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Editorial: Car-theft case shows depth, breadth of city crime woes

If they haven’t already, candidates Tim Keller and Dan Lewis can get a chilling education on the crime problem that awaits the new mayor by reading the front page of last Monday’s Albuquerque Journal.

On Aug. 1, 74-year-old Bob Haagensen’s unlocked locker at a public swimming pool was ransacked. Among the missing items were his wallet, phone and car keys. His 2005 Mazda station wagon was gone from the parking lot. He filed a report at a police substation, but instead of waiting on the chronically understaffed Albuquerque Police Department, he struck out on his own.

His daughter posted the theft on Facebook, and someone reported seeing the station wagon parked outside an apartment complex near Gibson and Girard SE. Haagensen drove to the complex, found his car, and called police. They never showed up.

The next day, Haagensen’s daughter was contacted via social media by someone who had her father’s stolen phone and was willing to sell it back. Haagensen and his daughter met the man in a parking lot and bought the phone back for $40.

The thieves used documents inside Haagensen’s car to open several bank and credit card accounts, and went to his home and stole his outgoing mail, including checks. Things went from bad to worse when Haagensen went to close one of the fraudulent accounts and there was an armed robbery taking place at the bank.

Haagensen kept APD detectives informed each step of the way.

Social media eventually helped Haagensen and police recover his abandoned car. Inside were numerous syringes, some of his stolen mail and, incredibly, jail inmate bracelets with the names and photos of Emma Chinana and Daniel Centeno. The duo was arrested Sept. 12 during a sting at a bank as they attempted to open yet another account in Haagensen’s name.

Five days earlier, the duo had been in jail, charged in another stolen car case striking similar to Haagensen’s. Both were released without bond in that case.

To add some context to Haagensen’s case:

• Metro Albuquerque had the highest per-capita rate of auto theft in the nation in 2016, with more than 10,000 vehicles stolen that year.

• New Mexico had the highest per capita property crime rate in the nation in 2016, and the second-highest per capita rate of violent crime. (Property crimes include larceny, auto theft and burglary; violent crimes include aggravated assault, robbery, rape and murder.)

• And now, APD is reporting the city is on track to have the highest number of murders in more than two decades – 63 as of Nov. 2 this year. Despite those numbers, APD has just five homicide detectives who have solved only 37 of this year’s homicides.

Haagensen’s is an interesting, disturbing saga that speaks to the severe understaffing at APD and officers’ inability to respond quickly to “minor” crimes, which quickly add up to a major problem; the revolving door at the county-run Metro Detention Center; judicial hesitance to set bond or hold repeat offenders to stop their sprees; and citizens who, as a last resort, feel compelled to do their own crime fighting.

While it’s tempting to applaud social media for assisting citizens simply fed up with crime in getting their stuff back, it could be just a matter of time before one of those citizens encounters an armed and violent offender who does not appreciate their involvement. That parking lot phone buy-back could have gone horribly wrong.

Keller and Lewis have outlined plans to address the crime rate, both relying heavily on hiring hundreds of more police officers. With practically every other metropolitan area in the nation hoping to hire more cops, that will be a daunting task – especially with the Department of Justice looking over APD’s shoulder for however long it takes to reform the department from its pattern and practice of abuse of force.

Haagensen is not alone: City voters overwhelmingly list crime as their No. 1 concern, and it must be addressed as part of any city plan for economic development, job creation, capital improvement, etc.

After tomorrow’s mayoral runoff election, the victor must try to answer Haagensen’s question about Albuquerque crime: “‘Holy moly! Where are we?”

And just as importantly, how do we get somewhere else?

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.