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Tackling Albuquerque’s auto theft problem

 New Mexico State Police Sgt. Shane Todd removes an expired temporary tag from a car that the Albuquerque Police Department auto theft team pulled over. It turned out the car wasn't stolen, but the driver was arrested on a felony warrant. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico State Police Sgt. Shane Todd removes an expired temporary tag from a car that the Albuquerque Police Department auto theft team pulled over. It turned out the car wasn’t stolen, but the driver was arrested on a felony warrant. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

On a recent Wednesday, officers with the New Mexico State Police auto theft suppression unit spotted a stolen vehicle and alerted their counterparts with the Albuquerque Police Department.

“By themselves they can’t track it – they don’t have enough bodies – so we get our guys involved,” said Lt. Josh Brown of the APD property crimes unit. “We started following it all over the place, getting in, getting out, getting in, getting out, then they get to a house. They go up there and contact them and end up finding a habitual offender who had a stolen gun, another stolen gun and stolen vehicles.”

In all, the investigation found four stolen vehicles and resulted in the arrest of a man with a lengthy criminal history.

This type of partnership is just one of the ways local law enforcement has been trying to reduce car thefts after 2016 and 2017, when the metropolitan area had the shameful distinction of being No. 1 in the nation for its rate of stolen vehicles.

A quick scan of a popular Facebook page dedicated to stolen vehicles shows the plague has hardly ended, but authorities say they see hopeful trends, with a 29% decrease in auto thefts from 2017 to 2018.

Auto theft statisticsIn 2017, 7,684 stolen vehicles were reported. The preliminary count for 2018, according to an APD report, is 5,447.

In the first quarter of 2019, APD says, there were 28% fewer auto thefts – a total of 1,787 – than in the same period in 2018, when there were 2,482. There has been a 38% decline since the first quarter of 2017.

“It’s a mindset change with this administration,” Brown said as he patrolled Southeast Albuquerque in his undercover pickup truck looking for stolen cars. “We’re doing what we can and the best we can with the resources we have available.”

Factors in crime rates

Last July, nonpartisan analysts working for the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee released a 100-page report detailing numerous gaps in the Bernalillo County criminal justice system that coincided with the spike in crime that began in 2011. It also focused on societal woes, including poverty, homelessness, income inequality and drug abuse, which research shows all worsened around the same time and are often linked to increased violent and property crime.

Charles Sallee, the deputy director of the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, said arrests and prosecutions had fallen off as crime began to increase.

“You had a small element that was able to do lots of things that weren’t even on the police radar,” he said. “So if you start taking a handful of those individuals out of the community by putting them in prison you can start having an impact on overall crime pretty quickly.”

He said it’s still next to impossible to pinpoint exactly what contributed to a decline in crime – which started in November 2017 – but it could have something to do with an improving economy and lower unemployment rate, as well as better policing and prosecution practices.

“You can move the needle pretty quick. …” Sallee said. “If all those entities start hitting the mark on evidence-based intervention, performance management collaborating, they can have really sustained positive impact, I believe.”

Another factor the report considered was that every major jurisdiction that entered into police reform efforts with the Department of Justice saw an increase in crime a year or two after the signing of a consent decree.

However, the report says, after this increase, each city – including Albuquerque – saw an eventual decrease.

But Albuquerque still has much higher rates of crime than the national average.

Weeds entangle the recovered motorcycles that the Albuquerque Police Department can't return to their owners and can't find a use for. The vehicles are stored at a lot behind the Gerald Cline Memorial Substation. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Weeds entangle the recovered motorcycles that the Albuquerque Police Department can’t return to their owners and can’t find a use for. The vehicles are stored at a lot behind the Gerald Cline Memorial Substation. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Partners against crime

Brown, a 19-year veteran with APD, joined the auto theft unit as a sergeant in 2014, right before crime began to skyrocket.

He said the stress rose as more than 20 vehicles were being stolen each day in 2016 and 2017.

In 2016, when 7,710 vehicles were reported stolen in Albuquerque, there were six auto theft detectives. The following year, when there was only a very slight decrease, there were five.

Now seven auto theft detectives patrol the streets and the department has doubled the number of bait cars they use. The department also reported conducting 35% more traffic stops in 2018 than in 2017.

And on a daily basis, APD’s auto theft detectives are joined by Sgt. Shane Todd and his three officers with the New Mexico State Police auto theft suppression unit. Prior to February 2018, Todd said, State Police did not have a unit dedicated specifically to auto theft.

The teams patrol areas identified by APD’s Real Time Crime Center each week as hot spots for stolen and recovered vehicles. They also partner with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office auto theft unit to conduct tactical plans on certain areas and offenders.

“This partnership is an excellent partnership,” Todd said. “The guys, all the way up through the chain of command, everybody gets along really well. Everybody is just molded into one unit. We all have the same task in mind.”

Todd said the team started in the Albuquerque metropolitan area but expects to move into other parts of the state as needed in the future.

The state’s Office of Superintendent of Insurance has also pitched in. In late 2017, it started organizing a metro area task force to identify repeat auto thieves, and by the following March legislation was passed to give the office authority to investigate and prosecute auto thefts.

Special Agent in Charge Mark Torres said they started by focusing on 25 individuals who have stolen three or more vehicles in Albuquerque and surrounding counties. Now, he said, they get between five and 10 new cases every week for further investigation and prosecution. Several of those offenders have committed offenses across multiple jurisdictions.

“We’re streamlining the process,” Torres said. “Our prosecutors are intimately involved in the case. … They’re not tasked with the same volume the district attorneys have with cases.”

Improving procedures

A little more than a year ago, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez created a team of 10 attorneys to solely focus on prosecuting car thieves.

These days, they have actually started taking on other cases.

And other changes have been made at the office to go after people with multiple arrests and to more efficiently prosecute cases.

Joey Montaño, the deputy district attorney in charge of the general crimes division, said historically if a defendant had several cases against him or her, different attorneys would be assigned to each one.

Now, a prosecutor follows all of a defendant’s cases.

“Part of Raúl’s vision of one prosecutor, one defendant lent itself naturally to the car team,” Montaño said. “Let’s get these guys who have two, three arrests and let’s go after our best case.”

Montaño and Brown both attributed some successes to a better working relationship between Torrez – who took over the District Attorney’s Office in January 2017 – and APD officers under Chief Michael Geier – who was hired by the new administration in late 2017.

Montaño referenced the Case Management Order – case deadlines imposed by the New Mexico Supreme Court in early 2015 to address severe overcrowding in the county jails by speeding trials along – as one factor that had slowed prosecutions a couple of years ago and had allowed suspects to pick up multiple cases before they were held accountable.

“When the CMO hit, we sort of stopped going to grand jury until we received discovery on all of the case,” he said. “The CMO accelerated the deadline to get discovery before we could indict a case and move forward so we became hesitant. … That created a backlog. We’re slowly getting rid of what was the backlog prior to Raúl coming into office.”

Starting in early 2018, APD began hiring paralegals to help officers and detectives compile all the paperwork needed for a complete case file. Now the department is turning over better cases for prosecution.

Lt. Brown said this has greatly reduced the amount of time his detectives spend behind a desk, meaning they can spend more time in the field.

“They go in and they collect every bit of discovery the officers have,” he said. “That alleviates the time for detectives to have to pull up reports from other agencies, old reports, and finding every shred that goes along with this case number. They do hundreds of cases each year.”

‘Drugs, drugs and drugs’

When asked what percentage of recovered vehicles are found with drugs or paraphernalia in them, Brown answered simply: “All of them.”

The Legislative Finance Committee report found methamphetamine surged in New Mexico over the past several years. In Albuquerque, emergency department visits related to amphetamine use more than tripled between 2010 and 2016.

“With a lot of these repeat offenders that we were seeing, the underlying factors is drugs, drugs and drugs,” Sallee said. “There’s a lot of evidence-based interventions that could help with that earlier on when they come into contact (with the criminal justice system). We saw case after case where there was opportunities for intervention that just didn’t happen.”

Previously, when an inmate was released from the Metropolitan Detention Center he or she would be dropped off on the streets Downtown, sometimes in the middle of the night.

Last June, the county opened up a Resource Re-Entry Center to provide a recently released inmate with a place to sleep and eat, get resources about substance abuse treatment, and meet with caseworkers about future obligations and court dates.

Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins said the county has also obtained funding and is planning how to work with local agencies to create a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program that will give property crime suspects who are addicted to drugs the option of getting treatment instead of getting booked into jail.

“The Santa Fe program – both Santa Fe and Seattle – have really good data showing that helps people get into treatment and stay in recovery longer,” Hart Stebbins said. “And it reduces repeat offense by individuals who are in the program.”

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