It’s time for a concerted effort to knock Albuquerque off its unfortunate pedestal as the stolen car capital of America.
We didn’t reach that lofty ranking under the current administration of Mayor Tim Keller, but it’s his to deal with.
His predecessor, R.J. Berry, on more than one occasion blamed the push to lower the prisoner population at the Metropolitan Detention Center as a major culprit. And while there is truth to that – yes, many people who make a living at crime keep right on doing it when they are turned back on the street – other factors are at play.
Whatever the reasons, there’s no debate over the scope of the problem as reported in last Sunday’s Albuquerque Journal by investigative reporter Mike Gallagher. Albuquerque’s auto theft rate has tripled since 2013 with an unbelievable 7,684 cars and trucks stolen in the Duke City in 2017. Our stolen car totals far outstrip those of much larger cities like Austin and Denver.
Get-out-of-jail-free cards notwithstanding, the anemic ranks of the Albuquerque Police Department have a lot to do with the problem.
With an estimated shortage of 300 to 400 officers, one of the biggest weapons in the auto-theft law enforcement arsenal has almost been taken off the table – and that’s cops on patrol, making traffic stops and running license plates against their computer database.
Simply put, APD just doesn’t have the manpower to do that job effectively, and bad guys can more or less drive around with impunity.
And the specialized unit that focuses on auto theft has shrunk from 19 officers in 2010 to five this year, according to a report prepared by the Keller administration. That’s a disturbing statistic.
Add in the flood of cheap Mexican methamphetamine and opiods to the area, and as Gallagher reported, it makes for a car-thief paradise where crooks have taken to stealing cars on their way to commit other crimes. Want to do a drive-by shooting or an armed robbery? Steal a car to do it.
It all adds up to a dangerous and unacceptable scenario.
On the solution front, Keller says his top priority is rebuilding the ranks of APD, which he should do with an eye toward putting this crime high on the list. It’s personal, and it creates a danger to the community as jacked-up meth heads roll down the road in stolen rides.
Meanwhile, District Attorney Rául Torrez is reorganizing his office to prosecute repeat offenders and actually use the habitual offender laws mostly ignored by his predecessor to help take car thieves who also commit other crimes off the streets. Kudos to Torrez. Jail and prison, are in fact, a good place for many of these offenders, and his strategy of targeting the career offenders is smart.
Some additional help is on the way. Gov. Susan Martinez signed into law bipartisan legislation that will require auto dismantlers to check a state database to determine if a car is stolen before buying it. Sponsors include Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque, and Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City. Another bill sponsored by Rep. William “Bill” Rehm, R-Albuqerque and a retired sheriff’s captain, forms an Auto Theft Prevention Authority.
These both hold promise, but it will be at least a year before they are effectively in operation.
Meanwhile, the public can help by reining in the terminal stupidity of leaving vehicles running with the keys in the ignition.
Car thieves – and some days it seems like they outnumber the cops on traffic patrol – actually troll city streets looking for those opportunities. Turn off your engine. Lock your car. Take your keys. The public can, indeed, help cops and prosecutors in this regard.
This blight on our city has been talked about for too long. It’s time for a coordinated and focused effort to deal with it.
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.