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NM chief focuses on crime prevention, even as figures drop

Increase in population has Rio Rancho Police Chief Michael Geier worried about the amount of ground the department's 70 patrol officers can cover

By Patrick Lohmann
Albuquerque Journal

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — By most indicators, crime in Rio Rancho has been on the decline over the past several years, even as thousands of people each year move in and settle down inside the city limits.

But the increase in population has Rio Rancho Police Chief Michael Geier worried about the amount of ground the department's 70 patrol officers can cover, so he's working to focus the department's efforts on working smarter, not harder, and stopping would-be criminals before they have the chance to commit violent or property crimes.

"We want to reassure the public that there isn't a crime spree or a crime wave," Geier said in a recent interview. "It's hard to say to the public where (crime) is going to happen."

But Geier said examining crime data and keeping tabs on areas of petty crime can be a way to at least give officers a hint.

The department is hiring a crime analyst, he said, and intends to expand crisis intervention training to all of the department's 128 officers -- an effort he said could help in identifying and helping those with mental illnesses or substance issues that could potentially erupt in violent crime.

He also is a proponent of the so-called "broken window" theory, which advocates that police departments focus on lesser crimes to prevent more serious criminal conduct. Fixing a broken window or cleaning up gang-related graffiti, for example, can discourage criminal conduct, he said.

The crime-fighting philosophy is facing renewed criticism in New York City after a man suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes died after being placed in a chokehold by NYPD officers. Critics say it unfairly focuses police attention and patrols on impoverished and minority communities.

However, nearby Albuquerque is cited in at least one case study about the effectiveness of the "broken window" theory, after the department saw a reduction of 5 percent in overall crimes and larger reductions in traffic offenses after implementing the Safe Streets Program in 1997. That program ramped up traffic patrols and citations as part of a larger crime-reduction effort.

Geier said smarter policing is only one part of the equation to prevent the "revolving door" of people who repeatedly end up in front of a judge and behind bars. It also includes court diversion programs for people with substance abuse issues or non-violent offenders and it includes expanding resources to families dealing with mental illness.

Nationally, crime has trended downward since the early 1990s, a trend echoed in Rio Rancho since at least 2008. That's despite an increase in population that averaged around 2,000 people a year between 2008 and 2012, according to FBI Uniform Crime Statistics.

For example, there were 233 violent crimes committed in the city in 2008 and 202 in 2012. Also, property crimes decreased from 2,028 in 2008 to 1,904 in 2012, as did burglaries, down from 393 in 2008 to 364 in 2012.

In the same time frame, the city grew from around 79,000 people to around 89,000 people. The FBI has not yet compiled Rio Rancho's 2013 crime data.

But the decrease doesn't mean Geier is not expecting an increase in crime as a result of increasing population. That means the department is focusing on crime prevention to make the best of available resources. "Obviously, as the city grows, we'll need more officers," he said. "... But we want to reassure the public that we can be proactive."

Copyright 2014 the Albuquerque Journal

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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