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Governor creates special unit to round up fugitives

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

SANTA FE – In an attempt to crack down on violent crime, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has ordered the creation of a special law enforcement unit to apprehend hundreds of people across New Mexico who have not shown up for court hearings or are wanted on bench warrants.

In an executive order issued Tuesday, the first-term Democratic governor said the so-called Fugitive Apprehension Unit will be made up of State Police officers and state Corrections Department staffers.

Those selected for the team will work with local law enforcement officials around New Mexico to track down and arrest people charged with committing violent crimes. Statewide, there are more than 1,600 outstanding bench warrants for people charged with violent crimes, according to the New Mexico Administrative Office of the District Attorneys.

“Our justice system is undermined when people accused of serious criminal offenses evade prosecution,” Lujan Grisham said. “We need to explore every avenue for increasing public safety in New Mexico; we need to be smart on crime while being tough on crime.”

The effort bears similarities to a fugitive blitz launched in 2014 by the administration of then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, which resulted in the capture of roughly 2,600 ex-convicts accused of violating their probation or parole.

But Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said the governor’s order does not signify a shift in her approach to public safety issues, which has included a push for more restrictive state gun laws.

“We definitely want to keep violent suspects off the streets as much as possible, but that doesn’t detract from things like community policing … and improving the relationships between officers and the communities they serve,” Stelnicki told the Journal.

Driven by high crime rates in Albuquerque, New Mexico posted the nation’s second-highest violent crime rate and its highest property crime rate in 2018, according to federal statistics released this month.

New Mexico had a rate of 857 violent crimes and 3,420 property crimes per 100,000 residents in 2018, according to The Associated Press. The national rate was about 369 violent crimes and 2,200 property crimes per 100,000 residents.

In her order, Lujan Grisham said the Fugitive Apprehension Unit will be made up of at least seven State Police officers and at least seven Corrections Department staffers. She also said everyone on the team must have a clean background with no significant disciplinary actions.

Public Safety Secretary Mark Shea and State Police Chief Tim Johnson will select State Police officers for the team from different regions of the state to avoid affecting day-to-day operations, Stelnicki said.

The team will be required to make monthly reports to the Governor’s Office documenting its arrests.

The executive order also instructs other executive branch state agencies to cooperate with the special law enforcement unit by providing requested information and assistance.

“By deploying these resources in a targeted fashion and continuing to work hand in hand with local jurisdictions, the state can make meaningful strides toward reducing crime in our communities and ensuring high-profile violent individuals are brought into the judicial process,” Lujan Grisham said.

This is not the first time the Lujan Grisham administration has used New Mexico State Police officers for a specific mission. Earlier this year, an additional 50 State Police officers from across the state were assigned to work out of Albuquerque after a spate of violent crime – including the fatal shooting of a 23-year-old University of New Mexico baseball player.

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