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Crime climb obvious to most casual observer

Albuquerque police crime scene investigators collect evidence at the scene of a homicide in the 10400 block of Calle Mirlo NW last year. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

I’ve almost gotten used to seeing an off-duty police officer in an idling squad car when I park at Whole Foods. Inside, a private security guard patrols the aisles. Some businesses along East Central have taken to buzzing in customers one at a time. In one shop I visited recently, big-screen monitors allowed the proprietor to keep watch on his front and back doors.

Such conspicuous security measures are some of the immediate costs to business associated with Albuquerque’s astonishing crime rate. But there are longer-term costs, too, which are harder to calculate with an accountant’s precision. These can be approached through demographics.

According to Census Bureau estimates, New Mexico has added a total of just 37,650 residents since 2010, for a 1.8% rate of growth. During the same period, the nation as a whole grew by 6.3%. The other Four Corners states and Texas more than doubled the national average. More people have moved to California since 2010 than live in New Mexico.

The well-documented difficulty of recruiting doctors to practice here is surely both a cause and effect of our flatlining growth. Meanwhile, New Mexico is projected to have the fourth-largest percentage of elderly residents by 2030, according to the state’s Aging and Long-Term Services Department. The rapid aging of our population is all the more remarkable given the hostility to retirees evidenced by our Social Security tax. Our population is aging swiftly not because old folks are moving in but because young people are moving out.

Those dismal trends don’t encourage entrepreneurs looking for a place to start a business or established companies seeking to expand. As with all complex social dynamics, many factors are doubtless involved, but no explanation is complete until it comes to terms with the most dramatic statistics of all, the ones that directly measure the effectiveness of our legal system. According to FBI figures, in 2018 the city of Albuquerque’s violent crime rate (a composite measure of homicide, serious violent attacks, rape and robbery) was 3.7 times the national average.

By comparison, Denver’s violent crime rate was just over half of Albuquerque’s. Colorado’s statewide rate hovers near the national average. New Mexico is #2 in the nation. New Mexico is fifth in homicides, Colorado 28th. The two states have much in common but when it comes to personal safety they’re not even similar. One obvious difference between them is their legal systems.

Do an internet search for “most dangerous state” and see what a reputation New Mexico has built for itself. That reputation goes a long way toward explaining the dismal demographic trends, I think.

Nor do the statistics lie. I’ve lived in the same near Heights neighborhood for 30 years and never heard gunshots until a few years ago. Since then, it’s become a familiar sound, not common but no longer rare. Usually the shots are distant. But two years ago my son and I heard a person being murdered at a shopping center just a few blocks away. It was loud. That murder remains unsolved.

On a different day, a person was shot at a nearby park and staggered up the street before collapsing at the foot of my driveway. EMTs left his sliced-off clothes behind. That shooting didn’t make the news, from which I gather the victim survived. And mine is a nice neighborhood.

There are only three ways to move crime statistics significantly. The first is to change the behavior of criminals. If that were easy to do, crime wouldn’t be a problem. The second is to change the behavior of potential victims, which is much easier to accomplish. Business investment in security is just one example.

Globally, crime rates began dropping in the mid-1990s as the internet took off. People who stay behind locked doors playing video games and streaming movies, shopping online and getting their meals and groceries delivered, are at minimal risk (except perhaps of repetitive stress injuries). But part of the cost of their increased safety is paid by local businesses, including fees paid by restaurants to those delivery services. Crime affects the bottom line in many ways, not all of them obvious.

The only other method for changing crime statistics is to alter the method of measurement. No one should have been surprised that reported 30% drops in the incidence of various crimes in Albuquerque turned out to be mostly counting errors. Genuine social change rarely happens so abruptly.

Nothing our legal system does has more immediate effect on business than its administration of criminal law. I know from readers that crime is much on everyone’s mind. This column will return to the subject more frequently in the future.

Joel Jacobsen is an author who recently retired from a 29-year legal career. If there are topics you would like to see covered, please write him at legal.column.tips@gmail.com.

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