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Editorial: As ABQ homicides soar, all must continue to work smarter to prevent, punish violent crime

It’s not the record Albuquerque wants to break, but nobody who lives, works and reads the news in the metro area is surprised we’re on the cusp.

The front-page Nov. 21 story by Journal reporters Matthew Reisen and Elise Kaplan noted that, with more than a month left in 2019, Albuquerque was at 72 homicides – men, women and children – tying the previous record-holding year of 2017.

Fortunately, local law enforcement and prosecutors are doubling down on 21st Century tools – data analysis, social media, etc. – to make quicker and smarter decisions. Those efforts include:

• Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sending State Police in for enforcement operations and creating a statewide fugitive apprehension task force.

• Mayor Tim Keller’s administration doubling the number of Albuquerque Police Department homicide detectives more than a year ago.

• The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office conducting warrant raids around the city.

• The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Crime Strategies Unit continuing its data analytics work, including mapping members of crime-involved gangs and groups, that can ensure enforcement operations yield results.

• The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce receiving a $1.2 million federal grant to help the DA’s Office analyze and prioritize the criminal cases it receives.

• Bernalillo County DA Raúl Torrez working closely with federal prosecutors in cases involving some of the most serious violent crimes and some of the worst repeat offenders.

• APD using the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network to match casings to specific firearms during investigations.

• A focus by local government, education, private and nonprofit officials on minimizing Adverse Childhood Experiences that can lead to social problems, substance abuse and even crime.

Yet 72 and counting shows there’s plenty of work to do.

In the short-term, legislators should give serious consideration in January to Albuquerque’s planned $30 million ask. Keller’s plan to use $20 million to modernize APD’s data sharing and communications is an important project. His request for $10 million for a violence intervention program deserves examination as details are fleshed out to see if it can deliver results.

Torrez’s Crime Strategies Unit – which literally just moved out of a broom closet – needs recurring funding to the tune of around $780K. These are the data gurus who can match a jacket seen on a suspect at a crime scene with one on social media, who can take unknown DNA from a crime scene and use those voluntary find-out-where-I’m-from DNA databanks to track down relatives of suspects, who can take the thousands of images and phone numbers off a suspect’s cellphone and put together a flow chart of criminal associates.

Lawmakers should also prioritize the request from prosecutors to make threatening mass violence a felony and increase the possible penalties for using a gun in the commission of a crime.

Longer-term problems are neither unique nor easily addressed with an appropriation and expertise. Keller said in a recent press conference that drugs – addiction and trafficking – are “far and away” the biggest issue fueling homicides in the city, though they are tightly interlaced with gangs, domestic violence and guns.

Clearly, heading off drug addiction is really the best hope for the future – an effort helped along by strong education and health care systems, strong economies and strong, healthy families.

For those who succumb, specialty courts like Drug Court and the STOP Program can let defendants put in real time and effort toward sobriety in return for avoiding a felony conviction. For those disinclined to take a second chance seriously, Torrez’s call for swift and sure prosecution is essential, as is prosecution of all serious violent crime.

While eliminating money bail was important to allow the judiciary to confine defendants who pose real threats to society and release those whose greatest crime might be poverty, clearly more guidance is needed to address the trend of violent, dangerous defendants being let out to continue to break the law. Setting a rebuttable presumption for detention would help keep the most dangerous offenders behind bars.

Mental health problems continue to plague our community – in offenders but also in victims. Too many people in Bernalillo County are suffering because of untreated/undertreated mental illness, though the county has been raking in more than $22 million a year in a behavioral health tax on goods and services. It is past time for a crisis triage center and a comprehensive, data-driven plan to spend those tens of millions wisely.

Meanwhile, another vulnerable population – Albuquerque’s homeless – continues to present its own set of challenges. Taxpayers signed off on Keller’s $14 million ask earlier this month for a 24/7, low-barrier homeless shelter somewhere in the city’s center. But it’s clear that’s just phase 1 – even coordinated services and a few hundred new beds won’t address the estimated 1,500 or more folks sleeping on the streets nightly here.

The bottom line is no one of these efforts or projects will fully protect metro-area residents. The city has made headway on property crime, but no single idea is the panacea for our social ills and the violent crime that can follow them. Albuquerque needs these efforts to work in collaboration, just as it needs all of us committed to fighting the crime epidemic – even if it means simply being a good neighbor or observant witness.

Because the broken record of too much crime is one everyone is tired of hearing.

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.

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