Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The sun had just set on the Duke City when a New Mexico State Police officer asked over the radio for a perimeter to be set up after a suspect fled during a traffic stop in Northeast Albuquerque.
“Foot pursuit,” State Police Chief Tim Johnson said, unconcerned. “He won’t get away. There’s too many of us.”
Cruising past the neon lights and taco trucks on West Central, it’s easy to see what he means. Hardly a minute goes by without seeing a State Police officer, or several, patrolling the streets.
Two weeks after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered 50 officers to crack down on crime in perceived hot spots around the city, Johnson gave the Journal an inside look at the Metro Surge Operation during a ride-along Wednesday evening.
During the meandering drive through Southwest, Southeast and Northeast Albuquerque, Johnson discussed the ins and outs of the operation, changes the agency has made since it began, bumps along the way – two police shootings within about an hour – and his hopes for the outcome.
Just hours earlier, the Governor’s Office touted the hundreds of arrests made by State Police officers around the city. According to the news release, State Police have made more than 250 arrests, including several dozen felony arrests and 13 DWI arrests.
During their time in Albuquerque, officers have also seized drugs, guns and stolen license plates, and have made more than 5,000 traffic stops.
“It’s been a huge success and that answer isn’t given to you by the number of arrests we’ve made or the amount of dope we’ve seized or the guns we’ve seized,” Johnson said. “It has to do with the amount of support we’ve received from the public and business owners in the areas in which we’re working.”
Sense of urgency
It all began a couple of weeks ago, after the May 4 slaying of a University of New Mexico baseball player in Nob Hill, when Mayor Tim Keller announced the governor’s plan at a news conference during which he railed against violent crime.
Johnson said the idea was hatched and put into action just days before the announcement.
“Obviously, anytime we plan a large-scale operation, the more time the better,” he said. “I understand the urgency with which we were required to get this operation going, due to the violent crime in Albuquerque. This one came about quick. The governor had an initiative, had a thought in mind. We made it happen.”
To get a group together, State Police first asked for volunteers, then filled in the gaps to get five officers from each district.
During their time here, officers will be housed in hotels around the city and rotated out on a weekly basis. In town, officers patrol with others from their district, working eight-hour shifts from 1 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Johnson said the officers are to help local law enforcement – whether it be a homicide investigation, SWAT situation or calls for service – as they patrol the streets. They don’t have boundaries but are being concentrated along Central, particularly in the southeast and southwest.
Driving around Wednesday night, officers were seen pulling vehicles over, speaking with people on the roadside, slapping cuffs on suspects, chatting – their vehicles side-by-side – in parking lots and checking in on paramedics helping a man who broke his arm after falling off a moped.
A long way from home
Johnson, who grew up in Roswell, stopped to speak with some officers from Lordsburg, a small town with a population of around 2,400. They were arresting a man on a side street in Southwest Albuquerque.
“They’re having a blast,” he said. “It’s absolutely a change of pace from where some of these folks are coming from.”
Johnson said one of the young officers told him, “I feel like I’m a cop again.”
“This kid coming from Lordsburg – very traffic and crash oriented – you put him in Southwest Albuquerque and he’s being exposed to things that he may not be exposed to very often down there,” he said. “… The pace and type of work are obviously different in different parts of the state.”
The operation hasn’t come without criticism and learning curves.
Last week, two State Police officers – from Gallup and Farmington – opened fire in two separate pursuits in a little over an hour.
One suspect was shot in the shoulder, and the other got away when an officer’s vehicle collided with another vehicle, injuring the officer’s shoulder. The suspect was arrested days later.
The shootings were criticized by APD Forward, a coalition of community advocacy groups that includes the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, for violating policies that were developed as a part of APD’s widely publicized reform effort. State Police do not have to follow those same policies.
Johnson said those two officers have since returned home, and State Police held a meeting with all the officers the next day to address the incidents and “reinforce why they’re here and they’re making a difference.”
“I wanted them to know that the chief and the staff supported them,” he said. “We understand that there’s a lot of crime in this town, a lot of violent crime. To remain vigilant, remain safe, to back each other up.”
Along with addressing issues as they come along, Johnson said State Police are also assessing and shifting their operations to the needs of the city.
“Any agency that’s not adjusting every chance they get – daily – that’s not good practice,” he said. “We’re getting the information from APD on where the hot spots are any given day or any given week and we will make the adjustments necessary to continue theses proactive operations to curb the violence in this town.”
When APD reported an uptick in crime in the Montgomery and Carlisle area last week, State Police began sending patrols there Saturday.
Officers were also instructed to do foot patrols, walking the bar districts of Nob Hill and Downtown Albuquerque.
The Metro Surge Operation is set to run for 45 days, but Johnson said each week they are assessing if the period needs to be extended.
He said he hopes to have his officers home sooner rather than later.
“As it starts to warm up around the state, I’m assuming we’ll be stretched thin in those areas,” he said.
Johnson said the operation will not solve the crime problem in Albuquerque and it will take proactive approaches to tackle the root causes of crime – problems such as drug addiction and mental health issues – to have a lasting impact.
“Forty-five days is not enough,” he said.