Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
In a briefing at the FBI’s Albuquerque headquarters Wednesday morning, Attorney General William Barr and federal and local officials touted the success of Operation Legend – an initiative that began over the summer to fight violent crime in nine cities across the country, including Albuquerque.
“The backbone of Operation Legend is our joint task forces where we work shoulder to shoulder with federal agents, with our state and local partners on the task force to target violent criminals,” Barr said. “Here we have had a very successful task force – 113 federal arrests and many, many more state arrests.”
Members of the news media were not allowed to ask questions at the briefing.
President Donald Trump announced the operation in July and said it would target violent crime, especially related to firearms, in select cities across the country. In 2019, Albuquerque had a violent crime rate 3.7 times the national average. In recent years, while overall property crime has decreased, overall violent crime has held steady.
Barr, U.S. Attorney for New Mexico John Anderson and FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich highlighted the number of arrests, and said 40 federal agents had been sent to Albuquerque for the operation.
However, they did not provide statistics showing whether violent crime has decreased during the three months since Operation Legend began.
Bowdich said that in Kansas City, another jurisdiction included in the operation, there was a 30% reduction in violent crime, a 15% reduction in homicides and a 24% reduction in strong-arm robberies. In response to requests for more information about local conditions, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said he could not provide any more information Wednesday. The Albuquerque Police Department also does not have current statistics available.
Instead, Bowdich – a fourth-generation New Mexican who began his law enforcement career at APD – urged the city’s residents to cooperate with law enforcement.
“These are significant statistics, but these require the community to work close, hand in hand with law enforcement,” Bowdich said. “So I want to plead for help. … We need the community’s help, please trust us, please pick up the phone, and trust us to do the right thing and make sure we aggressively respond to tips and your complaints.”
Of the 113 people who were arrested on federal charges as part of Operation Legend, 47 were charged with narcotics-related offenses, 56 were charged with firearms-related offenses and 10 were charged with other violent crimes, according to a news release from the Department of Justice.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office provided names and case numbers for 37 of the defendants.
Referencing a high-crime period in the early 1990s, Barr said officials have learned that most offenses are committed by “a relatively small group of repeat offenders.”
“The first priority of law enforcement has to be to get these people off the streets and get them into prison and to protect the people, and when you do that crime goes down …,” Barr said. “Stop the revolving door and keep the chronic offenders off the street. Our problem back in 1992 was the problem we’re seeing here in Albuquerque today, which is revolving door justice in the state system.”
Barr also had advice for voters, who are already casting ballots in the Nov. 3 election: If you want professional law enforcement, you have to make an investment, not defund the police, he said.
“If you want to be safe, if you are tired of the blood and mayhem on the street, you have to start paying attention to who you vote for to retain as judges, to who you make district attorney, to who you make mayor,” Barr said. “I’m saying this across the board, not just to the people of Albuquerque.”
In an interview after the briefing, Jennifer Burrill, a public defender and the vice president of the N.M. Criminal Defense Lawyers Association said effort would be better spent on addressing causes of crime rather than locking people up.
“I don’t know that we learned a lot from the presentation today, and the timing of it seems very convenient right after we start voting,” she said. “I’m very concerned this is not addressing the issues that we need, which are poverty and employment. Those types of things are what we see that reduce crime rates, not putting people in jail and pretending to throw away the key.”
Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur agreed.
“You can’t just incarcerate your way out of crime issues,” he said in response to Barr’s statements. “The best way to address community safety is to look at the root causes: lack of education, lack of job opportunities and lack of affordable access to mental health and substance abuse treatment.”
Another point of contention arose when both Barr and U.S. Attorney Anderson said the city had been awarded a grant of almost $10 million to hire 40 additional police officers but has not taken any action to receive the funding.
For the past several months, the city and the Department of Justice have had a disagreement over Albuquerque’s status as an immigrant-friendly city and whether that prevents it from certifying that it complies with federal immigration law.
In September, the City Council passed a resolution to allow the city to accept the award, and a city attorney has said city officials don’t believe the city’s immigrant-friendly resolution conflicts with the law.
Nonetheless, Anderson said he was “disappointed” by the city’s inaction.
“While the federal resources can help reduce violent crime, again the principal responsibility rests with state and local law enforcement,” Anderson said. “So it remains my hope that the city will show the same urgency and dedication to addressing this problem as the attorney general.”
In response, the city sent out a news release saying the statements were misleading.
“Anyone claiming the City didn’t accept federal funding is out of date and just plain wrong,” said Jessica Campbell, a spokeswoman for Mayor Tim Keller. “After we received written assurances that federal help wouldn’t do in Albuquerque what we saw it do in Portland, and that the funding would not be tied to policies that are out of step with our community, City Council voted to accept the funding, and the Mayor signed it weeks ago.”
She said – and provided an email exchange to back it up – that after the grant was signed by the mayor, the Department of Justice told APD that the DOJ’s grant management system was offline until Oct. 15.
“For AG Barr and U.S. Attorney Anderson to then claim on October 14 that there is any delay on the City’s part is disingenuous at best, and a manufactured ploy to undermine Albuquerque at worst,” Campbell said.
APD officials did not attend the media briefing, but a department spokesman said the deputy chief and others met with the attorney general Wednesday morning and gang unit detectives met with him in the afternoon.
APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said that while federal agencies were assisting with high profile cases in the city, officers have conducted “citywide anti-crime operations resulting in more than 200 arrests.”
“We have arrested 46 drivers of crime under the Metro 15 operation that targets drivers of violent crime in Albuquerque,” Gallegos wrote in a statement. “Our new Gun Violence Reduction Unit has detectives who focus only on shooting incidents and efforts to prevent gun violence. We have reduced property crime, which accounts for 75% of all crime in Albuquerque. Those successes, combined with specific initiatives aimed at gun crimes, is starting to have an impact on overall violent crime.”
Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III, on the other hand, did participate in Wednesday’s briefing. He has been a key player in many operations involving the attorney general and the Department of Justice. In July he traveled to Washington, D.C., and attended the White House announcement of Operation Legend.
The briefing at the FBI headquarters came just a couple of hours after Gonzales kicked off a Gang Recognition and Intelligence Patrol operation on East Central, near Tramway. That operation was one of 23 that the Sheriff’s Office has conducted since January, and in that time, Gonzales said, 241 arrests have been made – 165 of them felony arrests.
A BCSO spokeswoman said the morning’s GRIP operation and Operation Legend are different responses to crime in the city, but they certainly overlap.
“We have task force officers who can take certain cases that meet a specific threshold to federal prosecution level similar to Operation Legend,” spokeswoman Jayme Fuller said. “BSCO has continued to conduct saturation patrols in particular areas throughout the county by requesting community members and local businesses that suffer from the crimes committed in their neighborhoods.”
She said Gonzales hosted Barr while he was in town and was with him during a tour of high crime areas in Albuquerque where Operation Legend arrests took place.
At the briefing, Gonzales said residents tell him that their children are afraid to go to local parks because people are camped out there or accost and harass them.
“I just recently had 40 more deputies sworn in by the U.S. Marshals in this effort, and to me this is just a start,” Gonzales said. “This relationship isn’t a short-term relationship, this is a long-term sustainable relationship.”