Police Credit Improvement to More Officers, Better Coordination but Brace for Spike Amid Troubled Economy

The New Mexican

Santa Fe law-enforcement officials are bracing for crime spikes spurred by the dour economy, although hard evidence of such a trend has yet to surface.

Police credit recent improvements in the city department with helping to hold the line on local property crime but aren’t sure how long that will last.

“My own feeling is it’s going to happen,” Santa Fe County Undersheriff Robert Garcia said. “We’re probably going to see property-crime increases but also some violent crimes, like armed robberies.”

Burglaries, robberies and thefts generally increase during difficult economic times, Santa Fe Police Chief Eric Johnson said.

“(Property crime) is the one that worries me the most,” Johnson said, although he also warned of cybercrime scams and identity theft. “The reality is, if the economy continues to get worse, we’ll probably see more.”

The number of residential and commercial burglaries reported in Santa Fe last month was only slightly above totals for the previous two Januarys, Police Department statistics show.

A December survey of 223 of the nation’s larger police agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum found that 44 percent attributed spikes in crimes like robbery, burglary and theft in 2008 to the economic downturn, which began to hit hardest during the final six months of last year.

In Santa Fe, however, both property crime and violent crime data for 2008 showed a different picture when compared with the previous year.

Overall property crime in the city – including residential, commercial and auto burglary – was down by 29 percent in 2008, Santa Fe Police Department data show.

In Santa Fe County, the overall number of property crimes was exactly the same in 2008 as 2007, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

Meanwhile, violent crime in the city – including murder, rape, robbery and assault – dropped by 13 percent in 2008, while in the county, violent crime showed a 29 percent decrease.

The city – and, to a lesser extent, the county – had experienced a surge in residential burglaries in 2007. At the time, city police blamed a glut of vacancies in the department, an FBI-led investigation into the department and a departmental decision to first stop investigating narcotics crimes, then reorganize the entire drug-fighting strategy.

Most who work in law enforcement agree that illegal drugs and burglary are closely connected.

As the Police Department began correcting its problems last year – vacant positions are down to three from more than 20 in mid-2007 – the number of property crimes, specifically the residential burglary rate, began to fall.

The first six months of 2008 showed a 27 percent drop in residential burglaries over the same period a year before. The second half of 2008 echoed the first, notching a 33 percent decline in the residential burglary rate, according to the Police Department statistics. The period from July to December also showed a 48 percent drop in commercial burglaries and a 28 percent decrease in auto burglaries.

The overall number of burglaries in the city last year – 1,597 – was 29 percent less than the 2,244 recorded in 2007. Residential burglaries dropped 22 percent for the year, commercial burglaries fell 20 percent and auto burglaries dropped 26 percent.

Johnson credited the larger number of officers on the street, better coordination with other area law-enforcement agencies and solid work by city officers assigned to the Region III Narcotics Task Force, which has taken the lead in conducting drug-enforcement operations in the city.

City and county detectives recently broke up a burglary ring that allegedly stole $100,000 worth of cash and property from Santa Fe-area homes and businesses since the summer.

Last month’s 49 residential burglaries in the city was five more than recorded in January 2008 and one more than in January 2006. The number of commercial burglaries in the city last month – 27 – was four higher than in January 2008 and 17 higher than in January 2007.

The Police Executive Research Forum study also found that 63 percent of the surveyed agencies were planning to cut their budgets in the face of dwindling funds. But neither the city of Santa Fe nor Santa Fe County has asked its law-enforcement agencies to cut their budgets, although they are trying to save money where possible, Garcia and Johnson said.