Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Attorney General William Barr visited Albuquerque Tuesday afternoon to announce the conclusion of a three-month fugitive apprehension operation and pledge continuing efforts to attack violent crime in the metropolitan area.
“Unlike many cities in the United States that have seen violent crime rates fall, the violent crime rates in Albuquerque remain stubbornly high,” Barr said at a news conference, flanked by dozens of state, federal and local law enforcement officials. “In the months ahead, the federal government is going to be stepping up our efforts to work closely with our state and local partners to ratchet up the attacks on violent crime.”
He said Operation Triple Beam, a 90-day campaign that ended Oct. 31, could be seen as “preparing the field for these efforts that will be coming in the weeks ahead” as the Department of Justice targets Albuquerque and other cities with the highest crime rates around the country.
Officials have not said which cities will continue to be targeted or how those efforts will unfold.
Operation Triple Beam has already been executed in Salinas, California; Wichita, Kansas; Roanoke, Virginia; Montgomery, Alabama; Houston; and other cities. It started in 2011, but the number of arrests has dramatically increased in the past couple of years, Barr said.
The goal of the operation in the Albuquerque metropolitan area was “to target gang-related fugitives fueling the violent crime,” said U.S. Marshals Service Director Donald Washington. He said 35 confirmed gang members were arrested.
In total, 327 people were arrested on state, local or federal warrants, including 59 absconders from probation and parole, 10 people wanted on homicide warrants, 20 people wanted for weapons offenses, 13 for sex crimes, 50 for assault and 91 on narcotics charges, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. It is unclear on what charges the remaining 84 were arrested.
“The objective was to take the worst of the worst off the streets of your city,” Washington said. “At the end of the operation, we worked collaboratively with our federal, state and local partners to identify high priority targets as we focused on the worst of the worst.”
The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office conducted six patrol saturation operations as part of the effort. These operations drew criticism from some in the community at the time. They noted that they were not conducted in coordination with the Albuquerque Police Department, which has jurisdiction in the city.
In discussing the drivers of violent crime in Albuquerque and New Mexico, Barr pointed to what he called “very weak law enforcement systems.”
“Unfortunately the system in New Mexico is subpar,” he said. “It is not doing its job of keeping violent offenders off the streets. What these partnerships allow is state and local law enforcement to identify a case and a dangerous defendant and take it to the feds and have us use our laws, which are stronger. Hopefully at some point the New Mexico system will be up to snuff.”
The courts, defense attorneys and public defenders took issue with this characterization.
In response to Barr’s assertion that one of the “basic problems is a failure to provide pretrial detention to dangerous offenders,” Artie Pepin, the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said New Mexicans are actually safer today because of recent pretrial detention reform.
He also pointed out that it was voted in through a constitutional amendment.
“Statewide, judges have ordered the pretrial detention of more than 2,000 people charged with felony crimes during the past two years,” he wrote in a statement. “Without bail reform, those dangerous defendants could have quickly returned to the streets by buying a money bond.”
Matt Coyte, an attorney and former president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, also noted that crime was rising in the state before bail reform passed in 2016. Violent and property crime has been rising significantly in Albuquerque since before 2014.
He said he would consider a legal system “subpar” if it holds a defendant – who is presumed to be innocent – in jail for years before trial.
“It is also subpar when those people are never convicted of the crime they were charged with,” he said.
Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur also pushed back on Barr’s statements. He said that if federal authorities want to help the community, they should help find solutions to the problems underlying crime.
“Help us provide more drug treatment, education, jobs and rehabilitation in our prison system instead of dropping in and playing the blame game with the men and women who serve our communities as judges,” Baur wrote in a statement.
APD chief not present
At the press conference, representatives dozens of law enforcement agencies filled the risers behind the podium as well as the audience.
Albuquerque Police Chief Michael Geier did not attend, nor did any of the deputy chiefs.
APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said the department had participated in Operation Triple Beam by assisting the U.S. Marshals “at its request in apprehending those offenders who were found to have warrants for violent crimes.”
In response to questions about the APD’s role in the future, he said the department will have an announcement soon about a “long-term program to address violent offenders.”
APD and the Department of Justice are engaged in a yearslong effort to reform the department after a federal investigation found in 2014 that it had a practice of excessive force against citizens.
In recent years, the city has made strides in complying with the court-ordered reforms and recently achieved 100% compliance in the implementation of policies consistent with the settlement agreement.
Both Barr and U.S. Attorney John Anderson said they had seen progress and were pleased with the efforts of the mayor and the chief in the reforms.
Barr said the DOJ is committed to the reform effort and is looking forward to bringing it to a successful conclusion.