives caught burglarizing the homes of criminal suspects to evidence technicians stealing evidence, to last week’s story about jail property clerks stealing inmate belongings. The article even reminded us of the time when former APD officers were involved in a multi-state robbery and burglary ring.
The article failed to mention that just over a year ago, tensions within our law enforcement community reached the point where the district attorney at the time, Kari Brandenburg, was quoted in the Journal as being in fear for her own safety having decided to prosecute APD officers for the James Boyd shooting. That’s right, our top law enforcement official was scared of fellow law enforcement officials.
More recently, we have watched our local news report the story of a Metropolitan Detention Center guard on trial for raping female inmates in the courthouse holding cells, just a few feet from the courtroom in which the women were being sentenced. And, of course, who can forget that horrific video of an MDC guard Tasing and repeatedly pepper spraying a young woman because she would not stop crying?
Throughout this time, when confronted with the fact that children, the mentally ill and drug users cause the majority of crime in our community, our political leaders have taken a simplistic approach. They demand more criminal statutes with longer sentences and reduced burdens of proof. They point the finger at the judicial system and claim it is soft on crime.
In one notable example, our newest DA, Raúl Torrez, blamed criminal defense lawyers for “gaming” the system and criticized judges for dismissing cases. The DA focused the public’s attention away from the true causes of crime, and used the courts and public defenders as scapegoats.
As the two remaining mayoral candidates square off with each other, they should look at the past and try to avoid repeating it. We need our politicians to set aside their finger-pointing rhetoric and start thinking about new solutions for these age-old problems. The jail and police unions need to open their doors to anti-corruption probes instead of defending the bad apples. Recent efforts to end unnecessary pre-trial incarceration and eliminate the anachronistic bail bonding system must be nurtured. Our history of excessive incarceration before trial – before a finding of guilt – has been an expensive failure that has actually contributed to our high crime rates and depleted the resources available in the system.
Our “tough on crime” politicians must openly admit what they privately already know: We cannot afford to incarcerate our way out of this problem and we are not a dictatorship capable of sending everyone to prison without due process of law.
Most importantly, statewide, our prisons and juvenile detention centers must shift from a culture of brutality to one of rehabilitation. Historically, we have treated our prisoners as sub-human and subjected them to the barbarity of solitary confinement as a matter of routine. Every day, people are being released from custody without hope and without options.
In short, we must change the culture of making the situation worse. Only then do we stand a chance of making things better.