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Editorial: UNM needs to lock down solutions to auto thefts

Anyone who has had a vehicle stolen can identify with Lora Church and the sick feeling that washed over her after she realized her SUV had been stolen while she was attending a summer pre-law program at the University of New Mexico.

Unfortunately, it’s a feeling that an increasing number of UNM students, faculty, staff and visitors are experiencing – thanks to the rash of vehicle thefts that have been plaguing the campus.

Indeed, UNM now has a dubious distinction.

More cars are stolen there than at any other campus in the country. The university reported 140 vehicles thefts or attempted vehicle thefts in 2016. That’s more than double the car thefts at the institution with the second-worst vehicle theft problem – the University of South Carolina, which logged 65. Worse yet, a UNM official is anticipating a 30 percent increase when statistics for 2017 are released.

This is a black eye for UNM. It’s the type of problem that is going to resonate with prospective students and their parents. As many pore over rankings for the colleges of their choice, No. 1 in the nation for auto theft isn’t exactly a draw.

And good luck to UNM if it tries to persuade prospective students that it’s only 140 vehicles compared to the 18,000 parking spaces it has on campus. Or that the thefts on campus are just a manifestation of the crazy car-theft problem playing out in the city of Albuquerque. Neither argument is convincing when we’re talking about putting likely the most expensive thing you own at risk.

UNM officials need to get a firm handle on the school’s car-theft problem, and quickly, before we’re talking about another substantial jump in car thefts for 2018. That won’t be an easy nut to crack, but there are several steps the school is taking and others it should be considering to address the problem. Already in the works:

• The UNM Police Department is participating in an auto-theft task force with other area law enforcement agencies, using bait cars to catch thieves on campus.

• UNM student leaders secured nearly $126,000 from the Legislature to buy new lighting. Students also backed a tuition hike for the current fiscal year in part because new revenue will help fund equipment and personnel related to campus safety.

• New President Garnett Stokes said UNM is budgeting about $500,000 a year for six years for security cameras and lighting. And she told regents she authorized the purchase of a new mobile security unit – like those at shopping malls during the holidays – along with extra bicycles to enhance policing.

• UNM will also add a security operations director.

• And UNM plans to expand the use of cameras to all parking lots, including the South lot. If cameras aren’t installed there by the start of the fall semester, a security officer will be on site.

The university certainly appears to be taking this problem seriously and trying to find ways to attack it. But there are a lot of moving parts.

We urge Stokes to assign someone to take point on this problem so efforts are coordinated. And speaking of coordination, the university – if it has not already done so – should include its parking enforcement personnel in the efforts to curb vehicle thefts. They spend much of their days in lots where thefts are happening, and should be keeping an eye out for and reporting any suspicious activity to UNM police, in addition to checking for permits and writing tickets.

In the meantime, if you park on UNM campus, be sure to take the usual precautions: Lock your doors and don’t leave valuables inside, much less in sight.

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.

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