- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 8, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Growing crime rates in New Mexico’s largest city are taking center stage in Albuquerque’s mayoral race as candidates filed their declarations to run for the top leadership spot Tuesday.

After filing his paperwork, State Auditor Tim Keller stood on the steps outside the city clerk’s office and rolled out his plan for tackling the rash of shootings, vehicles thefts, break-ins and other violence that has plagued the beleaguered police force for some time now.

Keller, a former state senator, wants new leadership in the police department and to develop a career path so more people will be interested in becoming officers. He’s also proposing a drug treatment center and other programs to address homelessness, poverty and substance abuse issues that often dovetail with crime.

“It’s the No. 1 issue facing Albuquerque right now and it’s unfortunate, but crime is absolutely out of control,” said Keller, a Democrat. “We need to deal with these problems head on.”

The city developed a plan last year to combat the growing crime problem and created a team of civilians to help officers with investigations into burglaries, robberies and thefts.

Just last month, current Mayor Richard Berry and Police Chief Gorden Eden rolled out a specific plan for addressing crime and safety concerns downtown after more than a dozen businesses, nonprofit groups and neighborhood associations complained.

“Our businesses are being negatively impacted by the increase in criminal activity that we see and experience everyday, and the situation has simply become intolerable for many of our business owners,” they stated in a letter.

Police spokeswoman Celina Espinoza said Tuesday that efforts over the last month are paying off. More than 300 business checks have been done, officers have made contact with more than 1,500 people and hundreds of verbal warnings have been issued.

Nearly three dozen people have been arrested on felony charges and another 19 for misdemeanors as part of the downtown operation, she said.

Officers have been busy in other parts of Albuquerque as well. On Monday night, police warned residents to steer clear of a busy intersection as they searched for suspects involved in a gunfight at a daycare center parking lot. Police say one bystander is recovering from a gunshot wound and a child was injured by flying glass.

The city along with neighboring counties also tops the list nationally when it comes to per-capita auto thefts. A recent report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau shows more than 27 vehicles a day were reported stolen in the metro area in 2016. That’s a 50 percent increase over the previous year.

The efforts to curb crime come as the police department faces a critical staffing shortage, something the police union blames for the increase in the negative statistics. Union president Shaun Willoughby has said repeatedly that resources are slim and there’s little fear of apprehension among criminals.

Albuquerque has about 860 officers but is authorized for 1,000. Keller said he believes it would be possible to hire another 200 officers in two years if the city adopts the police academy standards currently used by the state and boosts morale through promotion opportunities and other incentives.

He also suggested that the city can find ways to speed up reforms within the police department that were mandated by the U.S. Justice Department after the federal agency hammered the department over its use of excessive force.

Keller said the money the city spends on DOJ oversight could instead be used to hire more officers.

Several candidates have jumped into the race, including City Councilor Dan Lewis, Bernalillo County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, former state Democratic Party leader Brian Colon, businessman Ricardo Chavez and retired police detective Michelle Garcia Holmes.

If no candidate gets at least 50 percent of the vote Oct. 3, the top two vote-getters will face off in a November runoff election.

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