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Editorial: UNM makes big headway on car theft, campus safety

It doesn’t yet fit into the “problem solved” category, but the University of New Mexico deserves a major pat on the back for making what appears to be a significant dent in the auto theft problem on campus and for taking other steps to make students feel safe.

In an incredibly embarrassing statistic, UNM has led the nation’s colleges and universities in auto theft in recent years. But numbers released last week by the university’s police department show a 41 percent drop last year – from 206 to 121 – in auto thefts and attempted thefts on campus in 2018.

The school’s top cop, Police Chief Kevin McCabe, credits recent initiatives and leadership of Garnett Stokes, who took over as president last March.

“What we’re trying to do is make UNM a less attractive place to steal cars,” McCabe said.

“Since President Stokes came here … She’s been nothing but proactive, and I think coming from the top down has made a difference in the whole campus community.”

After students, staff and faculty told the new president that safety was a major concern, Stokes said during a town hall meeting last April that UNM would budget $500,000 a year for six years for security cameras, lighting and mobile security units. She has said making students safe is the right thing to do – and that students feeling safe is crucial at a time when competition for enrollment is intense.

In addition to increased use of video cameras, UNM police Lt. Trace Peck cited the department’s participation in an auto theft task force with other law enforcement.

“UNM and APD got together and said, ‘We do have a problem here and what kind of resources can you help us with?’ ” Peck said APD has doubled the number of bait cars in the area, and “that’s really helped us out.”

UNM has expanded its use of cameras in parking lots including at Dreamstyle Stadium and Dreamstyle Arena.

On the North Campus that includes UNM Health Sciences, two officers patrol from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. Officers will walk the core of the Health Sciences campus, the lower plaza and the Domenici Center for Health Sciences education. Of course, even that is no guarantee against crime. There were two attempted carjackings on the Health Sciences campus recently, but quick action enabled police to arrest the suspect soon after.

“We want to make sure that students feel safe,” said Health Sciences official Ryan Reynolds. “We want them to focus on their studies, and that’s what a campus should be about.”

It’s uncertain how the impressive drop in auto thefts and other beefed up safety efforts will be reflected in the next annual federal report, which includes areas around UNM and property separated from campus that UNM owns or leases.

But the steps taken are real, and they are meaningful. Stokes, McCabe and the UNM Police Department deserve credit for tackling the problem head on.

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.