BELEN — As the world slowed down during the COVID-19 pandemic, crime in the Hub City hasn’t.

During a recent city council meeting, Belen Police Chief James Harris informed the governing body that while his department has seen a decrease violent crime, some criminals continued their activity.

Harris told the council the number of burglaries committed in Belen increased in 2020 compared to 2019. In 2019, there was a reported 75 burglaries, and 131 in 2020.

The number of larcenies decreased from 92 to 72 last year, but shoplifting incidents increased from 157 in 2019 to 192 in 2020.

The Belen Police Department received about the same number of calls for stolen motor vehicles in the two years — 50 in 2019, and 52 in 2020.

Criminal damage to property dropped slightly from 111 to 105 last year.

All violent crimes in Belen decreased in 2020, with no homicides occurring in either year.

The number of aggravated assaults and batteries decreased by one — 35 in 2019, and 34 in 2020. Simple assaults dropped dramatically from 106 in 2019 to 77 last year.

Harris said the amount of criminal sexual contact cases remained steady, from three to two in 2020, and criminal sexual penetration cases decreased by more than half — from six in 2019 to two in 2020.

Robberies reported to the Belen Police Department remained fairly steady from seven in 2019 to six in 2020.

Domestic violence cases in Belen in 2019 totaled 108, with 35 arrests. In 2020, there were 122 incidents reported, with 48 arrests.

“We had a rise of arrests in 2020 compared to 2019, which is kind of a surprise to me,” Harris said. “With everything going on, I thought it would be a much higher ratio than that.”

There was also a decrease in the number of narcotics incidents in Belen — 49 in 2019, and 43 in 2020. DWI cases also dropped — 16 in 2019, and 15 in 2020.

The number of arrests in the city of Belen decreased from 493 in 2019, to 424 last year. The chief said it was a significant drop.

The number of traffic citations given by BPD increased by more than 400 — 2,235 in 2019, and 2,669 in 2020.

During the meeting, Councilor Danny Bernal Jr. asked the chief if he had an idea why certain crimes went up and others went down.

“As the old saying goes, ‘idle hands are the devil’s (workshop),’” Harris told Bernal. “There have been a lot of people out of work; there have been a lot of people who are needing narcotics, and who are needing to purchase narcotics. The price is going up because the demand remains the same but the supply is becoming limited. That’s one big reason.”

The chief said his department will have zero tolerance for narcotics in the city of Belen.

Another reason the chief says some criminal activity is on the increase is boredom.

“Our biggest crime rate increase is burglary,” the chief said. “The majority of our burglaries right now is automobile burglaries. People are going around finding people’s cars open and grabbing. It’s a crime of opportunity, and people are needing to feed their addictions.”

The chief said several of the burglaries have been solved, but officers have noticed thieves have been operating more carefully.

“We know who our bad guys are, but catching them and proving our cases are a different issue,” Harris said. “When we see them out on the street, they’re going to know we are watching them.”

The chief said the department’s criminal investigations unit will continue to work night-time operations, and are taking a more proactive approach to law enforcement than reactive.

Bernal said with officers being limited in stopping vehicles due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he asked why there were more citations given if officers had less contact.

“When the pandemic first started, no one knew how to deal with it,” Harris said. “My orders to my officers were to make as minimal of contact as possible.”

The chief explained once they were given guidance from state and health officials on what they could do to keep themselves and the public safe, the BPD were able to make more traffic stops.

“We started hitting it hard,” he said. “That number probably represent four or five months rather than the entire year.”

Harris said he and other members of his administrative staff are meeting with District Attorney Barbara Romo on a monthly basis to discuss obstacles and problems. He also explained all law enforcement agencies in Valencia County are working together and communicating with each other regularly.

The chief said his officers are concentrating their efforts on the high crime areas of the city and making high-visibility patrols around Belen, including Anna Becker Park. Harris said officers are also doing business checks at night.

“This year, we are going to concentrate on more community policing, making contacts with people if they are out and about and talking to business managers and employees,” Harris said. “We need the public’s assistance. There is only a small amount of us but a large amount of them.”

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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.