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Editorial: UNM needs city, county help to fight campus crime

Two recent carjackings on the University of New Mexico main campus reinforce what we already knew: the state’s flagship university, situated in the middle of Albuquerque, is wrestling with a serious crime problem that will hamper its efforts to attract students (at a time of declining enrollment) and hire and retain quality faculty (who already are working for less than many of their peers elsewhere).

Garnett Stokes, who took the office of UNM president March 1, wasted no time in acknowledging the problem and taking steps to combat it. In fact, she made campus safety one of her top priorities.

And it’s not just talk. Her administration has just signed off on a 13 percent pay increase for the 40-person UNM police force – at a time when other staff got just 1 percent. It also comes on the heels of a report that shows UNM faculty is in the bottom quarter of pay for peer institutions.

Ryan Gregg, president-elect of the organization representing staff, said he didn’t think his constituents begrudge the police officer raises because they want UNM to retain existing officers who understand the campus safety issues and are engaged with its community. Faculty Senate President Pamela Pyle was less understanding, calling the disparity “mind-boggling” in a written statement. She said police officers are no doubt undercompensated but so are faculty members and other staff.

Budget squabbles notwithstanding, the carjackings were just the icing on the bad-news cake, and Stokes is right to take quick action.

UNM had more car thefts than any of the other higher education institutions in the United States in 2016 – more than double second-place University of South Carolina. Then, incredibly, auto thefts surged again – by 28 percent last year.

Meanwhile, the number of rapes and incidents of dating violence increased at UNM last year, along with the number of aggravated assaults, burglaries and stalking cases.

In addition to a big pay hike for campus police, UNM has taken other steps that include more lighting, contract security officers and cameras, a new mobile security camera trainer and a new security operations director.

But UNM can’t do this alone. The sprawling campus has parking lots and buildings that stretch for blocks north and south of Central Avenue. It wasn’t designed with safety in mind – it really wasn’t designed at all.

UNM is clearly a big part of the Metro area’s serious crime problem, and just as the university has partnered with local law enforcement on a promising auto theft task force, it should reach out to Albuquerque Police Chief Michael Geier, Mayor Tim Keller, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales, District Attorney Raúl Torrez and others to form a high-profile crime-fighting alliance at UNM. The more problem-solvers on this, the better.

To date UNM has been fighting much of its crime battle alone and losing miserably. Perhaps Stokes can stem the flow of campus crime news, or even reverse it, with the steps she is taking. But UNM is so important to Albuquerque and New Mexico that a concerted effort by local leaders to make this a safe campus is more than warranted. It’s imperative.

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.