After a year of record homicides and a general sense of mayhem in the streets, Albuquerque enters a new year hopeful that better days lie ahead.
But hope isn’t a strategy, and solving the city’s crime woes isn’t as easy as flipping a page on the calendar. Mayor Tim Keller and stakeholders in the criminal justice system took some promising steps in 2021 aimed at lowering crime. It will take time to see if they have an impact, but a crisis of confidence in the city’s ability to control crime and keep us safe threatens to boil over without immediate evidence of a tougher stance on prevention.
Something has to change in 2022.
As it stands, property crime is likely under-reported. We have heard from multiple victims who didn’t report a theft, break-in or vandalism because they didn’t think anything would come of it.
Yet, day after day, especially in 2021, the visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior and civil disorder point to a city in the throes of “broken window” syndrome. The number of audacious crimes – most recently the hit-and-run death of a 7-year-old pedestrian just before Christmas as his family left the River of Lights – breeds a perception of lawlessness, which further emboldens criminal activity.
There’s a reason all-terrain vehicles dart in and out of the bosque to cruise Central. There’s a reason homeless tent cities pop up on pedestrian bridges. There’s a reason people drive 100 miles per hour on city streets and groups of motorcyclists take over the interstates. There’s a reason people walk out of drug stores with an armload of merchandise they haven’t paid for. Because no one is stopping them.
Public opinion finds law enforcement tolerant of illegal driving and racing, shoplifting, vagrancy and armed robbery – because they all happen frequently without repercussions.
Yet, it’s difficult to just point fingers at police. The Albuquerque Police Department’s challenges are well-known. It’s trying to fix systemic dysfunction that got the department in hot water with the Department of Justice at the same time as it’s trying to improve how it protects the community. It remains short-staffed and filling the ranks is an ongoing struggle.
To put APD’s personnel challenge in perspective, more detectives are trying to clear the use-of-force complaint backlog than are assigned to investigate 2021’s record-smashing 117 homicides. A shortage of uniformed officers on patrol isn’t helping morale either – APD’s or the public’s. Meanwhile, illicit fentanyl fuels the crime problem.
Local authorities say illicit fentanyl has overtaken the local drug scene, contributing to violent and property crimes committed by those who use it, deal it and steal it.
The mayor is right to want to get to the root causes of crime by addressing homelessness, addiction and behavioral health challenges. But, without some near-term victories in the fight against crime, few people who have other options are going to stick around to see this long-term strategy pay off.
We’re not talking sinister “crackdowns” – but if officers had been stopping and citing ATV drivers on city streets and impounding vehicles, perhaps 7-year-old Pronoy Bhattacharya wouldn’t have been run down in a crosswalk on Central.
It’s time Keller and APD Police Chief Harold Medina got back to basics. Beefing up a police presence has always been a tent pole of the mayor’s crime-fighting agenda, but it needs results. Citizens want and need to see more officers on the streets restoring perceptions of a city rooted in law and order.
Albuquerque, like the Rome of yesteryear, is burning. And the people want to know what our elected representatives and appointed officials are going to do about it. It’s the pre-eminent issue of our time and the most serious impediment to economic growth. While addressing generational poverty is an essential long-term strategy for improving public safety, nobody will wait that long to feel safe in our city.
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.