Getting tough on crime. It’s an election promise not unlike a city councilor running on a platform of whipping inflation. Both promises are hollow. One promises to do something that no one person can do. The other implies results that most likely will never materialize.
In the 1940s and early 1950s inflation in the United States could get as high as eight or nine percent. Everyone from the dog catcher to the mayor promised to “whip it.” But inflation is a complex systemic problem that no one person can fix. Albuquerque has had a crime ”epidemic” since at least the l960s when I was police reporter for Albuquerque Tribune. To my recollection, crime has been on a steady if bumpy rise in the Duke City ever since. And why is that? Because crime is a complex systemic problem not solvable by merely beefing up the police department.
Sometimes Albuquerque has had among the worst property crime and violent crime rates in the nation, as we have had in the last few years, according to various sources. Over the last 55 years, we’ve always been painfully high up the charts in lawlessness.
Consistent campaign rhetoric over those decades has touted the virtues of raising the number of cops on the streets, getting better educated recruits, training them to respond to trouble with sophistication and nuance, reorganizing this or that department, getting officers back on the beat in neighborhoods, or focusing on crime as the “number one priority” – all admirable and occasionally effective ideas that unhappily haven’t changed the upward trajectory of crime in our city.
Nothing really has had much effect because crime is largely a social problem, and often also a psychological one, not basically a police problem. The duty of the police is to solve specific crimes and help victims when possible. Crime prevention tactics — including raising public awareness of what can and cannot be done to keep safe — help for sure. But policing is basically reactive, though community police work has major advantages over just increasing the raw numbers of officers on duty. For one thing, an alert and savvy neighborhood has an edge in keeping thieves away.
The systemic social issues are basic, tangled and seemingly intractable. A city like ours can make a dent in them, but we can’t solve them outright because cities are caught in a fabric of national cause and effect. In a nation of 323 million people, some 65 million, or some 20 percent of the population, have a criminal record, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project. This to me is an incredible indictment of the American economy laced with and stunted at every turn by institutional racism. Any positive step we make is productive in some way. And we mustn’t stop trying. We just have to make sure we are doing the right things.
Poverty and joblessness; drugs, principally meth these days; a countless number of guns with almost no control over them; and what has to be an organized system of fencing stolen goods — these are the four most obvious points of entry into crime’s systemic reality here. The secret to actually lowering the crime rate is to make progress in solving those basic four issues.
Joblessness is a debilitating personal tragedy that becomes the source of psychological instability, self-medicated with drugs and liquor, that has thousands of New Mexicans in its grip. Crime more often than not arises out of desperation and deep cynicism about the future. How does one even begin make progress here?
Real crime prevention is more about job training and public works than it is about beefing up the police force. While recidivism rates in New Mexico are nearly 45 percent (NM Legislative Finance Committee PDF) for incarcerated offenders these days, in WWI and WWII in New Mexico only 2 to 3 percent of people who went to jail returned. Why? Because prisons became vocational training schools. And when a prisoner was released a job (and salary) was waiting for him. After both wars were over, conservative politicians ended vocational training and job placement programs, charging that prisoners were being coddled not punished. That mindset still prevails. But of course enough public service and infrastructure needs exist in Albuquerque to keep virtually the entire potential workforce employed, out of jail, and doing us all some good.
One sure way to “prevent” crime is for New Mexicans to tax themselves sufficiently to provide job training and supervised job placement at the dozens of New Mexico businesses that would hire workers convicted of felonies if the risk of financial harm was lowered by a state system of supervision. (See jobsforfelonshub.com for a list of those businesses.) More men and women, and working age young people, with decent jobs means less crime on the streets. I think it’s undeniable.
Meth is the drug of soldiers. In his book “Blitzed,” Norman Ohler explains how Nazi troops blitzed the French on no sleep and with ruthless ferocity by being doped up with methamphetamines. Drugs and Albuquerque are almost synonymous. We have been a crossroads for drug trafficking since the interstate highway system was completed. In the ’60s, police here showed me how easy it was for them to spot, with the help I presumed of informers, cars hauling drugs. The one I saw had a trunk full of pills, heroin, cocaine, and pot. I was told at least ten vehicles like that went through the city each day. It has to be much more now.
Helping to prevent crime involves not only training people and finding good work for them to do, honest labor that will help ameliorate the despair and frustration that leads to drug use, but also focusing a massive investigative effort to start breaking up the drug hub of the Duke City. Less drugs, more jobs equals less crime.
Gun violence is an endemic problem in Albuquerque, and in every other city in the country. In the l960s, night managers of hotels and fast food stores were subjected to an “epidemic” of armed robberies and kidnappings. Two decades ago, a refugee from Vietnam was having a sandwich in his car when a felon with a gun he was not supposed to have, and was sold without a background check, fired a round into the air to scare the shop keeper. The stray bullet found its way into the refugee’s car parked a quarter of a mile away and went in through the floorboard, then in under his chin and out his head, killing him instantly. Guns are a perpetual plague in our society. How many times have you heard of a gun preventing a crime? Compared to a gun being used in a crime, guns almost never stop bad guys from doing harm.
Mayoral candidate Tim Keller is right to emphasize requiring background checks on all firearm purchases and to “conduct a comprehensive review of gun seller licenses within city limits to ensure all are up-to-date,” to quote his campaign. It’s a small dent in the problem, but better than nothing. And it could have prevented the death of a Vietnamese boat person who survived untold horrors only to end up in a parking lot in Albuquerque shot to death by accident while eating his lunch.
When it comes to property crime, Albuquerque has a staggeringly awful record. A website called areavibes.com gives Albuquerque an F rating for crime, citing 34,000 incidents of property crime alone last year. The Albuquerque Journal estimates that 27 cars are stolen here each day, which amounts to almost 10,000 cars annually.
What happens to all that loot? How do you get rid of 10,000 cars with almost no one finding out? A highly sophisticated system of stolen property fencing has been in place in our city for decades. TVs, stereos, smartphones, computers, guns, where do they go? They are fenced. The system must be huge and it seems invisible. But it has to be there. And yet how many times have you read or heard of a major fencing operation being broken up, or stolen property actually being returned? Almost never. It’s not a media issue. Crime solving is every bit as newsworthy as a gory accident. Crime organizations are making millions hand over fist selling stolen goods. It must be one of Albuquerque’s larger “industries.” A good strategy for serious “crime prevention” would be to create police task forces to focus on nothing but fences and making it as difficult as possible to profit from all forms of theft.
Nothing’s going to “end crime,” or “prevent it” entirely, or come even close. We could get 2,000 more cops on the street and still be looking over shoulders when we leave a parking lot to see if anyone’s jimmying the doors on our cars.
Making a commitment to ameliorating the roots of crime will be expensive and require more patience and stick-to-itiveness than most election cycles can support. But it’s really the only way to go, if you’re truly more serious about preventing crime than merely getting elected.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Photo by Nicolas Henderson)