LAS CRUCES — Mayor Ken Miyagishima and City Manager Ifo Pili became the latest city leaders to criticize bail reform in response to some business community members’ and residents’ concerns about crime and unhoused people.
During a Las Cruces City Council meeting June 6, the mayor encouraged attendees to gather support ahead of the next legislative session and take their grievances directly to the Roundhouse and demand change on a state level. He said he’d join them.
“When that time comes, and it goes to Santa Fe, we need everyone letting these legislators know what you guys did several years ago … was not right,” the mayor said. “That’s what it’s going to take. We’re going to have to reverse what was done and move forward.”
“I’m not coming here trying to play Monday quarterback myself, but I will tell you, (bail reform is) what’s handcuffing our police department,” Pili said, referring to the overwhelming passage of the 2016 state constitutional amendment granting pretrial release to defendants who are not considered a threat but remain jailed because they cannot afford to post bail.
During a public safety town hall last week, Las Cruces Police Chief Miguel Dominguez said bail reform prevented his department from keeping repeat offenders behind bars.
The mayor’s and city manager’s remarks came during a public comment period Monday in which speakers demanded the city take action to reduce crime and decrease the instances of unhoused people trespassing on private property or loitering around neighborhoods, causing some to feel unsafe.
‘Meet us where we live’
Angel Guevara, who owns Guevara’s Meat Market on East Idaho Avenue, said his customers feel unsafe due to the presence of homeless people in the area, who he said make threats and burglarize.
“These are people who don’t even really want help,” Guevara said. “They like the way they live.”
Later, Guevara said “maybe that’s why there’s a Second Amendment.”
A group of residents led by Marisol Diaz claimed during public comment their neighborhood had become unsafe since the Desert Hope permanent supportive housing project, which seeks to provide affordable rents to formerly unhoused people, opened in last August. The residents said they oppose the housing development’s expansion.
Diaz proposed the councilors attend a community meeting “to meet us where we live, to see and hear for yourselves the horrible conditions that this complex and its patrons brought to our doorstep and also to discuss solutions.”
Concerned about crime
“We’re not here to attack homelessness,” Nicole Black, executive officer of the Las Cruces Home Builders Association, said. She said her coalition, which spoke Monday and includes the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce and Las Cruces Association of Realtors, is concerned only about crime, such as vandalism and theft of building materials from sites.
The city manager also said his administration distinguishes between homelessness and crime, saying “we don’t focus on homelessness. If somebody commits a crime, and just so happens to be homeless, it doesn’t matter where they live to us.”
Some who spoke demanded urgent action from the city, as council members and the city manager claimed they were restricted by state law.
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“Do you realize we have a crisis going in our community?” said Michael Fraembs, owner of Arista Development. “It’s not in Santa Fe; it’s here in Las Cruces. You’re our elected officials. You’re the ones who support us. Help us with this crisis we’re all facing.”
“It’s not a problem with the homeless. It’s not an issue with drugs. It’s not an issue with mental health issues,” Fraembs continued. “It’s an issue with poor policy.”
Some called for the police to be given expanded authority to combat criminal activity. One woman asked if an emergency could be declared over the crime in the city, which would allow for a “reallocation of funds.”
“I understand that this is a legislative process,” said Jon Strain, owner of JMS Construction and a member of the Las Cruces Home Builders Association executive committee. “But when the criminals have more rights than the police or its citizens, we have got big trouble.”
A recent Sun-News analysis found that while most crime categories remained near their historic averages in 2021, the number of aggravated assaults and vehicle thefts in Las Cruces reached historic highs last year.
Bail reform movement
The mayor blamed a lot of crime and issues with repeat offenders on bail reform, which he claimed he had only recently learned about. As a business owner himself, he said he hasn’t been spared from vandalism such as broken windows.
“I feel for you, I know what you’re going through,” said Miyagishima, the district manager for Farmers Insurance. “And I wish we could do it, change it. It’s a revolving door. They just keep being let out.”
“(Bail reform) is a long term action,” said Ryan O’Hea, Hakes Brothers’ director of construction and a Las Cruces Home Builders Association board member. “We need short term action or the building industry will continue to fail.”
The mayor said bail reform, which was supported with 87 percent of the vote in 2016, was passed “when we weren’t paying attention.” He advocated for changes to bail reform as soon as the next legislative session, if not during a special session much sooner.
A concerted effort to amend bail reform to allow judges to hold more people in jail failed during the 2022 legislative session.
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“We’re going to need you all’s support when the time comes,” Miyagishima said, referring to the 2023 session. “Because I really think that this is a movement that’s not going to stop and it’s going to just continue to grow.”
In the meantime, the city manager said the police department is “ramping up.” Pili said Dominguez is working on ways to keep more people behind bars “that should be there.”
The council agreed to suspend the rules and move council comments to the top of the meeting — instead of at the end — so councilors could speak in response to the public comments.
District 2 Councilor Tessa Abeyta said she’d favor bringing up the issues discussed with the New Mexico Municipal League. Mayor Pro Tempore Kasandra Gandara said reducing poverty is key to reducing crime.
While District 4 Councilor Johana Bencomo said she was sympathetic to the experiences of residents and business owners who feel unsafe, she criticized many of the comments for being light on policy solutions.
“I’m hearing a lot of politics,” Bencomo said. “And that’s frustrating, because this is a complex issue that requires complex solutions. We’re talking about human beings.”