An off-duty Doña Ana County sheriff happening upon a crash and finding herself staring down a loaded shotgun. The Bernalillo County sheriff growing emotional as he relived watching Officer Daniel Webster die from a gunshot wound. The 4th Judicial District Attorney seeing family members — one by one — cut down by fentanyl overdoses in northern New Mexico.
Those were some of the stories shared Tuesday afternoon as law enforcement and prosecutors from across New Mexico gathered to talk for four hours about solutions and obstacles to fighting crime.
“This is intended to be an unfiltered view of the perspectives of frontline law enforcement professionals. But that does not mean that the answers and the solutions that you will hear discussed today are the only answers to these problems, and I think everyone here can agree with that,” Attorney General Raúl Torrez said at the beginning of the crime summit inside the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.
“What I really want everyone to understand is that just because we are listening to police officers, and the things that they contend with day in and day out, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also consider other ideas, other investments, other solutions and approaches.”
The gathering was held weeks after 11-year-old Froylan Villegas was killed in a mistaken-identity shooting outside Isotopes Park — a crime which spurred Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to declare gun violence a public health emergency and call for a short-lived ban on publicly carrying guns in Bernalillo County, among other measures.
While high-profile shootings of children in Bernalillo County — and elsewhere — have recently captured headlines, both violent and property crime are trending down, according to statistics provided by Albuquerque police. Property crime, in particular, has decreased greatly from 2017 — when the city hit record high rates in each category.
Statistics released so far in 2023, according to Albuquerque police, show aggravated and simple assault offenses are up 8% while property crime dropped across the board. But gun violence, both homicides and nonfatal shootings, have decreased by 21% and 10%, respectively, since 2022, according to the data.
During the summit on Tuesday, sheriffs and police chiefs, prosecutors and district attorneys suggested solutions to addressing crime in the state: harsher juvenile punishment and more youth programs to keep them out of trouble, stiffer sentences for those found armed in a drug crime, and more drug treatment to help those in need.
Torrez’s solution to fighting crime in New Mexico: make the state court work like the federal one does, with high conviction rates and harsh penalties.
The discussion also yielded many obstacles to fighting crime, including few resources and high vacancy rates for both law enforcement and prosecutors — particularly in rural areas — amidst a climate of heavy criticism and low morale for officers and deputies.
Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe was one of several law enforcement leaders to say hiring officers doesn’t have to do with money, that poor public perception is keeping people away from the job.
Hebbe — whose officers fatally shot a man after responding to the wrong house earlier this year and, months later, were injured in an active shooter situation — said he only heard scrutiny after the first incident and nothing but crickets after the second.
“I don’t need the money. … What I need is us to change the metric and the way we talk about our law enforcement, that we are not constantly the bad guys, that we are not constantly in need of greater reform, of greater training, of greater anything, that sometimes what we have is just great people doing a fantastic job and keeping people safe. And we don’t say it enough,” Hebbe said.
Sam Bregman, 2nd Judicial District Attorney, said he is doing better than others resource-wise, having hired 40 prosecutors since becoming DA and thinking he would have 20 more in the coming months.
Bregman, a former defense attorney who often represented law enforcement, said being an officer or deputy is the “hardest job in this country” and that law enforcement in Bernalillo County is working together better than ever.
Bregman was one of the few positive voices in the room throughout the afternoon. He discouraged criticizing judges and pledged to do his best to fight crime despite any challenges and Legislature outcomes, which he did not think would change much.
“I really believe there is a complete concentrated effort to do something about this crime problem, big problem, that we have in Albuquerque, and it’s a big ship, if you will, and it’s gonna take some time to turn it,” he said. “But I think we are having a big effect on that, and if we keep grinding it out, I think we will have some positive results.”
Bregman pointed out that they have had some success in the Legislature with a newly passed organized retail crime bill, under which he said he has already charged 50 people. The next step, he said, is a bill enhancing penalties for using a gun to drug-traffic and holding teens accountable in shootings.
“Every parent in this room knows, if you tell them, you’re going to do something, you don’t do it, what happens? They do it again,” he said. “… So when we tell them there’s going to be consequences as a juvenile for stealing a car. … And we don’t have even a recommendation of any consequence other than probation … our young people are gonna learn that there are no consequences.”
At times, the summit turned into a pile-on of those gathered saying that judges, both Democrats and Republicans, let repeat offenders out of jail and lawmakers in Santa Fe refuse to pass bills to help fight crime but, instead, have abolished the death penalty and qualified immunity.
“We’ve seen Santa Fe, quite frankly, be not caring towards law enforcement,” Rick Tedrow, the 11th Judicial District Attorney, said.
He later added, “How do we get around that? Well, for 14 years, I’ve been trying to figure it out, sometimes we get there, sometimes we don’t. We’ve tried everything from sugar and spice to vinegar and oil.”
He said the Legislature’s refusal to pass crime bills has exacerbated “a downward spiral” in places like Albuquerque, where he doesn’t go to restaurants for fear of his truck being stolen and where homeless people are camped out in areas where you wouldn’t have seen them 20 years ago.
At the close of the gathering, Torrez pushed for collaboration over divisiveness.
“We have fallen into this trap in this country, and we’re doing it in this community, where we pick the biggest lightning rod that divides people, and they retreat to their corners,” Torrez said. “And that conversation becomes so charged, that we’re not able to come back and find some common ground and some common sense.”