Dozens of friends and family gather in the Civic Plaza in downtown Albuquerque for National Memorial Day for Murder Victims. (Roberto E. Rosales / )
Copyright © 2021
Albuquerque City Councils Election Day is less than a month away, and crime is once again the focus of the campaign.
As candidates point fingers at each other and debate crime-fighting strategies, here’s an in-depth look at some of the top public safety issues that are emerging.
What can a mayor do to reduce homicides and other crime?
A mayor can influence crime through control of the police leadership and community engagement. But not much else, says Dennis Kenney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Kenney said that a mayor’s crime-fighting skills are limited, and that any impact is slow and indirect. But mayors can have “quite a powerful impact” in rallying the community behind law enforcement, he said, calling community-government cooperation the “only major factor” in police effectiveness.
At the departmental level, the mayor is exerting “great” leverage in electing a chief of police, but also taking “immediate” corrective action to remove ineffective leadership, Kenney said.
Former Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca said violent crime is not something a mayor has case-by-case control.
“In principle, no mayor can stop one person from killing another,” he said, adding that a mayor can push for laws aimed at reducing contributors like gun violence and promoting initiatives like community police.
And he stressed that the mayor’s job is not for the faint of heart as criticism comes with the territory.
“Any time someone is a victim of any type of crime, they will blame the political leadership,” said Baca.
Former Mayor Richard Berry said his strongest tactic as mayor was to use his “bullying pulpit” with the legislature to advocate crime-fighting laws and partner with other agencies. Although Berry said he was fortunate enough to have a team that delivered the “lowest crime rates” in the city’s modern history, he left with an approval rating of only 34%, partly due to a rise in crime towards the end due to his tenure was final term. He said he wished he could have overcome the “cascade of disruptions” in the criminal justice system, including the bail reform and postponement of court dates, that the city and state feel to this day.
Are Undocumented Immigrants Engaging in Crime?
There is no evidence of this. In fact, there are studies to suggest that undocumented immigrants are less likely than U.S. citizens and legal immigrants to commit crimes.
Local statistics were not available, but a statistical study in Texas – which has the second largest immigrant population after California – provides some clues. Texas is the only state that records criminal convictions and arrests by immigrant status.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, found that US-born people are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, drug-related crimes, and over 4 times more likely to be arrested for property crimes.
The study also found that the crime rate among legal and undocumented immigrants remained largely stable as the crime rate among US-born citizens rose from 2012 to 2018.
Christopher Herrmann, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said the study was broader than the one he had seen in previous years and that it took into account the “tripling” of the undocumented immigrant population. However, he said there were limitations, including the fact that it only covered Texas and a certain period of time, in addition to knowing that “only half of violent crimes are reported”.
“You really wonder where the other side of the aisle got their tale of this strong link between illegal immigration and crime?” He said, adding that labeling illegal immigrants as criminals, murderers and rapists discredits their claims.
Herrmann said that many people “pick” a small number of cases highlighted in the news cycles in order to “demonize” the entire population.
A high profile local case that has garnered media attention is the 2019 shooting of Jacqueline Vigil, mother of two state police officers. She was killed outside her home while going to the gym. Documents show the suspect was from Mexico and had illegally entered the United States several times prior to the shooting.
Herrmann said that for most people who come to the US illegally, the “No. 1 job “is not to be deported, so they tend to” stay off the police radar “.
“For any good study that shows illegal immigrants are not involved in the crime process … you will have these cases of celebrities drilling holes in your history,” he said.
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Another study published in October 2020 that looked at the impact of Sanctuary City’s policies on crime rates found that those policies cut in half the deportation of people convicted of nothing. However, it has “no continuous impact on the deportation of people with violent convictions”.
“In addition, protective measures had no effect on crime rates or clearance rates (the rates at which the police arrest people for reported crimes),” according to the study, which was carried out by researchers at Stanford University.
Are the officers’ hands tied when it comes to arresting people for offenses?
Under Albuquerque Police Department guidelines, officers are not prohibited from arresting people for nonviolent offenses, such as:
But they are supposed to issue quotes instead, and if they find they need to arrest the person, explain why. This does not apply to DWI fees.
“Whether or not the person has a permanent address may not be the only factor in deciding whether to arrest the person rather than issuing a subpoena,” the policy says.
This policy is the result of a federal court order from a 2017 settlement agreement with the city in the McClendon lawsuit. The McClendon lawsuit was filed in 1995 to address conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center that lawyers alleged violated inmates’ constitutional rights.
In 2016, lawyers for the McClendon plaintiffs alleged that the police “inappropriately detained people with disabilities and booked them into the local prison where the conditions were cruel and unusual”.
They alleged the city violated federal law by putting them in jail if they needed to be hospitalized and not making reasonable changes to city policy to prevent discrimination.
“The allegation was that the city was sweeping up the homeless, people with mental illnesses who do not have an address, and arresting them,” said Ryan Villa, one of the lawyers who represented detainees in the McClendon lawsuit. “If we, if it were you and I, we would get a quote.”
He said he and his lawyers could bring the city back to court for violating the order and citizens’ constitutional rights if police officers begin arresting the homeless and the mentally ill for felony crimes. It is an issue that they continue to monitor.
“If every single person who has committed a misdemeanor and a non-violent crime is arrested, then it may not be a violation of the constitution,” Villa said. “On the other hand, if they target certain people because they are homeless or because of the neighborhood they live in or because of their race, it could be a violation of the constitution.”
Can the city unilaterally withdraw from the court-approved settlement agreement?
In three words: “not too easy”.
Kenney, the professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said a city cannot simply move away from a settlement agreement once it is signed.
“You have a binding contract to do certain things,” Kenney said. “And if you don’t, you have a problem with the Justice Department or the court.”
Kenney said that when the Justice Department opens an investigation, it will not only look for poor policing, but will also investigate whether the authorities practice discrimination in their policing and whether they are biased against certain groups. If the investigators discover – as in Albuquerque in 2014 – that an authority violates the constitutional rights of citizens through excessive use of force, the city and the DOJ negotiate a settlement agreement in which the reform steps are determined.
The typical timeline for reform is six to ten years, Kenney said, because it will take time to change hiring practices, replace problem officials, and put in place better early warning systems, discipline and internal investigative practices.
“The real goal of a consent decree isn’t just to change a few guidelines,” he said. “It’s about changing the corporate culture, and the culture is slowly changing.”
What if, after almost seven years, the city just wants to say: “We don’t do this anymore”?
“The DOJ would have an opportunity at this point to file a civil lawsuit in federal court and obtain a court-ordered provision,” said Kenney.