Curbing high crime on East Central

Men congregate in the area of Central and Tramway close to the McDonald’s restaurant on Friday afternoon. Members of the Foothills Area Community Policing Council say city agencies other than the police department need to step up to improve public safety. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Back in 2006, Albuquerque City Councilor Don Harris held a press conference, calling for the demolition of an old McDonald’s restaurant at Central and Tramway NE as part of a push for rejuvenation of East Central Avenue.

East Central Avenue, looking west, at Tramway on Friday afternoon. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“East Central has been a run-down place, but it’s not going to be that way anymore. It is going to be vibrant,” he said at the time. “We’re trying to upgrade the entire area.”

Fast forward to today.

Over the past three months, Albuquerque police have responded to two homicides and the discovery of a body found off Tramway and Interstate 40, the gateway to the old Route 66 and Four Hills neighborhood.

Two blocks west of Tramway, a far East Central trailer park was the scene of a recent FBI search of a purported gang leader’s “stash house” where agents seized seven firearms, including two shotguns and an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

From Tramway to Eubank, the two-mile stretch of far East Central Avenue is peppered with closed businesses, sometimes aggressive transients, open displays of illegal drug use, mental illness, vandalism and trash, area residents say.

The McDonald’s that stands today is one of the corridor’s cleanest properties. It’s patrolled by a private security guard who is quick to escort loiterers out the door or, as reported recently, respond to a woman who was taking off her clothes outside in broad daylight.

Travelers on the TripAdvisor website give dismal reviews of some of the area motels, with one reporting checking into a room, only to pack up and leave within hours because of “all kinds of shady stuff going on all night long.”

“I’m seeing people walking down the streets with actual swords, and that’s a scary thing,” said Vance Kabella, an Albuquerque Realtor who grew up near the area. “These are mentally unstable people walking down the streets … heavily armed and very dangerous.” Along with 20- and 30-year-old vagrants, “they’re really running the streets.”

APD limited unless crime in progress

Members of the Foothills Area Community Policing Council have concluded Albuquerque police can only do so much to fight the chronic crime in the East Central corridor. The volunteer council says other city agencies need to step up to improve public safety.

“Police are very limited in what they can do unless there is actually a violent crime in progress,” said Robert Carleton, chair of the Foothills community policing council, one of six such volunteer councils set up around the city under its 2014 police reform settlement agreement with the U.S. Justice Department.

The Foothills council has stirred controversy with its conclusion that crime in the corridor is being exacerbated in part by a city-funded voucher program intended to provide temporary housing to people living in several motels west of Tramway on Central.

“Businesses, residents and motel residents have expressed concern of the extreme danger (highest # of calls per week in any concentrated area in both the city and the state) at Tramway/Central motels. We are told these vouchers are issued at-will with NO oversight or monitoring. These vouchers are not tracked or coordinated among agencies. As a result, many of these vouchers are issued to non-vetted repeat offenders,” says a report and recommendations unanimously approved by the policing council on June 14.

“The objective reality is that conditions along East Central, and the situational, preventable crime ridden motels have become a serious problem for the businesses in the area,” the report says.

In addition to draining police resources that could be used to answer calls to the rest of the Foothills Command, crime at or near the motels presents “an unfortunate spectacle to tourists and travelers passing through Albuquerque,” the council stated.

The policing council recommends tighter controls over the voucher program and urges more aggressive code enforcement of nuisance properties along the corridor.

The recommendations, which were submitted to APD’s administration, haven’t gone over well.

Some say the council is off-base and unfair to the homeless and the housing program. Others question whether the council is operating out of its lane.

“First, the CPCs are supposed to focus on issues related to the DOJ and reform process, not make recommendations about crime trends,” APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said in an email.”That said, we are aware of the challenges in the … area, which pre-date the issuance of vouchers,” Gallegos stated.

“The Foothills Area Command has continuously worked with neighborhoods and business owners to develop operations to address crime in the area. We do the same thing in all six area commands, and all have areas with specific challenges.”

“Calls for service are high in these areas across the city,” he said, not just at Tramway and Central.

Journal requests to interview police officials at the Foothills Area Command weren’t granted.

The city’s website describes the mission of the community policing councils this way: “The goal of each Community Policing Council is to engage in candid, detailed and meaningful dialogue between Albuquerque Police and the citizens they serve. Councils are independent from the City and Department. They are encouraged to formally recommend changes to Albuquerque Police Department policies and procedures. They are also asked to make recommendations and identify concerns, problems, successes and opportunities within each area command and for the department as a whole.”

Voucher program provides shelter

The city spends about $225,000 a year providing temporary vouchers to 26 motels around the city through contracts with four nonprofit groups. To be eligible, a family or individual must be experiencing homelessness. One contractor services those who are recovering from illness or injury and families.

The program funded through the Department of Family and Community Services provides shelter to about 45 households a month for a maximum of seven to 14 nights.

“DFCS monitors all contracts to verify contractual obligations are followed, including length of time a voucher is provided for,” the department told the Journal in an email. “Unfortunately, just like we’ve seen in other cities since the pandemic, there have been challenges with criminal activity at some motels. Although troubling, it is unfair and inaccurate to pin those issues on a program that helps people experiencing homelessness.”

No motel manager interviewed by the Journal reported problems with their customers on city vouchers. Some did say it can be difficult to persuade a voucher recipient to leave after the temporary stay.

“When people are hanging out at gas stations, begging for money, under the freeways, stuff like that, that’s what’s contributing to the crime. Not the voucher program,” said a manager at a Rodeway Inn on East Central who gave only his first name, Daniel. “The people with vouchers are just homeless; they have families, and they’re trying to get on their feet.”

He said his motel “is very strict” and hires a private security firm to keep the peace.

And that is another remedy that could help ease crime in the area, said Craig Michaelis, chief financial officer at Duke City Security, which patrols the Sprouts Farmers Market in the shopping center at the southwest corner of Tramway and Central.

“Really it’s just having security guards in general or police,” Michaelis said last week. “That whole area, because of the foot traffic and there’s transients that go through there, as long as there’s visible deterrents, that will help reduce the crime.”

Recently, his security team encountered an individual with a firearm. The team secured the weapon and called APD to follow up.

“We’re really not allowed to secure anything farther than 16 feet away from front door of Sprouts,” he said. “Our guards will tell us around the area, there’s incidents that happen all the time, but we can only do so much out there.”

‘We are not going to put up with this’

Kabella is one of the newest members of the Foothills Council. Each council appoints its own voting members who must live or have businesses in their respective areas. Members serve two-year terms.

A Four Hills resident, Kabella says his job takes him into the Tramway and Central area many times a day.

In the past, he’d see the same faces of those loitering, “but I would say in the last 30 days, I would see 100 different individuals, and that’s considerable, running the street corners,” Kabella said. “These are my streets that I’m concerned about.”

Recently, he said, a female friend was accosted as she was pumping gas at the Smith’s off Tramway, near Central, and phoned him.

“A gentleman walked up to her as her back was turned and put his hands on her demanding money. She was totally freaked out and jumped in her vehicle,” Kabella said.

That friend was in her 30s and physically in good shape, Kabella said. “My concern is the seniors, they’re the ones taking the brunt. They feel they better hand it over or there’s going to be repercussions.”

Kabella said because of short staffing, “police are doing the best they can.”

Over the past year, the council has also recommended ways to curb street racing and increase public safety at the Singing Arrow Park, south of Central, by having city parks employees trim trees and shrubs to provide better sightlines for APD surveillance.

Meanwhile, Harris isn’t running for reelection this fall to the District 9 council seat he has held since 2005.

During a news conference about the old McDonald’s in 2006, he noted that the closed restaurant “has been burned out for months.”

“There are homeless people who have broken in here and used it to sleep. They have built fires. … We need to send a message to people and businesses – everybody in this part of town – that we are not going to put up with this,” he said.

Asked for an interview last week, Harris through a spokeswoman said he wasn’t available.

But the city last month launched a new campaign, approved by the City Council last year, to promote Central Avenue.

A marketing firm will receive up to $500,000 to devise strategies for a 14-mile stretch of Central Avenue between Unser Boulevard on the west and Tramway Boulevard on the east to attract businesses, local residents and visitors to the corridor, according to a city request for a proposal.

The proposal said the campaign is aimed at promoting a “safe, economic recovery period, but also reversing negative public perception of Central Avenue.”

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