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Up the Pressure On the Bad Guys

SANTA FE, N.M. — One thing became very clear at Saturday’s meeting between west-side Santa Fe residents and the city’s chief of police: Crime in that area is out of control, and has been for quite a long time.

Last month’s murder of a west-side resident who apparently interrupted a home burglary — not to mention a broad-daylight armed robbery attempt in a nearby park two days later — makes one other thing very clear: If police don’t get control of Santa Fe’s residential burglary epidemic soon, they — and we — may be facing a different epidemic, one that involves violence.

There is no doubt that Santa Fe police are understaffed — the force is down 16 officers out of a total force of over 100. That’s part of the problem, certainly. And from Saturday’s discussion, it seems west-side residents may not yet have banded together in an aggressive neighborhood watch program — another key element, according to police, in reducing property crime in particular.

But consider this: When a second west-side murder occurred only a couple of weeks after the first, police very promptly had suspects in mind. A search of one suspect’s nearby home revealed loot from multiple burglaries. Arrests on burglary and murder charges quickly followed.

In our view, this latest episode suggests that police in fact know quite a bit about the neighborhood’s criminals, including burglars, and what they’re up to. If that’s really the case, it’s high time police upped the tactical ante.

The criminals already have. When burglars start shooting people who interrupt them in the course of a home break-in, when armed robbers can confront ordinary citizens in a public park on a Saturday afternoon with impunity, the public safety situation has gone way beyond a simple property crime and the hassle of replacing a flat-screen TV and the loss of beloved mementos.

Saturday’s testimony underscored the situation: Dozens of residents said they live in real fear — “terrorized,” as one put it, “by the criminals in this town.”

Santa Fe is a small city. There is absolutely no excuse for it to have one of the highest property crime rates in the entire nation, and no excuse, either, for residents to live in the kind of fear that was expressed Saturday.

Residents can do their part to improve things, mainly by remaining vigilant and calling police whenever they see something wrong.

Prosecutors and judges must also do their part. Police say they’re now making sure an officer attends court hearings so that judges know when a repeat offender is before them. That will help. Prosecutors and judges can help further by making sure plea bargains reflect reality and maximum sentences are imposed on career and serial criminals.

But police are the front line in resolving a public safety problem of the magnitude Santa Fe clearly now has. Police can do a lot, and still remain within the law, to make life miserable for known repeat offenders. Police can watch these people, follow them, hassle them for even minor offenses, park outside their homes for lunch, whatever. This kind of zero-tolerance policing has been shown to work. New York City is the prime example: It’s a much safer city now than it was a decade or two ago, in large part because police (and ordinary citizens) stopped letting little things slide.

It’s past time for Santa Fe officers to follow suit, with support from the city’s political leaders.