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Candidates spar over crime, APD

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

This year’s mayoral candidates can’t agree on whether crime is going up or down, much less what to do about it.

Incumbent Richard Berry likes to say Albuquerque has seen the three lowest crime rates of the past 20 years during his tenure.

That’s true. It’s also true the crime rate has declined throughout every mayoral administration for more than a dozen years.

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Mayoral candidate Paul Heh likes to say crime is up. That’s true, too, if you look only at the past two years, when there has been a slight increase in the overall crime rate.

But Heh doesn’t mention that the crime rate in 2012 was still lower than when Berry took office in 2009 or that violent crime ticked downward last year.

Pete Dinelli, the third candidate in the race, shies away from crime rates altogether.

Any mayor “who tries to take credit for a decrease in crime is being a fool,” said Dinelli, a former prosecutor. “These statistics are very volatile, and they always have been.”

Heh, a retired police sergeant, said he worked the streets and saw crime first hand. “You’re going to tell me the crime rate is going down? No, it’s not,” he said flatly.

Berry, who took office in December 2009, has made the crime rate a centerpiece of his campaign.

“In my first term, the citizens of Albuquerque have enjoyed the three lowest FBI crime rates in the last 23 years,” he said in a recent interview, echoing something he often says in forums.

Here’s what the numbers say, based on APD’s reports to the FBI since 1990:

  • The city’s crime rate – the number of crimes per 100,000 people – peaked in 1996. The rate is based on “Part 1” crimes, such as murder, robbery, burglary and auto theft.
  • The crime rate has been on a downward trend since then, regardless of who’s in office.
  • The crime rate bottomed out in 2010, Berry’s first full year in office. It inched up slightly in 2011 and 2012, but the rate is still lower than in 2009, the year Berry defeated then-Mayor Martin Chávez.

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Different solutions

Perhaps more important than the crime rate, however, is what the candidates would do about it. All three candidates say they want to grow the police force.

The city budget contains enough funding for 1,100 officers, but the city hasn’t actually had 1,100 in recent years. The city now has 921 officers.

Heh said APD needs 1,200 officers now and more later.

Dinelli said the city should have the full 1,100 officers contained in the budget.

Berry has never committed himself to a specific number. The right number, he argues, is the number it takes to get the job done, and the declining crime rate indicates the city is succeeding on that front.

Heh said that improving morale in the department would help recruitment. He proposes streamlining the chain of command by removing some deputy chief positions and bringing in new leadership.

“Our best recruiters are the officers themselves,” Heh said. “They’re telling people, ‘Yeah, being a cop is great, just don’t do it here.’ ”

Dinelli said morale would improve if the city signed a new contract with the police union. The contract signed under then-Mayor Chávez expired in 2011, and Berry hasn’t reached agreement with the union on a new one.

Dinelli also said the city needs to re-instate bonuses and other financial incentives that were cut amid belt-tightening during the recession. He calls for replacing the police chief and deputy chiefs.

“I believe there’s a definite culture within the Police Department that’s going to have to be changed,” he said.

Dinelli noted that response times to top-priority calls grew between fiscal 2010 to 2012, a sign that more officers are needed. Response times to Priority 1 calls rose from 8 minutes, 43 seconds in fiscal year 2010 to 9 minutes, 42 seconds in fiscal 2012.albuq crime stats 2006

The Berry administration contends response times aren’t a good way to measure the effectiveness of the police force.

But Berry said that, if re-elected, he would lobby the Legislature next year to authorize a return-to-work program for retired officers or officers who agree to delay retirement.

It would require changes in state retirement regulations.

The proposal “allows us to bolster our numbers almost immediately,” Berry said. “It adds experience to the front lines of our police force.”

Berry is also proposing a series of financial incentives, which would require City Council approval.

To help recruitment, Heh proposes eliminating the requirement for police officers to have 60 college credit hours. (The requirement already can be waived if the applicant has three years of military service.)

“You don’t need college to be a police officer,” Heh said. “… The academy teaches you everything you need to know.”

Dinelli said he would make the college requirement more flexible, but not eliminate it. He’d like to raise the age requirement.

Berry has said he’s raised admission requirements and won’t lower them.

“We absolutely don’t want to sacrifice quality for quantity,” he said.

To film or not to film?

The candidates clash on whether police officers should be required to use lapel cameras.

Under Berry, the police administration began requiring officers to record all encounters with citizens, using small cameras on the officers’ lapels.

Dinelli said he would make use of the cameras optional. He questioned their reliability and said they hurt morale. Officers “are afraid to do their work,” he said. “They’re afraid to be pro-active.”

Berry maintains the cameras are helpful and that they have exonerated officers accused of wrongdoing.

“It protects the citizens and the officers,” Berry said.

Heh said he wouldn’t require the use of lapel cameras. Officers could use them when they think they’re needed or are expecting a complaint.

“It’s a matter of trust,” Heh said.

The candidates also differ on who should lead the department.

Berry tapped Allen Banks this summer as interim chief and vowed to conduct a national search to find a permanent replacement. He hasn’t ruled out keeping Banks.

Dinelli and Heh both say they would remove Banks as chief.

Dinelli said he would search “to find the best possible chief candidate who has the credentials to run a troubled department.”

Heh said he, too, would remove Banks. He said he wants someone who respects officers and will be respected by them in return.

“The quality I’m going to look for is someone who’s, No. 1, a leader, and to be a leader you have to have integrity. You have to have honor,” he said.

Justice review

All three candidates said they would cooperate with the U.S. Department of Justice, which is investigating whether APD has a pattern or practice of using excessive force, including unreasonable deadly force. The investigation follows a spike in the number of people shot and killed by local police.

Dinelli said the city needs to ask the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico how it can best cooperate and “establish a dialogue” on what the problems are.

He believes APD changed its training after two officers and a sheriff’s deputy were shot to death in the mid-2000s, a few years before Berry took office.

“I think there was a major shift in approach, training,” Dinelli said. “… I think they shifted from community-based policing to officer safety being the No. 1 priority.”

Heh said he would take care to avoid hiding any problems, but fixing the department itself is easy.

“If I get elected, the knuckleheads that are there know what’s coming, and they’re going to leave,” he said.

Berry said he’s already initiated a series of reforms aimed at improving public safety. The number of police shootings has fallen in recent years, he said.

“There’s no question these reforms are working,” he said.

The election is Oct. 8.


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