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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
For a moment, Lora Church figured she had just forgotten where she had parked her car.
When she walked out to the University of New Mexico’s “L” lot on a recent Friday afternoon and did not immediately see her 2001 Honda CRV, she remembers feeling slightly disoriented.
“(I thought) ‘Well, maybe I parked in another location,’ ” said Church, who was on campus from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. that day as part of a summer pre-law program. “So I walked to another section of the law school parking lot, and my car wasn’t there.”
Church quickly realized her vehicle was gone. The 17-year-old SUV she and her husband planned to give their daughter when she left for college in Colorado this fall had been stolen.
Two UNM Police Department officers responded quickly to the scene. They began advising her on precautions she should take in the wake of the theft.
“It almost seemed like this was just daily routine for the officers instructing me,” Church recalled.
It is a routine matter at the university.
More cars are stolen at UNM than at any other campus in the country – and it isn’t even close.
New Mexico’s largest university recorded 140 stolen vehicles or attempted vehicle thefts in 2016, the most recent year for which it has compiled numbers. That ranks UNM ahead of the other 11,250 postsecondary campuses that report data to the federal government, according to a Journal review of the data submitted under the Clery Act.
The University of South Carolina in Columbia was a distant second to UNM, with 65 vehicle thefts. University of Nevada-Las Vegas had 50, which ranked it third.
Rob Burford, UNM’s Clery Act compliance officer, said the number is likely to rise with UNM’s next report. He is compiling 2017 data for the next report – due this fall – and said the indications point to an uptick of around 30 percent.
But he and other UNM officials say security is being beefed up with more lighting, cameras, increased bike patrols and other measures. New UNM president Garnett Stokes has cited campus security as one of her top priorities.
UNM’s issue is likely a function of its surroundings, he said.
“I think it’s because we’re right in the middle of Albuquerque,” Burford said.
Auto theft is rampant in New Mexico’s largest metropolitan area; the National Insurance Crime Bureau last year listed the greater Albuquerque area at No. 1 in the country for auto thefts per capita.
Recent numbers reflect possible improvement – auto theft was down 12 percent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2018, according to Albuquerque Police Department data.
But the issue remains problematic at UNM. Campus police online records reflect three reports on a single day in late June.
Those incidents occurred in different places: the UNM Hospital structure, a parking lot closer to Carrie Tingley Hospital and the South lot, which encompasses the areas north and east of the UNM soccer and track complex.
UNMPD Lt. Trace Peck said the volume of cars on UNM’s campus likely serves to entice car thieves. UNM has more than 18,000 parking spaces around the campus, including UNM Hospital to the north and the athletic facilities to the south.
“It’s just the largest parking lots in Albuquerque, and crooks are always looking for an opportunity,” Peck said.
Peck said the South lot is a problem area, as is the “R” lot along Central Avenue and the parking area near the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Burford, meanwhile, said his review of reports indicates that 2000-06 Chevrolet pickup trucks ranked among the most frequently stolen, followed by similar year Chevrolet sport utility vehicles.
Peck said UNMPD is participating in an auto theft task force with other area law enforcement agencies, using bait cars to catch thieves on campus.
That’s on top of other related measures.
UNM student leaders secured $125,801 from the Legislature this year to purchase new lighting and even backed a 2018-19 tuition hike in part because the new revenue would help fund equipment and personnel related to campus safety.
Stokes, who took office March 1, said the university is budgeting about $500,000 annually for six years for security cameras and lighting.
She told regents last month that she had authorized the purchase of a new mobile security unit – like those seen at shopping malls during the holidays – and extra bicycles to enhance campus policing.
UNM will also add a security operations director.
Several UNM parking lots already have cameras, but Peck said the plan is to expand their use to all lots, including the South lot. If cameras are not installed there by the time students return this fall, he said UNM will station a security officer at the lot.
A security trailer will be operational by this fall, too, UNMPD says.
Burford noted the many ways UNM is attempting to fix the problem, and said it’s important to tackle what he has come to describe as a “black eye” for the institution.
“This is a problem. Looking at UNM’s numbers and seeing we more than doubled our nearest rival – if you want to call it that – that’s obviously not a (place) we would want to be, so we need to do everything we can to deter that. That’s something other people see,” said Burford, who alerts families to the situation during student orientation sessions.
Church said authorities have not yet recovered her old SUV, and urged others who park on campus to be vigilant.
“I appreciate UNM paying attention to this and wish them good luck to not be in first place,” she said. “This is one first place position that I don’t think UNM wants to be in.”