Critics of Mayor Tim Keller point to skyrocketing homicides, jumps in shootings and low police morale as proof of his failure to fight crime.
Keller pushes back, noting that violent crime has shot up throughout the country during the pandemic, not just in Albuquerque. He points to drops in Albuquerque’s property crime as a measure of his success. And he says the initiatives launched under his tenure will make the community safer in the long run.
The Community Safety Department will take thousands of calls off the shoulders of police, the Gateway Center will be a stand-in for jail cells and hospital beds for those experiencing homelessness and the Metro Crime Initiative will fix the “broken” criminal justice system, according to Keller.
He wants voters to give him another four years to see through those projects to fight crime from all sides. Keller said his track record shows he can do it. He faces two candidates in the Nov. 2 election: Sheriff Manuel Gonzales and radio show host Eddy Aragon.
“I’ve led our city during literally the toughest time in our modern history — the crisis in policing, last summer’s calls for racial justice, nationally rising crime and COVID,” he said. “… we still need a leader who can push us forward based on the foundation that I built.”
Keller said he has made strides in lowering overall crime through sizeable decreases in property crime, particularly auto theft. The Albuquerque-metro area, which includes Bernalillo, Sandoval, Valencia and Torrance counties, dropped out of the country’s top spot for auto theft in 2019 and to sixth place in 2020.
“I think we have honored the commitment to fight crime in a real way. That’s not just about talking tough or doing roundups or something like that, we’re actually trying to address crime from all sides,” he said. “And we have done that. Had we not done that our city would be in a much, much worse place.”
Keller said Burqueños shouldn’t expect a “gazillion” new crime fighting initiatives if voters give him another four years. He said his administration will instead focus on those already in play to address the underlying issues of homelessness, drug abuse, mental health and what he calls the revolving doors of the criminal justice system.
Keller said his success in recruiting more officers and utilizing millions in recent technology upgrades will help APD tackle crime in the interim as he focuses on getting the Albuquerque Community Safety Department, or ACS, Gateway Center and Metro Crime Initiative up and running.
Each program is in a different stage of implementation.
The ACS was proposed in 2020 as an option for having social workers and trained professionals, rather than armed officers, respond to 911 calls related to homelessness, behavioral health and addiction.
Keller said the new department will alleviate the drain on officers and will divert thousands of calls to other personnel, help those in crisis and avoid situations of escalation.
Joshua Reeves, a city spokesman, said the program started a soft launch to test the process on Sept. 7. He said there are currently five behavioral health responders taking around eight calls a day — 150 in the first month.
Reeves said another 22 responders, including supervisors and outreach team members, are in the hiring and training process. The final goal, he said, is to have 54 personnel responding to calls.
Reeves said the city also hired four mobile crisis team clinicians and one supervisor as ACS employees and they have been assisting officers on calls since March.
Keller said devoting resources to address the needs of a growing homeless population will also put a dent in crime, calling the Gateway Center an alternative to the emergency room or jail.
Proposed in 2020, the Gateway Center will be housed at the former Lovelace hospital on Gibson. The city has said it plans to use the 572,000-square-foot facility to shelter up to 100 individuals and 25 families.
Neighbors in the area have repeatedly raised issues with the city’s plan and have asked a zoning examiner to reject the idea as the examiner weighs the city’s request to use the hospital as an overnight homeless shelter.
Finally, Keller said the Metro Crime Initiative will have the city work with courts, legislators, law enforcement and others to tackle the flaws in the criminal justice system.
The city recently unveiled a list of 40 items devised over five two-hour sessions to be checked off by local, state and federal law enforcement.
The checklist includes creating a think tank to examine gun violence as a public health issue, increasing sentences when a gun is used in a crime, implementing creative restorative justice programs in schools, increasing capacity of addiction treatment centers and increasing pre-arrest diversion offers.
“It’s either naive or disingenuous for anyone to think that our crime and drug problems are so surface level that they can just be fixed by being tougher, or by arresting people,” Keller said. “… If it was that easy. I guarantee you, every chief that we’ve ever had, would have already done that.”
The department has struggled to reach its goal of 1,200 officers, something Keller campaigned on four years ago. The city currently has about 900 officers. Keller said the structuring of his pay raises to police in his first term allowed many to retire within three years.
After the city faced a pandemic, the social justice movement and lags in criminal justice in 2020, Keller said he realized they lost a year of progress.
“Had I known that going forward, I would have structured the pay raise differently to build toward retention,” he said. “That’s something I really wish I would have done. But, I had no idea of predicting what would be down the road.”
Learning from mistakes
Keller acknowledges missteps on the part of his administration, which include releasing faulty crime stats early in his tenure and more recently, backslides in police federally mandated reform efforts. As for the recent record spike in homicides and shootings, Keller and APD repeatedly attribute those to national trends.
In December 2019 APD acknowledged flaws in crime statistics released by Keller’s administration showing drops in every crime category between 2018 and 2019. The department eventually released revised numbers showing a much smaller, sometimes minuscule, decrease in crime categories. They hired a former university professor to review their data collection who found the department had an inaccurate method for tracking crimes, was using outdated systems and didn’t have a way to track missing reports.
Keller said, in the end, his administration owned up to its mistakes and the instance is a good example of them sharing information even when it doesn’t look great.
“I think we’ve walked the walk on that one,” he said.
Since then, violent crime — particularly homicides and shootings — has increased significantly in the city. Albuquerque has already surpassed its homicide record of 81 in 2019, hitting 89 homicides so far this year as of the end of September. Three of those homicides are being investigated by State Police.
Of those cases, according to Journal records, 26 have had an arrest or charges filed. There has also been a 15% increase in shootings across the city with 229 so far in 2021. There were 199 shootings by this time in 2020.
More recently, the department has faced another hurdle: a backslide in reform.
A report on the Department of Justice reform effort released in May found APD had taken steps backward in training officers on policies and holding them accountable for mistakes.
The report said that, in some ways, APD was further from finishing the reform process than it was two years ago. The department entered into the Court Approved Settlement Agreement, or CASA, in 2014 after a DOJ investigation found officers had a pattern of using excessive force and violating constitutional rights following years of controversial police shootings.
Keller said the six-month lag in reform reports put them at a disadvantage and, had he seen the results sooner, he would’ve asked former APD Chief Mike Geier to resign earlier. He said Geier, who was ousted in September 2020, did not do enough to help reforms and hampered the department in other ways.
He said the department is now better situated to tackle reforms, particularly after hiring Sylvester Stanley as superintendent of police reform in March. Keller said consent decrees around the nation take anywhere from 10 to 40 years, and short-term reform is a “fantasy.”
“I know we’re going to be in a much better position if I’m mayor than if there’s another mayor because of what I’ve learned through the process,” he said. “I think making predictions or guesstimating … it’s hurtful to the process and it’s naive to think anyone can actually have a say in that.”
Geier has since endorsed Keller’s opponent, Sheriff Manuel Gonzales, and blasted Keller as a mayor who was obsessed with his image and who micromanaged the department.
Keller stood by his decision to replace Geier with Harold Medina, and said if “any department is having trouble, I will manage them, and try and get them out of trouble.”
He said Medina is doing the “best job he can with the resources and with the situation that we’re in” and he will keep Medina as chief as long as the city is making progress on crime-fighting, police reforms and gaining the community’s trust.
“When you say yes to that job, you say goodbye to your family, you say goodbye to all your free time. And you literally bear the responsibility of keeping our city safe,” he said. “And that’s something that he was willing to step up for from day one. And frankly, a lot of people aren’t.”
For his part, Keller said he had done the best he could.
“I think I’ve provided the right kind leadership at the right time and in a difficult time. So that means that not everyone is going to be happy with you all the time. I think that says you’re doing something right,” he said. “… I think I have been balanced in that I make tough decisions when I have to, and I stand by them. But I also learned from my mistakes.”