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Las Cruces has seen an increase in violent crime this year, including five homicides in the month of June alone, Police Chief Patrick Gallagher told the city council at its Monday, July 22 work session.
The chief said there have also been an increase in robberies, rapes and aggravated assaults in the city in 2019. He said the increases were due partly to more accuracy in reporting crimes and because violent crime showed a historic decrease in 2018.
Gallagher said all six 2019 homicides had a “narcotics nexus” and said many felony crimes in the city are drug-related and often committed by criminals with high rates of recidivism. As an example, he said a man arrested for firing seven shots at a Las Cruces police officer in June (one fragmented bullet struck him in the throat) had a long series of arrests for violent crime dating back to 2003 and had spent nine years in prison. Repeat offenders are “one of our problems in Las Cruces and in New Mexico in general,” Gallagher said. He said the police department is working hard to “identify specific criminals in Las Cruces who are prone to commit crime,” and is working with the district attorney “when those people are rearrested to vigorously prosecute them.” Five people have been arrested 125 times in the past 15 years, mostly for narcotics, weapons and other violent crime.
Gallagher said 11 more people have been shot in Las Cruces this year as compared to last year, but those numbers are due to an increase in accidental shootings (seven) and suicides (four).
Gallagher said the city has also seen an increase in road rage incidents, but the number of shots-fired calls that police officers have responded to is about the same this year as last year: 231 in 2018 vs. 239 this year.
Gallagher was joined at the meeting by Doña Ana County Sheriff Kim Stewart, Chief Deputy District Attorney Gerald Buyers, Las Cruces Fire Chief Eric Enriquez and many police officers and firefighters. The city council had requested that the police and fire departments “coordinate a community discussion regarding public safety in Las Cruces” and focused specifically on criminal activity and mental health issues.
Mayor Ken Miyagishima asked Gallagher and Enriquez and others in law enforcement to “share with us your vision, what you think is happening. I just want to sincerely thank each and everyone of you, our first responders … for all the hard work you guys do … day in and day out. It’s a dangerous profession. We’re so fortunate to have you here protecting our city 24-7-365.”
“One of the other reasons we believe violence has increased in Las Cruces is the increased supply of narcotics that have come into the city and the price of narcotics on the street has dropped drastically,” Gallagher said. When the price goes down, he said, more people begin selling drugs and are more prone to violence than so-called professional drug dealers.
Because border check points are closed, there has been a drastic decrease in drug seizures by the U.S. Border Patrol, Gallagher said. The Las Cruces/Doña Ana County Metro Narcotics Agency has seen a 76 percent decrease in the seizure of cocaine, he said, but a 166 percent increase in the seizure of heroin, a 60 percent increase in the seizure of methamphetamines and a 360 percent increase in the seizure of fentanyl, which is an opioid in pill form.
Metro Narcotics, the chief said, “is working on a major large-scale investigation since the beginning of the year that should be concluding soon and should have positive results as far as the narcotics trade in the city of Las Cruces.”
Gallagher said the city’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program “recognizes addiction as a health issue rather than just a criminal issue.” He said the program began in Seattle in 2009 and he brought it to Santa Fe when he was police chief there in 2014. “It saves money, it reduces recidivism and it shows promise,” Gallagher said. “It is a crime reduction program as well as a social program.”
The Las Cruces Fire Department, the local ambulance service and related agencies receive about 2,000 mental-health-related calls a year, Enriquez said. LCFD’s Mobile Integrated Health (MIH) unit has reduced frequent 911 calls by targeting people who rely on “emergency 911 as their health care,” calling 911 three or more times within 60 days. MIH has “improved the client’s quality of life by filling the gaps in their healthcare needs,” the fire chief said. And, he said it has reduced costs: A fire engine response costs about $252 an hour; an MIH response is about $60 an hour.
Several councilors said the county needs to open the Crisis Triage Center (CTC) to improve service to people with mental health issues. CTC was completed in 2013 but has never opened. A triage is a point of entry for, in this case, mental health services. It provides an assessment of an individual’s needs, determines the urgency of the response required and makes referrals to community-based mental health care providers and, possibly, for voluntary or involuntary hospitalization.
“We’ve got the facility there, we ought to go ahead and put it to use,” Councilor Greg Smith said. “Certainly, we know the need exists in our community.”
“We need a triage center,” Councilor Yvonne Flores said. “We need people with mental health issues not to be thrown in with … violent detainees.”
“Forget about the county triage center,” Councilor Kasandra Gandara said. The city, she said, should “put together some money and build our own facility. Let’s start our own triage center.”
“We need a treatment facility for mental health in conjunction with the LEAD program to divert these folks from the criminal justice system,” Councilor Gabe Vasquez said.
“We have this great dilemma facing us right now,” said Councilor Jack Eakman, a former hospital administrator. The city and county, he said, put together a feasibility study for a behavioral health hospital to be built in Las Cruces to serve 10 southern New Mexico counties with 65 beds. “It was a slam dunk,” Eakman said. The state legislature’s response, however, was that the state didn’t have the money to build it, he said.
“Twenty percent of people in this community are on psychotropic drugs,” Eakman said. There are 13.5 psychiatrists per 100,000 people nationally, but only three per 100,000 locally, he said. “I don’t think bricks and mortar are the answer,” Eakman said. “Unless we have the proper amount of providers (and staff), that’s just going to be more buildings where nobody can use them really efficiently.”
Mike Cook may be reached at email@example.com.