BELEN—The Belen Police Department announced the city’s overall crime rate was down in 2023 compared to 2022. 

The crime rate took a 17.98 percent drop last year in the Hub City, a decrease Belen Police Chief James Harris credits to dedicated officers and to the community’s watchful eyes. 

“It tells me that we have several factors working in conjunction with one another,” Harris said of the decrease. “We have citizens who are being more watchful, citizens who feel comfortable in calling their law enforcement agencies and they’re watching out for their neighbors. The average citizen is being more mindful of their surroundings.” 

Harris said along with active residents, well-trained officers are helping in the reduction of crime in the Hub City. 

“We have officers who are not afraid to look for offenses, and the increase in patrols in neighborhoods are probably the largest impact on the decrease in crime,” Harris added. 

Source: Belen Police Department

According to statistics provided by Harris and reported to the FBI, the number of homicides decreased by 50 percent, from two in 2022 to one in 2023. In July 2023, Donald R. Lewis, of Belen, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder for the shooting death of Lisa Swiftbird at Sonic Drive-In in Belen. He is currently awaiting trial.  

The number of rapes also decreased last year with one in 2023 compared to four in 2023.  

The city of Belen did experience an increase in the number of aggravated assaults — 87 in 2023 compared to 74 the year prior — at 17.5 percent increase.  

“An aggravated assault is anything from an aggravated assault to an aggravated battery,” Harris explained. “An assault is an attempt to commit a battery, and a battery is when a person is actually touched by the use of force.” 

Harris explained this category can include incidents of a fight, a threat of violence or a violent act on someone that involves a weapon.  

The number of kidnappings/abductions also increased from five in 2022 to 11 last year — a 120 percent increase. The police chief said the majority of those incidents were most likely custody issues. 

“When we’re talking about kidnapping — held down and not allowed to leave the house in a domestic situation — that can be considered either false imprisonment or kidnapping depending on the circumstances,” the chief explained.  

There were no human trafficking cases in the city of Belen in 2023 or 2022.  

There was a 100 percent increase in robberies, from three in 2022 to six in 2023. Harris said the definition of robbery from a law enforcement standpoint is much different than what the general public understands.  

BPD Chief James Harris

“Let’s say someone walks into a store and they try to steal something. The store owner, manager or employee attempts to stop them from stealing and the criminal batters them,” Harris said. “The law reads that a robbery is the act of stealing of an item … by force or threatened use of force.” 

Harris told the News-Bulletin last week during an interview he could not think of one case of an actual armed commercial robbery in 2023 in Belen. In 2022, he does remember a case when an individual staying at the Super 8 Motel robbed a restaurant next door at gunpoint. He was arrested and charged.” 

The police chief said the general public also gets the terms robbery and burglary confused. Many people will call the Valencia Regional Emergency Communications Center reporting they were robbed but, in reality, their home or vehicle were burglarized.  

“The misunderstanding of people and legal terminology is big factor,” Harris said. “You can’t rob a house but you can burglarize a house. You can rob a person.” 

While the number of robberies increased slightly, the number of burglaries and breaking and entering incidents decreased by 53.8 percent — with 130 in 2022 and 60 in 2023.  

“I have made it a priority in Belen for our officers to frequently patrol neighborhoods,” Harris said. “Does that account for a large amount of that lower number? It absolutely does.  

“It’s what the community expects. A community is not going to feel safe if they don’t see their law enforcement in their neighborhoods,” Harris said. “You can see them up and down the main streets in the city and making traffic stops all day long, but it’s about what’s going on inside the neighborhoods. That is where they live and where they should feel safe.” 

Harris feels it’s important for officers to be in the neighborhoods as much as possible, saying while it’s important to enforce traffic laws, “it’s not the most important thing.” 

Burglaries have historically been a major problem in the Hub City, whether it be residential, commercial or auto burglaries. The police chief said he’s made a commitment to the citizens to make sure they feel as safe as possible.  

The number of larcenies, which include shoplifting cases, has also decreased in Belen, from 172 in 2022 to 139 last year — a 19 percent decrease. Motor vehicle thefts in the Hub City did increase 21 percent last year from 51 compared to 42 in 2022.   

The number of destruction of property, which is also referred to as criminal damage to property, decreased by 27.7 percent, from 108 in 2022 to 78 in 2023.   

“The truth is we live in a world of criminals who take advantage of not seeing police,” Harris said. “If they don’t see them, they’re going to take advantage of it. I could have 100 officers, and the truth is they’re not going to be every where.” 

While the number of crimes in Belen and in most areas across the country fluctuate from year to year, the police chief said many offenses cannot be prevented, including domestic violence, homicide and rape.  

“Those are what we consider crimes of opportunity or crimes of passion — they’re something that is spontaneous,” the chief said. “They’re usually not planned out, and there’s very little we can do to prevent these crimes from happening.” 

The chief said most small departments like Belen are working in a reactive mode rather than being proactive. He said officers are busy going from call to call.  

“They’re not just sitting around,” the chief said. “They’re doing their job; their doing what the citizens need them to do. 

“The decrease in crime or even an increase in some of these criminal activities is because people feel more comfortable calling for us to come out,” Harris said.  

The number of drug/narcotic cases in Belen also decreased by 30 percent, from 110 in 2022 to 77 in 2023. The police chief said the legalization of recreational marijuana in New Mexico is likely a contributing factor. 

Before legalization in 2022, Harris was concerned with potential violence that could have occurred from drug cartels, as well as burglaries and robberies.  

“Those were my concerns and, thankfully, those concerns have not come to bear; however, DWIs have gone down considerably over the last couple of years,” he said. “The reason for that is because you simply don’t have a place for people to go and drink, like bars. The last bar closed in Belen last year, and we used to have a bar on every corner. 

“So the decrease may be because of the lack of availability, and people go home and drink now,” Harris speculates. “However, we have seen a huge increase in narcotics DWIs because we have a marijuana shop on every corner.” 

In 2023, there were 59 DWI offenses, compared to 81 in 2022. 

Belen Mayor Robert Noblin says he believes consistency within the department has contributed to the amount of crime in the city.  

Belen Mayor Robert Noblin

“The Belen Police Department has experienced significant changes in leadership, with six chiefs and interims being terminated and appointed in the last 10 years,” Noblin told the News-Bulletin. “Such frequent changes in leadership can have a negative impact on the overall functioning and effectiveness of the department. It creates a lack of stability and hampers the development of long-term strategies to combat crime in our city.” 

The mayor says consistency within the police department is crucial as it ensures that policies, procedures and initiatives are carried out effectively and without interruption.  

“It fosters a sense of trust and reliability among the officers and the community they serve,” he said. “When officers feel secure in their leadership, they are more motivated to perform their duties efficiently, leading to an overall reduction in crime rates.” 

Earlier this month, Noblin recommended Harris to be reappointed as police chief. The council voted 3-1 in favor of Harris, with Councilor Frank Ortega voting no. Harris has been the chief of police in Belen for four years.  

Noblin said he is also “eagerly anticipating” the opening of the new police station. Last year, the city council approved the purchase of two empty buildings on Castillo Avenue to be renovated into a police department.  

“This new facility not only symbolizes progress but also serves as a milestone for the future of law enforcement in Belen,” Noblin said. “It is a testament to the commitment of our community to provide our police force with the necessary resources to carry out their duties effectively. 

“With the new police station, we have an opportunity to create a more positive and conducive work environment for our officers. It will provide them with the necessary tools and infrastructure to carry out their duties efficiently, ultimately leading to a safer and more secure Belen.” 

Harris also reported that while the Belen Police Department has seen a nearly 18 percent decrease in crime in the city, it also has a 36.34 percent clearance rate of cases, compared to the national average of 25.17 percent. 

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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.