Officials unveil their agenda to fight crime in Albuquerque

Proposals look like they walked out of the ’90s to local organizers 

By: - September 22, 2021 6:00 am

An Albuquerque Police Department SUV sits in the parking lot for the Albuquerque Police Academy. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

Albuquerque police leadership and New Mexico lawmakers released a slate of proposed reforms they believe will reduce violent crime in the city and around the state. But local organizers say the proposals represent a series of steps backward.

Officials with the Albuquerque Metro Crime Initiative released on Sept. 21 a “crime-fighting agenda” of 40 separate proposals meant to “turn the tide on crime in the region.”

Mayor Tim Keller spoke at a news conference, announcing the efforts in the city’s Real Time Crime Center. “Our community is heartbroken. Our community is frustrated. Our community is angry,” he said. “Our community is fed up with violent crime.”

Some of the bills already expected to be introduced in the state’s House of Representatives in January were inspired by the Metro Crime Initiative, said Rep. Meredith Dixon, a Democrat from Albuquerque.

Lawmakers are considering:

  • Creating a new “pre-trial presumption of dangerousness” for defendants if they use, brandish or even possess a firearm in almost any crime
  • Harsher sentences for people convicted of prior felonies if they use a gun while committing a crime
  • Limiting high-capacity gun magazines
  • A gun-safe storage law.

APD Chief Harold Medina praised the work of House lawmakers.

“You can look at the Legislature that put out some recommendations already, you know, those are strong recommendations on crime and punishment,” Medina said. “So I’m happy to see that we’re willing to take that next step to ensure that we’re holding people accountable. Because it’s not popular to say, but people, sometimes, you know, the best place for them is incarcerated.”

The group is also recommending state lawmakers enhance criminal penalties and mandatory minimum sentences in cases where someone is caught with an unsecured weapon, for felons caught possessing guns and whenever someone uses a high-capacity magazine in committing a crime. They also want longer minimum sentences when a gun is used during a crime.

Selinda Guerrero, an organizer with Millions for Prisoners New Mexico, said she felt like she had traveled back in time to the 1990s while watching the news conference. The Initiative’s proposals reminded her of the 1994 Crime Bill.

“We’re going backwards to remake all the mistakes that have already been made in the last 25 years,” Guerrero said. “It’s this tough-on-crime rhetoric. It’s all about criminalization, and keeping people locked up as long as possible, even pre-trial. It’s this really, really dangerous path that they are traveling right now.”

Instead, she said, leaders should address the material conditions experienced by Burqeños and New Mexicans, which she sees as the actual causes of crime. She said in the same way a cough is a symptom of pneumonia, violence is a symptom of people in struggle.

“Violence is a symptom of people that are trying to exist — they’re merely trying to make it one more day,” Guerrero said. “Everybody in my inbox is looking for housing. People are still looking for food support. People still need transportation support. People still can’t find livable wages in employment here —especially at $2,000-a-month rent.” Many employers are still paying around $10 to $12 an hour, and the gap between wages and rent is growing, she said. “So the issues that are causing ‘crime’ is not any of the things that they’re talking about.”

Spending on the criminal legal system in New Mexico has risen 232% from $558 million in 1980 to $1.85 billion in 2016, according to DefundPolice.org.

Robert Nelson is a 2019 City Council candidate and member of the People’s Budget Coalition. For the last year, he’s been asking the Albuquerque City Council to defund the police department and instead use that money to pay for other services like housing. He said the officials’ agenda doesn’t pay much mind to living wages or bolstering systems that would provide healthy outcomes for people in his communities.

While Albuquerque spends nearly $223 million per year on police, it only spends about $7 million on affordable housing and $3.6 million for homeless support, according to city budget documents.

“We keep on telling ourselves this narrative that we need to crack down on crime, but we’re obviously spending a lot of money on it, and it’s not doing anything that we’re talking about,” Nelson said. “It’s not addressing any of the deeper root issues that are plaguing our state, like racism, like poverty.”

Every day, Guerrero said, organizers on the ground are helping families who are experiencing domestic violence, others who are in a mental health crisis, and still others who have been burglarized or have had harm done to them and do not receive any support from the government.

“And there’s a disconnect from this administration, from decision-makers in this state,” she said. 

This kind of rhetoric is going to be very dangerous for all of us.

– Selinda Guerrero, Millions For Prisoners New Mexico

She questioned the need for a state law establishing mandatory minimums for gun crimes when there are Albuquerque police working with federal officers, who can charge people with federal crimes that already carry mandatory minimums. She also pointed out that even some federal judges are starting to become critical of mandatory minimum sentencing. And the Department of Justice linked mandatory minimums to higher rates of recidivism in a report 10 years ago.

Local police might not see it that way. APD Chief Medina said when it comes to repeat offenders, the answer is sometimes more incarceration.

“We have to be tough, and we have to recognize that there are some people who need that nudge and we can’t be afraid to say that,” Medina said. “So yes, somebody who has an extensive history, and they’re not cleaning themselves up, need that nudge. And unfortunately, sometimes that nudge is sitting in jail.”

Under the initiative announced Tuesday, officials want to recruit more officers, expand coordination among police agencies and use “proven technologies” like ShotSpotter, which is intended to use sensors and algorithms to detect gunshots.

Guerrero said people on the ground in the city have been opposed to the ShotSpotter technology since it first came to New Mexico. A nonpartisan watchdog agency in Chicago harshly criticized ShotSpotter last month, saying it does not provide evidence of gun-related crime.

The officials launching the Metro Crime agenda are also recommending more state funding to hire police officers and continued warrant sweeps by New Mexico State Police in Albuquerque.

The surges of State Police officers were launched by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and announced by Mayor Keller in 2019 after a baseball player from the University of New Mexico was killed in Nob Hill. The state police officers were a visible presence primarily on the south side of town. They came back about a month ago.

There are cops on every block in Guerrero’s South Broadway neighborhood, she said. Police roll out their armored vehicles that look like little tanks, and with their full weaponry, she said, “and my kids walking to the basketball court at the community center, they have to see this.”

The officials behind the agenda are also recommending bonuses for “lateral hires,” or experienced police who come to Albuquerque from other departments. In the past, some of those officers were hired despite disciplinary actions at their previous departments and went on to be involved in police shootings.

Guerrero’s worried that these lateral hires could be more of the same.

“As we continue to recruit this way, there are people who don’t know us, don’t know the culture of New Mexico, don’t know the people,” she said. That’s why Albuquerque has one of the deadliest police forces in the country, she added, “and that’s what APD still represents.”

New Mexico consistently ranks among the states with the highest rate of police killings in the country, with APD accounting for roughly half of the deadly shootings here since 2015, according to the Washington Post.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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