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Editorial: Getting away with murder

It’s all about priorities.

Or, in this case, perhaps misplaced ones.

As the number of homicides in Albuquerque has soared, with a record 82 in 2019, the percentage of those solved by arrest has plunged. According to city budget documents, APD’s homicide clearance rate as reported in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report hovered around 80% from fiscal 2009 to 2016. But in each of the last two calendar years, the percentage of solved homicides dropped to about 50%.

And while APD maintains a website of “Active Homicide Investigations,” it lists just 25 cases – all of which occurred in 2018 between January and August. No more recent cases are posted. Why? In fact, APD says it does not even have “collective data” to show how many murders over the years have gone unsolved.

There is not enough space to list all of the many unsolved cases here. And there is no way to adequately address the open wounds of families and loved ones left behind, or the scars left on the community. But among the most alarming are:

⋄ Jacqueline Vigil, 55, who was shot and killed in her driveway in an upscale neighborhood on Albuquerque’s West Side last November as she was leaving home before dawn to go to her gym. “Jacque” was the mother of two State Police officers and worked in a child day care center. She was the kind of person who sent Bible verses to friends and loved ones twice a day.

• Roy Caton Jr., a beloved, retired University of New Mexico professor and Korea veteran who was found brutally murdered in his university-area home in August, a block from the place where he taught for much of his life. He taught chemistry to many students who went on to become doctors, dentists and nurses. In the words of a former colleague, “he really impacted the community.”

• Victoria Martens, the 10-year-old girl brutally murdered, dismembered and set on fire in 2016. It was one of the most shocking killings in the city’s history, and like the deaths of Vigil and Caton is in the unsolved category. Because of the botched homicide investigation, chances are no one will ever face murder charges for her death. (Three people have been arrested in the case, and two convicted of lesser charges. The police investigation into a fourth suspect stalled in 2018.)

Given the rising death toll and shocking circumstances of some of the cases, it’s fair to ask whether Albuquerque is dedicating enough resources to solving these crimes – and hopefully deterring others in the process.

APD says it now has 11 homicide detectives – up from five in 2017. Compare that to the 53 sworn officers and 31 civilians in the new APD Accountability and Oversight Division organized under Mayor Tim Keller’s administration in response to the court-approved monitoring of city police.

Internal Affairs is one component of that division and includes one commander, three lieutenants, five sergeants, 18 detectives and eight civilians. There are four openings for additional detectives. So at full force, APD’s unit that investigates cops would have twice the number – that’s 100% more – of detectives the department now has investigating homicides.

This isn’t to say compliance with the reform agreement and internal investigations isn’t important. It is. But as the city has ramped up hiring in APD, partly by upping salaries and through intense recruiting, it’s time the City Council asked Police Chief Michael Geier to show up at a public meeting, address the homicide clearance issue and answer questions. Allocation of resources is an important part of the oversight job we elected councilors to do, and it’s time for them to do it in a way the community can share in the information.

Because there are real consequences to the lack of resources investigating homicides.

A 2018 Washington Post analysis of 8,000 homicides found that for cases that aren’t solved within one year, only 5% ultimately lead to an arrest. As for caseloads, APD says some of its veteran homicide detectives have more than 20 open cases. The federal Bureau of Justice Assistance guide on best practices says a homicide unit is optimally staffed when each detective is lead investigator on an average of three to four new homicide cases per year.

“It’s nearly impossible to improve clearance rates when you’re dealing with large caseloads, as you are forced to just triage and you can’t dig into the investigation,” says Lt. Detective Darrin Greeley of the Boston Police Department in the 2018 federal report.

But this is about more than statistics. And Jacque Vigil’s husband Sam makes the case for more resources.

“I’m very frustrated, not with the actual detectives working on the case, because I think their plates are so full that it’s ridiculous,” he says.

“They are doing as much as they possibly can with very little resources … There are other victims. It’s not just Jacque.”

The friends and loved ones of Jacque Vigil, Roy Caton, Victoria Martens and all the other homicide victims in Albuquerque deserve some answers. Along with all the other residents of a city battered by violent crime.

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.