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Editorial: ABQ should welcome federal aid to fight ‘out-of-control’ crime

Those vehemently opposed to the deployment of federal agents to Albuquerque should have the courage to say so to the face of Sam Vigil, whose 55-year-old wife was killed at their West Side Albuquerque home the morning of Nov. 16. Jacqueline “Jackie” Vigil, the mother of two State Police officers, was gunned down in her driveway as she warmed up her car around 5 a.m. She was on her way to the gym. Eight months later, no arrests have been made.

“There are other victims in Albuquerque that are in the same boat,” Sam Vigil said at a White House news conference Wednesday as President Donald Trump announced more than 25 federal agents are being sent to Albuquerque to combat gun violence and homicides.

Those opposing the assistance of federal agents to help solve killings in Albuquerque should have the courage to say that to the families of the five individuals slain within a 48-hour period earlier this month: to the family of 58-year-old Hubert Stewart, whose body was found in a field next to the Thunderbird Little League fields July 12. Or the family of 24-year-old Justin Sanchez, killed the same day on the other side of Albuquerque in a drive-by shooting. Perhaps they’d like to explain there is no need for help to the family of 23-year-old Chance Elkshoulder, who was shot and killed outside a smoke shop on San Pedro NE early that same morning. Or the family of 29-year-old Nickolas Tenorio, fatally shot outside a Target store later that night. Or the family of 49-year-old Randy Hilliard, homeless and beaten to death with a shovel the next night at Coronado Park.

There are also the loved ones of Roy Caton Jr., a retired University of New Mexico professor and Korea veteran found brutally murdered in his university-area home last August. And an entire community still shocked by the horrific murder and dismemberment of 10-year-old Victoria Martens in 2016. Like too many others, both cases remain unsolved.

As Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said as a candidate in August 2017, “crime is absolutely out of control.” Three years later, the violence has increased and includes a record 80 homicides in Albuquerque in 2019, up from 69 in 2018.

But Keller last week appeared to have bought into some of the ugly politics at play regarding law enforcement, and it’s easy to see why. President Trump has launched visceral TV ads that ignore the abuse-of-force realities and paint a dark picture of defunded police departments across a lawless America, clear efforts at fear-mongering.

Those on the far left have in turn conflated the violent riots and federal response in Portland with what could happen in Albuquerque, despite the fact more than 2,500 federal agents already live and work in our state for agencies including the ATF and DEA – and despite assurances from U.S. Attorney for New Mexico John Anderson that federal agents being sent here will be “limited to the exclusive goal of eliminating the scourge of gun violence.”

There’s little doubt Trump’s decision to send federal officers to Albuquerque and other politically blue cities is driven by politics and was accompanied by harsh rhetoric blasting Democratic leaders and sanctuary city policies.

But these are professional law enforcement agents who have dedicated their lives to serving our country, and pandering politicians including U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich need to apologize for outrageous insults that include likening them to Nazi Germany, calling them “storm troopers.” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Attorney General Hector Balderas also piled on, vowing to watch for civil rights violations by the agents.

If only they were as concerned with solving homicides.

The Journal Editorial Board often disagrees with Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales’ policies, but in this case he doesn’t deserve the excoriating attacks aimed at him for supporting the arrival of much-needed help in addressing the violent crime.

A lawsuit filed by Oregon’s attorney general seeks a restraining order against federal agents deployed to quell protests in Portland. It raises legitimate concerns about federal agents arresting protesters without probable cause, whisking them away in unmarked cars. It’s fair for the public to expect zero tolerance of excessive force – whether in Portland or in Albuquerque.

But this isn’t Portland, and rioting protesters is not the reason federal agents are being sent here.

As Journal investigative reporter Mike Gallagher reported in February, a predawn raid at the Southwest Albuquerque home of a suspected drug dealer yielded five pistols, two rifles, a bulletproof vest and thousands of rounds of ammunition, not to mention pounds of dope and cash. The 21-year-old South Side Locos street gang member said he needed an arsenal because Albuquerque is “a crazy place” and “very violent.”

Keller, an Albuquerque native, knows this all too well. He made it clear on the campaign trail that addressing crime in the city would be a top priority. And while he has long pushed to increase the ranks of sworn officers, and recently to have social workers, transit employees and others focus on some calls, his police department’s solve rate for homicides has plummeted to around 50%.

Albuquerque voters responded to Keller’s strong law-and-order message, electing him by 24 percentage points in the mayoral runoff. That’s why his hyperbolic language, including calling the additional federal agents coming as part of Operation Legend “secret police,” is a disappointing turn of events. On Friday evening he tempered his commentary, saying “we always welcome partnerships in constitutional crime fighting that are in step with our community, but we won’t sell out our city for a bait-and-switch excuse to send federal agents to attack protesters or round up immigrants.”

With that understanding, it bears repeating the sheer body count shows Albuquerque needs help. About half of last year’s 80 homicides remain unsolved, and Burqueños are afraid. This is cartel country, where a drug dealer says the city is so dangerous he needs an arsenal. Here’s to more of Keller channelling his 2017 candidate self, the guy who said he wanted to address crime, and cooperatively accept the policing assistance of federal agents for the good of the city.

Because the friends and families of Jackie Vigil, Hubert Stewart, Justin Sanchez, Chance Elkshoulder, Nickolas Tenorio, Randy Hilliard, Roy Caton Jr. and Victoria Martens – as well as the public at large – need more than reassurances and rhetoric. They need crimes solved.

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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