On February 23, it was reported that 49-year-old Mario Perez was street racing in his white Ford Mustang, racing a blue mustang up Gibson at more than 100 mph when he slammed into the back wheel of the bus causing it to flip on its side. School officials said there was a camera inside the bus. Police said witnesses told them the blue Mustang kept on going after the crash.
APD reported that 11 people were hospitalized, including 9 middle school students and the driver of the car that hit the bus. According to an Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman, the bus driver, an employee of the school district, was also hospitalized.
It was reported that Mario Perez and at least 1 other person had “significant” injuries but none of the injuries are considered life-threatening. The school bus and car crash came just a few hours after Albuquerque police held a news conference announcing a proactive traffic enforcement plan to cut down on speeding and crashes after 2021 saw a record number of traffic deaths in the city.
In 2021, there were 85 traffic deaths on the streets of Albuquerque, the highest number ever recorded. APD Deputy Chief Michael Smathers said recently there is “a recklessness and wanton disregard kind of came to light during COVID” adding that APD Officers have clocked drivers going 80, 90, 100 mph on residential streets. At the same time, APD’s perennial staffing challenges led fewer traffic citations.
APD Commandry Joseph Viers of the Traffic Division believes that there is a direct correlation between the drop in traffic citations from 55,819 in 2019 to 39,219 in 2020 to 36,431 last year and the rise in fatal traffic crashes from 55 in 2019 to 76 in 2020 to the record number of 85 last year.
APD Deputy Chief Smathers had this to say:
“We don’t want to set another [fatality] record. It really troubles us to have those numbers. [ APD officers have to] make those family notifications, [and it’s] really heartbreaking.”
According to annual reports from the Governors Highway Safety Association, New Mexico has also had the highest pedestrian death rate in the country 5 years in a row. Updated data from the N.M. Department of Transportation reveals that 100 pedestrians were killed last year. In the Albuquerque area, drivers struck at least 324 people in 2021, resulting in a record-high 49 fatalities. Twenty were the result of hit-and-run incidents.
The links to news source materials are here:
APD ISSUING MORE TRAFFIC CITATIONS
In response to the increase in fatalities, APD is picking up the pace over the last month to deal with traffic enforcement. According to an APD spokesperson, the department is focusing on problem areas like Central Avenue from 8th Street to Coors. It was the hit and run killing of 7-year-old Pronoy Bhattacharya in a crosswalk as his family left the River of Lights in December that in part prompted the crack down.
As APD continues to work on increasing the number of sworn police within its ranks, APD command staff in the field and traffic units are working together with other divisions within APD overlaying crash and crime data to identify problem areas for traffic enforcement and writing a lot more citations.
From January 1 to the first week of February, APD wrote 7,485 tickets 2,534 more tickets from January 1 to February 7 this year compared with last, for a total of 7,485.
The number of citations is up 30% from an average five-week span in 2019 when the department wrote 55,819 that year, before the pandemic. Still, it’s down from about a decade ago when the department was writing more than 10,000 tickets a month.
An APD spokesperson said they’ve been doing more targeted operations recently. A targeted operation on Central was considered successful. The APD spokesperson said it led to a change in drivers’ behavior and fewer calls reporting traffic violations. The department said it’s now bringing similar operations to other parts of the city in high traffic areas prone to speeding by drivers.
APD Deputy Chief Michael Smathers had this to say about targeted enforcement:
“Any traffic enforcement that we do is always intelligence driven, data driven. Any of the locations that we emphasize, any of the operations and the tac plans that we do, are always driven by data. [The data includes fatalities, speeding and DWI.] … we are breaking down our problematic corridors into more manageable sections [ and have] added a second squad of our motorcycle officers working in the mid- to late-evening hours to specifically address issues we’ve seen.”
The Traffic Division of 20 and Motors Unit of 7 DWI officers are making traffic citations a priority. On February 15, the Motors Unit ran a traffic operation at Montaño and Renaissance that resulted in 81 stops, 54 speeding citations and 135 other tickets, which included citations for no seat belt, no insurance, expired tags, talking on a cellphone, and other type of citations.
Motors Unit Lt. Nick Wheeler said since the beginning of the pandemic Coors is now known as “the racetrack of Albuquerque.” Wheeler reported that the speed limit is posting on Coors is 45 mph, but APD has seen vehicles traveling in excess of 80 mph. Wheeler said:
“Every day [we see cars] going 80, 90, 100 mph on Gibson, Paseo del Norte, Unser, Montgomery and even residential streets on a very regular basis.”
APD Police Commander for the traffic and motor units said speeding remains the No. 1 citation. However, Viers said racing and loud exhaust have become bigger issues since 2020, affecting safety and quality of life. Viers said:
“We’ve really stepped it up on enforcement [and] buckled down on traffic safety. We’ve also increased careless and reckless driving [citations].”
Links to quoted news source material are here:
METRO TRAFFIC COURT ARRAIGNMENT PROGRAM
Traffic citations are criminal misdemeanor citations and can only be given when a police officer actually witnesses the offense, such as speeding or running a red light. Traffic cases are “officer prosecuted”, meaning sworn police officers on their own have to present the case to the court.
In 2006, the Metropolitan Traffic Court Arraignment Program was created by an agreement between the City Attorney, the Bernalillo County District Attorney and the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. Despite the historical and designated role of the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office as the chief law enforcement office for the prosecution of criminal cases, misdemeanor or felony cases, the City Attorney’s office was tasked with the program. Then Deputy City Attorney Pete Dinelli was given the assignment to create the program with the hiring of Assistant City Attorneys and paralegals and to manage and oversee the attorneys and para legals.
Two Assistant City attorneys and 4 paralegals were hired because of the volume of traffic cases. Assistant City Attorneys are cross deputized or appointed “special prosecutors” by the Bernalillo County District Attorney with the sole authority to negotiate plea agreements in traffic cases at the time of arraignments, thereby negating the need for sworn APD personnel to appear at arraignments.
The rationale for the city attorney’s office to be involved with traffic arraignments is twofold:
1. To provide a major accommodation to the Metropolitan Court
2. To eliminate the need of sworn APD officers to go to court for arraignments on traffic offenses.
The traffic court arraignment program reduces police overtime where APD sworn personnel are entitled to a minimum of 2 hours of overtime charged at time and a half under the union contract.
HOW IT WORKS
When a person is stopped and issued traffic citation, the citing sworn officer determines if the driver will contest the citations. If the driver wants to contest the citations issued, an arraignment date and time is immediately scheduled by the citing officer. The Metropolitan Traffic arraignment program streamlines the process, saves time and money and negates the appearance of police officers at arraignments.
There are upwards of 170 different traffic violation citations that can be issued by sworn law enforcement. The most common traffic citations include speeding, reckless driving, careless driving, failing to stop, improper lane change, no registration, no insurance, suspended driver’s license, failing to yield, and open container. On any given day, between 250 and as many as 500 cases can be negotiated, resolved and approved by the Metro Court. The average Metropolitan Traffic Court arraignment case results in court fees and fines anywhere from $65 to upwards of $250.
TRAFFIC ARRAIGNMENT CASES AND PLEA AND DISPOSITION
Review of the City of Albuquerque approved budgets for the last 12 years reveals just how effective the Metroplan Arraignment program has been, but also reflects the major decline in traffic citations by APD. The budgets approved for the City Attorney’s office contain performance measures and lists the number of traffic cases that went to arraignment as well as the percentages of cases disposed of by plea agreements. Following are the statistics:
MAYOR RICHARD BERRY YEARS
Fiscal Year 2009: 46,940 cases, 83 % disposed of by plea agreements
Fiscal Year 2010: 55,750 cases, 82 % disposed of by plea agreements
Fiscal Year 2011: 57,094 cases, 74 % disposed of by plea agreements
Fiscal Year 2012: 51,222 cases, 72 % disposed of by plea agreements.
Fiscal Year 2013: 39,169 cases, 92% disposed of by plea agreements.
Fiscal Year 2014: 24,600 cases, 70% disposed of by plea agreements.
Fiscal Year 2015: 39,541 cases, 50 % disposed of by plea agreements.
Fiscal Year 2016: 34.077 cases, 59% disposed of by plea agreements.
MAYOR TIM KELLER YEARS
Fiscal Year 2017: 28,643 cases, 58% disposed of by plea agreements
Fiscal Year 2018: 13,053 cases, 57 % disposed of by plea agreements
Fiscal Year 2019: 26, 544 cases, 56 % disposed of by plea agreements
Fiscal Year 2020: 19,650 cases, 59% disposed of by plea agreements
NUTSHELL COMPARISON WITH FIELD SERVICES SWORN OFFICERS
Traffic citation cases in Metro Court dropped from 36,161 in Berry’s last fiscal year he was in office to 26,106 in Keller’s first fiscal year in office with the numbers dropping each year thereafter during the Keller years to a paltry 4,044 mid year in 2022 fiscal year.
From the foregoing, a nutshell comparison of the second term of Mayor Berry Compared to the Mayor Keller’s term is as follows:
MAYOR BERRY YEARS OF TRAFFIC ARRAIGNMENT CASES AND APD PERSONNEL:
Traffic Arraignment Cases Under Berry:
APD Sworn Field Services And Total Sworn Under Berry:
2014: 429 field
2015: 411 field
2016: 420 field
2017: 833 (total sworn)
2018: 861 (total Sworn)
MAYOR KELLER YEARS OF TRAFFIC ARRAIGNMENT CASES AND APD PERSONNEL
Traffic Arraignment Cases under Keller:
2022: 4,044 mid year with 47% pleas, 8,088 projected for year with 50% pleas
APD Sworn Field Services And Total Sworn APD Personnel Under Keller:
2019: 867 total sworn
2020: 972 total sworn
2021: 957 sworn police
2022: 1,100 total sworn budgeted.
APD STATISTCLY UNERPEFORMS IN TRAFFIC ENFORCEMENT BY THE THOUSANDS
Review of the hard numbers during the last 12 years reflects that enforcing traffic laws has never been a major priority of APD under Keller’s appointed APD Chief’s Michael Geier and now Chief Harold Medina. Things deteriorated with APD performing a basic law enforcement function of patrolling the streets and issuing traffic citations.
In 2009, there were 86,175 traffic arraignment cases in Metro Court. In 2015 traffic cases dropped to 31,163, or over 55,000 fewer traffic citations. Between 90% and 95% of the traffic cases are APD cases with the remainder being BCSO and State Police cases, which is one reason city personnel were used.
In 2009 the City Attorney’s traffic court arraignment program consisted 2 full time Assistant City Attorneys and 4 full time para legal. As of June 18, 2021, the City Attorney’s traffic court arraignment program consists of just 1 Assistant City Attorney, 1 full time paralegal and 2 half time paralegals. The dramatic decline in city attorney personnel is directly attributed to the decline by the thousands of traffic citations.
ANALYSIS AND COMMENTARY
It’s common driving the streets of Albuquerque to see others speeding, be cut off by another driver, see someone run a red light, watch drivers barrel through school zones, use corner businesses to drive into and out as a shortcut to avoid a red light, vehicles with cracked windshields or broken taillights, people using their cell phones while driving ignoring traffic in front or on the side of them. You can often see people driving without their seat belts on, drivers swerving in and out of lanes at high speeds and engaging in careless driving, driver’s looking in their rearview mirror checking out their teeth, hair or makeup.
Then there are drivers yelling at each other in road rage or drivers being totally oblivious to pedestrians and people on bikes or motorcycles, drivers that are obviously in a haze or driving under the influence based on their weaving in and out of traffic. You can also see drivers that have been in a car accident patiently waiting lengthy periods of time for a police officer to show up to take an accident report.
The real problem is that APD sworn police are seriously underperforming by choice and traffic enforcement was not a priority for APD. City Attorney statistics reveal a dramatic decrease by the thousand in the number traffic citations being issued by APD. When you review the City’s budget for each of the past 8 years, the statics reveal that thousand more traffic citations were issued with a smaller number of APD sworn police on the force during Mayor Berry’s second term compared to Mayor Keller’s years in office. A dramatic drop in the thousands of traffic citation began to occur in Keller’s first year in office, even when there were more sworn APD officers in field services patrolling the streets.
What you do NOT see are Albuquerque Police Officers (APD) making traffic stops all over the city, issuing traffic citations or warnings, at least until now. It’s the sure presence of police on the road that changes people’s driving habits. The only time you hear or see an APD mark unit on the streets of Albuquerque is when they are traveling far in excess of the speed limit with their red lights on and sirens blazing no doubt to get to the next homicide or violent crime scene.
One of the very basic functions of any municipal police department is traffic law enforcement. APD is the largest funded department with a $212 million budget with 1,678 full time positions that includes 578 civilian staff and funding for 1,100 sworn police.
According to the city budgets from the last 8 years, traffic court cases handled by the City Attorney dropped from 36,161 in Berry’s last fiscal year he was in office to 26,106 in Keller’s first fiscal year in office with the numbers dropping each year thereafter to a paltry 4,044 mid year in 2022 fiscal year.
POWER OF THE COURTS REASON THAT CRIMINAL TRAFFIC CITATIONS REDUCE SPEEDING
When a police officer issues a misdemeanor criminal citation for speeding or other traffic offenses, the crime must occur in the presence of the officer where the officer has witnessed the crime. Automated red light camera citations are civil because the crime is a recorded image.
There is a major reason that traffic citations are criminal misdemeanor charges with fines and not civil. It’s because traffic citations issued by police officers and backed up with the authority of the courts, it has a major impact on the general public to deter conduct and reduce speeding and other traffic violations.
In addition to the criminal aspect, there is also a civil aspect to the misdemeanor charges. Automatic driver’s license revocation can occur with traffic citations. The more citations are issued, the more impact it has to threaten the suspension of a person’s driver’s license because of points assessed. Auto insurance companies also monitor their client’s traffic record and will increase insurance rates or even cancel coverage.
Police presence and visibility on the streets is the most effective way to change people’s driving habits, especially with speeding. Now that APD is making traffic enforcement a priority, the citizens of Albuquerque should see safer streets so long as the effort is made permanent which would mean that APD is getting back to the basics.