ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – While statistics clearly show an increase in homicides in Albuquerque in 2021, understanding what caused the rise is hard to decipher. But in an effort to do just that, KRQE News 13 spoke with Christopher Lyons, a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico. He teaches courses such as “Sociology of Deviance” and has spent more than a decade studying the connections between crime, race, and economics.

“There are some debates in criminology about trying to understand what is behind this latest increase in homicide,” Lyons says. One theory is that the pandemic altered our “routine activities” — and therefore has affected crime, he says.

Stuck at home and changes in routine, a factor of violence

According to one broadly researched theory, crime is “a function of day to day interactions — the conflict between motivated offender, suitable targets, and lack of surveillance,” Lyons says. “So that probably explains why [this year] there were fewer burglaries and fewer larcenies and so forth because we were mostly in our homes.” But being at home could increase domestic disputes that lead to violence, according to the theory.

In fact, the first reported homicide of the year seems to have been connected to a domestic dispute. The criminal complaint filed in January alleges that Nathaniel Natonabah, accused of killing his girlfriend, “had been involved in multiple domestic violence incidences over the years.”

Protests and de-policing, potential crime problems

Another theory to explain the increase in violent crime, Lyons says, is “de-policing.” It’s the idea that police have recently been less vigorous in their routine police work because of social pressure.

“Obviously we don’t have just a pandemic,” Lyons explains. “We also have widespread concerns around policing and protests and so forth. And those have been happening for a long time, probably reaching a fever pitch in 2020.”

In August of 2020, protesters went as far as calling for the abolition of Albuquerque’s police department following several police shootings. “We had protests against the police and we had defunding movements nationwide,” Albuquerque Police Department Chief Harold Medina told KRQE News 13 in a recent interview on the New Mexico News Podcast. “And it affects our officers every day.”

Shaun Willoughby, the president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, claims that many locals do support the police. “I think that the vast majority of citizens in this community are overwhelmingly supportive of their police department,” Willoughby told KRQE News 13 back in September. But, the association’s most recent annual survey reveals that many Albuquerque Police Department (APD) officers have considered leaving APD.

Of the 421 officers surveyed by the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, about 85% said they have considered a new line of work. They cite a range of reasons why, including low pay, restrictive policies, and low support for officers.

“I used to love coming to work. Now I find myself doing as little as possible to avoid getting into a situation where my video may be reviewed and searched thoroughly for any POSSIBLE mistake or infraction,” one officer wrote in response to the survey.

Another officer wrote that “feeling supported enough to do my job without fear of being disciplined for minuscule things” would make them want to stay at the department. Some officers, however, wrote the department is “just too far gone.”

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The APOA Annual Survey asked members how likely they were to recommend policing as a career choice. Here are a few of their responses. Data from APOA.

Part of the issue, according to Willoughby, is the settlement agreement between APD and the US Department of Justice, outlining extensive reforms to the department. The settlement began in 2014 and was intended to “ensure police integrity, protect officer safety, and prevent the use of excessive force, including unreasonable use of deadly force,” according to the agreement. Willoughby has repeatedly pointed to the reform effort as a reason why crime is up and police morale is down in Albuquerque.

“We’ve done some actual significant research and polling,” Willoughby says. “We’ve asked the question: ‘What is more important to you? Crime? or Reform?'” And the majority of the city says crime is more important, Willoughby claims. KRQE News 13 has reached out to the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association multiple times but has not been able to examine the survey to verify the claim that most residents think fighting crime is more important than police reform.

Regardless, Lyons from the University of New Mexico says residents shouldn’t have to choose between crime and police reform. “It’s not a zero-sum game here,” he says. Reform can result in more trust between officers and the community, he explains, and that in turn, can decrease crime.