Vote 4 NM: How APD's Homicide Unit is working to improve
October 14, 2018 10:19 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Not a day goes by that Valerie Espinosa doesn't think about her daughter, Erica, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in August last year.
"I was going to pick her up that weekend and that morning I got a phone call just saying that my daughter was dead," Espinosa said. "That she was shot in the chest and she didn't make it."
Erica was 27 with a 10-year-old son, and another baby on the way. That pregnancy was news she'd never be able to share with her mother.
Espinosa's daughter was one of 72 people murdered in Albuquerque in 2017—a record number. At the time, the Albuquerque Police Department had five detectives and a clearance rate of only 50 percent, the lowest figures in a decade.
Erica's case is among those that have not been solved, and investigators have told the family they have no leads.
Not being able to solve every case that comes their way frustrates homicide detectives as much as it does families.
"It really hurts all of us when we can't provide a family member or a friend with the reason why we haven't solved that homicide," Albuquerque Police Detective Andrew Hsu said.
Hsu and fellow detective Terra Juarez have been with the department for more than 10 years.
"We answer our phones in the evening, our cell phone's 24/7," Juarez said. "I work on holidays sometimes or I work on the weekends because I want to bring justice to these people."
Mayor Tim Keller and Albuquerque city councilors passed an ordinance this year to help find that justice, raising the gross receipts tax to help hire 100 more officers each year over a four-year period.
The initiative comes with no extra funding from the state.
"We stepped up," Keller said. "They asked us last year, they said, 'Well, why don't you deal with your own problems?' And we did."
His administration has begun to walk the walk. APD's Homicide Unit has doubled from five to 10 detectives.
"When we talk to other agencies in similar-size cities and we tell them that we're in double-digits for our caseload, they walk away scratching their heads," Hsu said. "Because they tell us, 'Gosh, we catch between three to six cases a year.'"
But even with the extra help on their unit, Albuquerque is on track to break its homicide record for the second straight year, having tallied 55 so far.
Keller said the city needs help from the state to reverse the trend.
"When Albuquerque is facing the challenges we are (facing), and when we've demonstrated our own leadership by stepping up, we've done our part," he said.
Keller said with the Albuquerque metro representing both an economic hub and half the state's population, a lot depends of what happens around New Mexico depends on what happens in its biggest city.
"I think folks all around the state realize that when Albuquerque is rising, it lifts everyone else up," Keller said.
In the upcoming legislative session, the mayor is returning to the Roundhouse and asking for $30 million to upgrade APD's radio system so officers can better communicate with other law enforcement agencies.
"Literally, when disaster happens, we can't directly talk to each other," Keller said.
He's also asking for more money to fund new DNA equipment to prevent future backlogs with rape kits and fingerprints—big-ticket items that investigators say will go a long way to solving homicide cases.
That's especially true when even the little things – like a printer in the APD mobile crime unit – seems like a luxury.
APD's 23-year-old truck is the more accommodating of its two mobile crime units. In a back room, investigators question witnesses or suspects, with TVs connected to VCRs.
It's all equipment that isn't just outdated. It's unusable.
"We'll use carrots and sticks as best as we can and we'll forge on, but I know that New Mexico is out of time," Keller said. "We feel deep urgency to deal with these issues, and so now we have funding, we have a city that's ready and willing to step up and has, and we know what to do with the funding."
As the city waits, the families of victims wait, too, and continue to mourn. While they can't change the past, they're hoping state leaders will help shape a better future.
"She would have been living her life," said Erica's brother, Joshua, before their mother contributes another memory.
"She would be smiling. She'd be laughing. You can hear her voice."
Updated: October 14, 2018 10:19 PM
Created: October 14, 2018 10:06 PM
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