ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I wanted to do a news story about crime dropping in Albuquerque while we were all staying at home to stop the spread of novel coronavirus.
After all, we all could use a little ray of sunshine after a few dismal months of roaming the house in search of snacks and watching TV.
But the Albuquerque Police Department didn’t want to cooperate. They do have a few other things they’re dealing with at the moment so don’t be too harsh on them, and I plowed ahead anyway.
There are some numbers that show a decrease in the number of 911 calls for crimes like auto burglary – typically where someone smashes a window and steals stuff inside the vehicle. (Note: if they steal something from the open bed of your pickup it’s a larceny – not a burglary.)
It’s the type of crime that occurs – thousands of times a year – in home driveways and parking lots across the city. It’s one that tends to irritate the owner of the vehicle. Property stolen can range from firearms to loose change in a cup holder.
When people leave their car doors or windows open, the crime is quick and quiet. Otherwise a window is usually broken adding to the expense of the crime.
In January there were 559 calls for APD to respond to auto burglaries. In February there were 556 such calls, according to the crime mapping system on the city’s website.
But with stay-at-home in full force in April, that number dropped to 407 calls. May was at that same lower level.
Meanwhile, cities like New York and Los Angeles showed big increases in auto burglaries based on the same crime mapping data. For once we were on a good list!
But when I asked APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos if I could talk to someone at the department about this, I was a little surprised by his reaction.
“The crime mapping information on the web site is basically calls for service,” Gallegos wrote back in response to my email request. “It isn’t really good information for crime trends.”
He volunteered that “we have highlighted key points about calls for service during the past few months during the mayor’s media briefings.” The briefings focused on burglaries and the department’s concerns that domestic violence would increase during the stay-at-home orders.
Gallegos didn’t respond to a request for an interview of someone in the department.
I also used the crime mapping data for Albuquerque to check a few other crimes. Auto theft appeared to have dropped slightly, along with home and commercial burglaries.
Auto theft is a crime that has become much more of a focus for Albuquerque police, since the city was among the leaders in the nation in per-capita car thefts. Those numbers were already declining before the stay-at-home orders.
While APD had nothing to say officially, a retired officer pointed out a couple of issues I hadn’t considered that would tend to make the actual number of crimes higher.
First, he pointed out, many property crimes are reported to police in order to document the crime so the owner can file an insurance claim. Many victims simply go to a police substation or file a report online then send a copy to their insurance company. Those reports are not included in the “calls for service” numbers used in the crime mapping data.
But the same was true in January when the numbers were higher, so while the numbers may not be exact, the crime mapping data do show a trend of fewer calls for auto burglaries, home burglaries and auto theft.
In many cases, there is little or no expectation on the part of a property crime victim that the thief will be caught or any property returned, so why waste a police officer’s time coming to the scene?
If there are a large number of reports of auto burglaries in a certain neighborhood, police will change their patrol patterns or if the reports stem from a particular commercial parking area, they might plant a “bait” car.
But overall, police involvement in many property crimes is more of a third-party information recorder for insurance claims than a criminal investigative role.
There also is an economic bias built into this. Poor people are less likely to have insurance that covers an auto burglary or even auto theft.
More often than not, police catch auto thieves and burglars during traffic stops rather than detailed investigations of a specific crime. Police will still look for more organized burglary rings, but usually using confidential informants.
My retired APD friend’s second point was that law enforcement priorities change over time.
Auto burglaries are just not very high on the list anymore.
But these days, I’ll take a little sunshine where I can find it.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach investigative reporter Mike Gallagher at 823-3971 or firstname.lastname@example.org.