Belen Police Chief James Harris

BELEN—It’s unknown what led to the amount of some crimes in the Hub City decreasing last year while others increased, but the new police chief has his theories — a shortage of officers and low morale within the department.

During a recent city council meeting, BPD Chief James Harris provided the councilors and the public with crime statistics from 2019 compared to the prior year. Harris, who was appointed to the position in January, said there can be many factors that could have affected the numbers.

Property crime

According to the statistics provided by Harris, the number of burglaries reported to and investigated by the Belen Police Department went from 127 cases in 2018 to 75 last year — a nearly 41 percent decrease.

While the number of larcenies went up by only one in 2019, the number of reported shoplifting cases dropped from 190 in 2018 to 157 in 2019 — a 17 percent decrease.

The number of stolen vehicles reported to BPD increased from 35 in 2018 to 50 in 2019 — a 43 percent increase, while criminal damage to property cases rose from 85 to 111 — a 31 percent increase.

Violent crime

The total number of violent crimes in Belen decreased last year overall, Harris reported.

There were no reported homicides in both years, and the number of aggravated assault/battery cases decreased from 49 in 2018 to 35 last year. The number of simple assault/battery cases also saw a drop from 124 to 106 in 2019 — a 15 percent decrease.

The amount of criminal sexual contact cases remained the same at three, while criminal sexual penetration reports increased by two, from four in 2018 to six last year.

There were a total of 12 reported robberies in Belen in 2018, compared to seven in 2019.

Narcotics- and alcohol-related crimes

According to the statistics reported by Harris, the number of narcotic-related crimes in Belen increased last year to 49, compared to 42 in 2018. There were 29 DWI arrests made by Belen police officers in 2018, while 16 were made last year — a 45 percent decrease.

Arrests & traffic citations

Harris reported to the council there were a total of 843 arrests made by Belen police officers in 2018, compared to only 493 arrests in 2019 — a 42 percent decrease.

The number of citations issued also went down from 3,910 in 2018 compared to 2,235 last year — a 43 percent decrease.

Questions from the council

Councilor Robert Noblin asked the new police chief why fewer citations were given and less arrests were made.

“The first thing that comes to mind is the lack of manpower,” Harris told the council. “During the first portion of the year, we lost of significant amount of workforce in the Belen Police Department.

“Also, a significant amount of morale issues were going on, and I think that played a role,” the chief said. “Officers weren’t happy with the way things were going and it played a significant role on how much they were willing to work.”

When asked by Councilor Danny Bernal Jr. about what his plans were to address the problems in the department, Harris told him he’s already working on solutions.

Harris has already promoted one sergeant to a command-staff lieutenant’s position, and is in the process of writing a test for three sergeant exams he hopes will be filled by three patrol officers in the next few months.

The new chief said he has two officers who are attending the academy, and hopes to have them out in the field within six months.

“We have Sarah Martinez, who just graduated the academy, and is in the second phase of her field officer program,” Harris said. “She’ll be on her own in the next month and a half.”

With plans to build the force up to full capacity, the chief said he is currently going over several applications to see who could be a good fit for the Belen Police Department.

As for the morale issue of the officers, Harris said he has an open-door policy and is giving officers the opportunity to meet with him one on one to discuss issues.

“One officer is interested in creating a tactical team,” Harris said. “I asked him to provide me with numbers and how we can pay for it. I’m giving him the latitude to move forward with my approval.”

Harris also told the council he is giving officers a more active role in the decision-making process of the department, saying he wants officers to work with him instead of against him.

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.