Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
A former University of New Mexico instructor’s essay in The New York Times that portrayed Albuquerque as a violent city with a serious homeless problem made waves among local residents on social media and has business leaders worried about the city’s reputation.
The essay, by Justin St. Germain, argued that the Albuquerque Police Department’s reputation may help explain recent attacks on homeless people, and he also made note of the city’s high violent crime rate.
In 2012, Albuquerque had a violent crime rate nearly two times the national average, which is 387 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, according to the FBI’s website. Albuquerque’s rate was 750 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
But city officials said Monday crime in Albuquerque is similar to crime in other large cities, and that city leaders are working to reverse the perception that Albuquerque and its police are violent, said Gilbert Montaño, the chief of staff for Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.
“The important thing is how we build off the tragedies that have occurred,” Montaño said.
Violent crimes are murder and non-negligent homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
In 2012, there were 4,151 violent crimes reported in Albuquerque, which had an official city population of 553,684, according to the FBI.
APD officials declined to discuss the essay Monday.
Albuquerque police spokeswoman Janet Blair said in an email that Albuquerque’s crime rate was 13th among the 35 most populated cities in the country in 2012. She said violent crime rates in recent years are well below Albuquerque’s 20-year average.
St. Germain’s 1,000-word opinion piece was widely shared on social media among Albuquerque residents Sunday. St. Germain is an author who had taught creative writing at the University of New Mexico.
And “it got a good read” among business leaders, who found it “deeply disturbing,” said Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.
St. Germain, who lived on Central Avenue Downtown, said in the essay that while he had called 911 to report issues with homeless people near his home in the past, he stopped calling earlier this year because he didn’t “want blood on my hands” if the situation were to turn violent.
He referred to the 27 fatal Albuquerque police officer-involved shootings since 2010, and in particular the fatal shooting of James Boyd, a homeless man illegally camping in the Sandia foothills, earlier this year. A police videotape of that shooting created public outrage locally and nationally.
He also mentioned two recent crimes against the homeless: the beating death of two homeless men, allegedly at the hands of three teenagers, in July near 60th and Central, and an incident in June in which a truck appeared to intentionally run over sleeping homeless people near Downtown, killing a woman.
“Why wouldn’t the people who committed these crimes believe they could kill and get away with it, when the cops keep doing exactly that?” St. Germain wrote.
St. Germain said in an email to the Journal on Monday that he recently moved out of New Mexico to take a job elsewhere, not because of APD or violence in the city.
“I wrote the op ed to point out a specific pattern of violence, not to criticize the city as a whole,” he wrote. “The only change I would want is for that violence to stop.”
Cole said that the perception that APD is violent has had a negative effect on business development. She said in the aftermath of the James Boyd shooting in March, the Chamber of Commerce received daily calls from people in potential businesses who were concerned about the shooting.
“People who wanted to visit Albuquerque or start a business here didn’t do either,” she said. “Clearly that creates challenges for making Albuquerque the type of place where people want to start a business or raise a family.”
The Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau also was so concerned about what it was hearing from potential visitors earlier this year that it invited Chief Gorden Eden to talk to the organization about what its members could tell visitors.
The city of Albuquerque and the Department of Justice are currently negotiating court-enforceable reforms for the police department, after the DOJ released a report in April that said APD had a pattern of violating residents’ Constitutional rights through excessive force.
Cole said the chamber is hopeful the reform process will greatly improve the perception of APD and violence in Albuquerque.
“There is an opportunity to become known as a place that had a big problem and solved it incredibly well,” Cole said.
Montaño said the city’s response to the July slayings of two homeless Navajo men is an example of how Albuquerque leaders can make progress in the face of a tragedy. He said the mayor quickly met with Navajo President Ben Shelly to address violence against Natives Americans in Albuquerque, and that more meetings are planned with other tribal leaders. He also said the city is trying to address the systemic issues that lead to homelessness.
“We’re a big city, and we have big-city challenges,” Montaño said. “But the average Albuquerquean has a lot of pride.”