House Democrats from Albuquerque, facing serious pressure from constituents to address the crime rate in one of America’s most violent cities, say they have a plan to get the job done.
A cadre of 18 Democrats on Thursday signed onto a proposal they plan to turn into legislation early next year, hoping to battle a seemingly chronic wave of violence in New Mexico’s largest city.
Their initiative would provide recruitment and retention money and policies for police officers, grow the state’s behavioral health workforce, and increase penalties for second-degree murder charges.
But it’s likely the package won’t be heard until January’s legislative session, despite Republicans’ calls for a more immediate special session to deal with crime.
Though he cautioned “nothing is off the table,” Tripp Stelnicki, spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the governor has no plans to call a special session on crime this year. The Legislature will meet in special session in the fall to deal with redistricting.
“The 30-day session is only a few short months away and we’re using the time between now and then to identify which proposals have legs and will make a difference, rather than those that are just talking points and empty demands,” Stelnicki said.
He added the governor, who sent nearly three-dozen state police officers to Albuquerque last month to help fight crime, is “enthusiastic” about putting together comprehensive legislation on the topic in January.
Among other initiatives, the governor in August said she plans to call for a $100 million investment to hire 1,000 new police officers in the next few years. She also has said she’d like pretrial detention policies changed to make it tougher for defendants charged with violent crimes to be released before trial.
While New Mexico often has been ranked near or at the bottom of national studies on crime, Albuquerque is generally seen as the hub of violence in the state.
Last year, CBS News rated the city ninth among the top 50 most violent cities in the country. There have been 86 victims of homicide this year in Albuquerque.
Though the Albuquerque Police Department just reported a decrease in property crime and auto theft over the past year, two high-profile crimes in mid-August — the shooting of four city police officers during a robbery and the shooting death of a student at a downtown middle school — led to renewed cries to stop the violence.
“That’s when it captured everyone’s attention; that’s when I started getting calls,” said Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, and one of the 18 lawmakers proposing the crime-fighting package.
Ely said his constituents “absolutely” have been asking for him to do something.
Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said momentum has been building among lawmakers as well.
“We’re part of the community that feels the sorrow and pain our constituents do,” he said.
While it’s nothing new for lawmakers to pitch prospective bills a month or two before legislative sessions, it’s rare for a group to band together more than four months in advance for such a cause.
Maestas said lawmakers want to get the governor’s attention so she and her staff can start looking at the proposal and “make decisions on where we are going.”
Rep. Meredith Dixon, D-Albuquerque and like Maestas one of the 18 who joined the proposal, said there’s little question crime is the key concern in her southeast Albuquerque district.
She said earlier this year she took part in a ride-along with Albuquerque police offices during which she heard “morale is down and they need support with recruitment and retention.”
The proposal comes just days after the state reported an expected $1.4 billion windfall in expected revenue. Maestas said it’s time for lawmakers to start pricing out the proposals.
Asked if crime is going to be an issue for lawmakers to contend with in next year’s general election — when all 70 seats in the House are up for grabs — Maestas said, “Sadly, the rhetoric of last few months has made it a political issue, and I’m sure next fall it will become a political issue again.”
Ely, who is not running for reelection, said: “I think crime will be the first or second issue on everybody’s plate, depending on how COVID goes.” He added it’s too early to say whether that issue could “make or break” one party or the other in that election.
Dixon said she hopes crime doesn’t become a political or “wedge” issue in 2022 election cycle.
But it’s unlikely House Republicans, who have pushed for a number of “tough-on-crime” bills over the years, will not use the issue as leverage. Democrats hold a commanding 45-24 advantage over the GOP, with one independent in the mix.
On Thursday, House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, sent out an email responding to the Albuquerque Democrats’ proposal.
In it, he wrote: “We hope they are as serious about addressing crime as they have been about coddling criminals throughout our communities. We also hope they start to give law enforcement the credit and respect they deserve. The disregard Democrat legislators have for our officers is simply not conducive to turning things around.”