Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Election Day for Albuquerque city leaders is less than a month away, and crime is once again taking center stage on the campaign trail.
As candidates point fingers at one another and debate crime-fighting strategies, here’s a deeper look at some of the top public safety topics emerging.
What can a mayor do to decrease homicides and other crime?
A mayor can affect crime through control of police leadership and community engagement. But not much else, says Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Kenney said that a mayor’s crime-fighting abilities are limited and that any impacts come in a slow and indirect way. But mayors can have a “fairly powerful effect” if they rally the community behind law enforcement, he said, calling the collaboration between the community and authorities the “single most important determinant” of police effectiveness.
Departmentally, the mayor wields a “great deal” of influence by choosing a police chief but also by taking “immediate” corrective action to remove ineffective leadership, Kenney said.
Former Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca said violent crime is not something a mayor has control over case by case.
“Basically, no mayor can stop one person from killing another,” he said, adding that a mayor can push for laws aimed at reducing contributors such as gun violence and encourage initiatives such as community policing.
And, he stressed, the mayor’s job isn’t for the faint of heart, noting that criticism comes with the territory.
“Anytime someone is a victim of whatever type of crime, they are going to blame the political leadership,” Baca said.
Former Mayor Richard Berry said his most powerful tactics as mayor were using his “bully pulpit” at the Legislature to advocate for crime-fighting laws and forming partnerships with other agencies. Although Berry said he was fortunate to have a team that delivered the “lowest crime rates” in the city’s modern history, he left office with an approval rating of just 34% due, in part, to a spike in crime toward the end of his final term. He said he wished he had been able to overcome the “cascade of disruptions” in the criminal justice system, including bail reform and court timeline shifts, that the city and state are feeling to this day.
Are undocumented immigrants driving crime?
There is no evidence that they are. In fact, there are studies that suggest undocumented immigrants are less likely than U.S. citizens and legal immigrants to commit crimes.
No local statistics were available, but a study of statistics in Texas – which has the second-largest immigration population behind California – provides some clues. Texas is the only state that records criminal convictions and arrests by immigration status.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, found that those born in the U.S. are over 2 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over 4 times more likely to be arrested for property crimes.
The study also found that as the crime rate among U.S.-born citizens rose from 2012 to 2018, crime rates among legal and undocumented immigrants remained largely stable.
Christopher Herrmann, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City, said that the study is more comprehensive than those he had seen in years past and that it took into consideration the “tripling” of the undocumented immigrant population. However, he said, it did have limitations, including that it covered only Texas and a specific time period, in addition to the knowledge that “only half of violent crime is reported.”
“It really makes you wonder, where does the other side of the aisle get their narrative on this strong link between illegal immigration and crime?” he said, adding that calling illegal immigrants criminals, murderers and rapists discredits their claims.
Herrmann said a lot of people “cherry-pick” a small number of cases highlighted in news cycles to “demonize” the entire population.
Locally, a high-profile case that has received media attention is the 2019 shooting death of Jacqueline Vigil, the mother of two State Police officers. She was killed outside her home as she was leaving for the gym. Documents show the suspect was from Mexico and had illegally entered the U.S. multiple times before the shooting.
Herrmann said that for most people who come to the U.S. illegally, the “No. 1 job” is to not get deported, so they are inclined to “stay off of the police radar.”
“For every good study that’s done that shows that illegal immigrants are not involved in the crime process … you’re going to have those celebrity cases that poke holes in your story,” he said.
Another study, published in October 2020, that looked at the effect of sanctuary city policies on crime rates found that such policies cut deportations of people who had not been convicted of anything in half. However, it “had no consistent effect on deportations of people with violent convictions.”
“Moreover, sanctuary policies had no effect on crime rates or clearance rates (the rates at which police arrest people for reported crimes),” said the study, conducted by researchers at Stanford University.
Are officers’ hands tied when it comes to arresting people on misdemeanors?
Under Albuquerque Police Department policy, officers are not prohibited from arresting people on nonviolent misdemeanor charges such as criminal trespass, littering, shoplifting less than $500 or possession of a controlled substance.
But they are told to issue citations instead, and if they determine they do need to arrest the person, they must explain why. This does not apply to DWI charges.
“Whether or not the person has a permanent address may not be the sole factor in determining to arrest the person rather than issuing a citation,” the policy says.
This policy is the result of a federal court order stemming from a 2017 settlement agreement with the city in the McClendon lawsuit. The McClendon lawsuit was filed in 1995 to address conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center, which attorneys alleged violated inmates’ constitutional rights.
In 2016, attorneys for the McClendon plaintiffs alleged that police were “inappropriately arresting people with disabilities and booking them into the local jail, where the conditions were cruel and unusual.”
They alleged that the city was violating federal law by booking them into jail when they need hospitalization and not making reasonable modifications to city policies to prevent discrimination.
“The allegation was the city was sweeping up homeless folks, folks with mental illness who don’t have an address, and they were arresting them,” said Ryan Villa, one of the attorneys representing incarcerated people in the McClendon suit. “When, if it were you and me, we would get a citation.”
He said that if police officers start arresting homeless and mentally ill people on misdemeanor crimes he and his fellow attorneys could take the city back to court for violating the order and citizens’ constitutional rights. It is an issue they continue to monitor.
“If every single person who gets a misdemeanor and nonviolent crime gets arrested, then perhaps there isn’t a constitutional violation,” Villa said. “On the other hand, if they’re targeting certain individuals because they’re homeless or because of the neighborhood they live in or their race, you know, it could be a constitutional violation.”
Can the city unilaterally get out of the court-approved settlement agreement?
In three words: “not too easily.”
Kenney, the professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said a city can’t just walk away from a settlement agreement once it’s signed.
“They’ve entered into a binding contract to do certain things,” Kenney said. “And if they were to renege on that, then they’ll have an issue with the Department of Justice or the court.”
Kenney said that when the Department of Justice opens an investigation, it doesn’t look just for bad policing, but it also looks into whether agencies are practicing discrimination in their policing and whether they’re biased against certain groups. If – like they did in Albuquerque in 2014 – investigators find that an agency has a pattern of violating citizens’ constitutional rights through excessive use of force, then the city and the DOJ negotiate a settlement agreement laying out what steps they will take to reform.
The typical timeline for reform is six to 10 years, Kenney said, because it takes time to change recruitment practices, replace problematic officers and impose better early warning systems, discipline and internal investigation practices.
“The real goal of a consent decree is not just to change a few policies,” he said. “It’s to change the culture of the organization, and culture changes slowly.”
What if, almost seven years in, the city wants to just say, “We’re not doing it anymore”?
“DOJ would have the option at that point of bringing a civil suit in federal court and getting a court-ordered provision, in which case the court would have the option of doing anything from ordering them to complete the decree to taking over the police department,” Kenney said.