ABQ can’t blame pandemic for crime


Monday, May 17th, 2021 at 12:02am

The pandemic year was also the murder year.

This past March, the FBI reported a 25% increase in the national homicide rate, with the caveat that several major law enforcement agencies had yet to file their quarterly reports.

While some agencies may have had legitimate excuses for non-filing, I think it’s a reasonable generalization that government agencies are more likely to bury bad news than good.

One of the late-filing agencies, the Journal revealed in April, was the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department.

An Albuquerque Police investigator searches for evidence following a homicide on Albuquerque’s West Side in late April. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

In some cities, the crime jump was even more extreme than 25%. A research letter in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, reported that before the pandemic, an average of 24.9 people were shot every week in Philadelphia. That’s already awful. But from March to November, the figure nearly doubled to 46.4.

Right through the end of last year, Albuquerque seemed an exception to the crime surge. The Albuquerque Police Department recorded 76 non-negligent homicides in 2020, which was actually down from 80 in 2019.

But what a difference the turning of the year made! From January through April, Albuquerque racked up 41 homicides. If we maintain this pace, we’re going to top last year’s total before the end of August.

Albuquerque’s murder toll is even more startling when placed in international context.

Criminologists usually calculate a country’s homicide rate as the number of killings per 100,000 population per year. Prior to the pandemic, many developed countries had homicide rates of less than one, according to data collected by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Countries in the low-murder club included Japan, Norway, Netherlands, China, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Poland, Italy, South Korea, Greece, Ireland, Australia, Denmark and New Zealand.

The homicide rates in France, Germany, Great Britain and Canada were between 1 and 1.7. In the United States, using FBI figures, the 2019 rate was five – already several times higher than any of our peer countries.

But then we turn to poor old Albuquerque. If we continue at the present rate, our homicide rate for 2021 will be 21.6. Even in the comparatively good year of 2020, we killed each other at the annual rate of 13.3 per 100,000.

By international standards, we still live in the Wild West.

Criminologists of the future will build whole careers out of studying the great American crime surge of 2020. What accounts for it? The obvious explanation, the stress of the pandemic, is no explanation at all, since the same stress was felt by everyone.

Poverty, New Mexico’s go-to excuse for crime, suffers from the same lack of predictive power. Many people are poor, very few are dangerous. By themselves, widely-shared stressors can’t explain why some tiny percentage of the affected turn violent.

Moreover, preliminary data from Europe shows no corresponding sudden jump in violence over there, although the pandemic surely caused as much stress on the other side of the Atlantic. Great Britain actually saw a drop in violence reported to the police during the first six months of the pandemic, according to a study in Crime Science.

The virus has many devastating effects on the human organism. But causing otherwise-peaceful people to become violent isn’t one of them.

Albuquerque business owners don’t need to be reminded that the costs of crime are paid in many ways, a hidden cost of doing business here. There are direct losses from theft and vandalism. For some, there’s also physical suffering, grief or PTSD.

For all, there’s increased insurance premiums and the expense of security measures.

Then, too, there’s the loss of tourist dollars. A pretty persuasive argument in favor of vacationing anywhere but Albuquerque can be found in CBS News’ list of “The most dangerous cities in America, ranked.” (We’re number nine.)

Recently we received the welcome news that Intel is re-committing to the metro area. But how many start-ups and expansions go instead to southwestern cities where the cost of crime is less burdensome?

In February, the Journal’s D’Val Westphal wrote about home surveillance video showing a “well-oiled machine of nonchalant thieves” hitting her neighborhood – and APD’s complete lack of interest in the evidence.

Young people, choosing where in the Southwest to start their careers, don’t have to accept nighttime visits by driveway thieves as one of life’s inevitabilities, like death and taxes. Many don’t. Census figures show that New Mexico’s population is rapidly aging while the states around us deal with floods of young newcomers.

The greatest difficulty in talking about crime in Albuquerque is that everybody already knows what to think. The political discourse has hardly changed since 1968. The next few columns will see if it’s possible to say anything new.

Joel Jacobsen is an author who in 2015 retired from a 29-year legal career. If there are topics you would like to see covered in future columns, please write him at legal.column.tips@gmail.com.