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Police officer sees many reasons for record number of homicides

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Looking back on a year punctuated by violence – such as a quadruple homicide in a South Valley mobile home park, a 9-year-old girl found in a drainage tunnel and a dispute over an Uber ride turned deadly – APD Lt. Scott Norris said identifying a driving factor is impossible.

“There’s not one thing in particular you can attribute it to,” he said. “It is a combination of several things. Whether it be addiction, poverty, lack of education, breakdown of the family unit. Those things lead to an escalation in crime.”

The Albuquerque Police Department dealt with 82 slayings in 2019.

That total is the most in recent history and 10 more than the record-breaking total of 72 in 2017 – a nearly 14% increase.

By contrast, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office saw a decline in homicides – from 11 in 2018 to eight in 2019.

Norris said at least 27% of the slayings APD investigated were sparked by a dispute.

Detectives have solved 42 of the 82 homicides and made an arrest in 32 of those cases. With the addition of four homicides solved from previous years, the unit’s clearance rate finished at around 56%, the same as in 2018.

Victims in the 40 unsolved cases include the mother of two State Police officers who was shot in her West Side driveway as she was getting ready to go to the gym; a revered former University of New Mexico professor who was 89 when he was beaten to death in his University-area home; and four members of the same family who were slain in a hail of bullets outside a South Valley mobile home.

The total number of homicides for the year could fluctuate if some of the cases are determined to be accidental, suicides or justifiable homicides.

The number of justifiable homicides dropped from nine in 2018 to four last year. One of those cases involved a security guard fatally shooting a man who was trying to free a shoplifting suspect by ramming a Jeep into the guard and the entrance of a Northeast Albuquerque grocery store.

The total number of homicides doesn’t include cases of child abuse resulting in death – such as the father accused of beating his 5-year-old daughter to death with a water shoe when she refused to do homework.

Altogether, the homicide rate for the city was 14.64 per 100,000 people – up from 11.82 in 2018.

To compare: El Paso, a city with around 120,000 more people than Albuquerque, had 42 homicides – including 22 people killed in the Walmart mass shooting – for a rate of 6.4 per 100,000 people.

However Baltimore, a city with around 40,000 more people, saw one of its worst years with 349 homicides for a rate of around 58 per 100,000 people.

Albuquerque’s homicide rate in 2019 inched closer to the highest it has seen – 16.6 per 100,000 people – in 1996, when the city had 140,000 fewer people and 70 slayings.

Although the methods used to commit homicide in the city vary, one thing is clear: Gun violence continues to be an ongoing theme, with 66% of homicides being at the pull of a trigger.

“We understand that a felony committed with a firearm today could very well lead to a homicide committed with that firearm tomorrow,” Norris said.

For that reason he said the department is going after the issue “as a whole,” with a gun violence reduction unit and prioritizing use of a ballistics database as a “valuable tool” for tracing weapons.

“The hopes and the intent is for that to have a ripple effect on not only homicides but other violent crimes,” Norris said.

He said homicide detectives have also been aided by new equipment at the crime lab – that returns DNA results in eight weeks, when it used to take a year – and working with the District Attorney’s Office on prosecuting cases.

But the most important key to solving cases comes from the community.

“We understand that it can be a daunting and intimidating task to come forward. … But I think the general public and citizens of Albuquerque need to understand that they are a crucial part in us solving these things,” Norris said.

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