Editor's note: This story was edited after it was published online to address a concern by Nicole Black regarding statements on homelessness. Black deferred to other members of the news conference on that specific issue.
LAS CRUCES - Business leaders are organizing a forum next week to address a gap they say the city council created by ignoring the issue of homelessness and property crime citywide.
On June 2, the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce, the Las Cruces Association of Realtors and the Las Cruces Home Builders Association will host a forum for business owners to discuss concerns about theft, vandalism, substance abuse and homelessness in Las Cruces. The forum will be held at the Home Builders Association event hall at 2825 N. Main St. from 4 to 6 p.m. June 2, and Mayor Pro Tem Kasandra Gandara is set to attend.
While FBI crime statistics show most types of property crime are near the historic average, vehicle thefts in Las Cruces reached an all-time high in 2021. The spike, as well as other property crimes, has not gone unnoticed by the Las Cruces business class.
As a preamble to the public safety meeting, prominent businesswomen Marci Dickerson, furniture store owner Wanda Bowman and Las Cruces Home Builders Association Executive Officer Nicole Black invited reporters to Dickerson’s sports bar, The Game, Thursday to hear their concerns over crime and poverty.
“(The city council) are putting their head in the sand,” Dickerson said. “They have no aggressive plan. They are not leading us in any way. So we have decided that we'll take it into our own hands.”
Using extreme language at times to describe the people and the issues experienced, Dickerson and Bowman described first-hand experiences and second-hand stories involving theft, customer intimidation and property damage allegedly perpetrated by individuals they called violent, crazy and drug-addicted, some of whom they said were experiencing homelessness.
Black added that she was aware of home builders who'd had construction materials stolen from sites.
“So they're taking these (car) parts, and they're stealing to go get their fix,” Black said. “And if they get caught, they get one night in jail, they go back. They know there's no consequences. So they know that they can go get a free meal and a decent night's stay, and go back out the next day.”
In the same breath, the three accused the mayor and city council of not doing anything to solve the issue, though they themselves were short on specific things they’d suggest the council do. Some of the solutions they pitched included cracking down on panhandling, increasing police compensation and the number of officers, and longer prison sentences for nonviolent offenders.
The city revised its panhandling ordinances in 2018 in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court ruled that panhandling was a form of speech.
Prison sentences and time in jail are not issues that can be regulated by city officials. In 2017, New Mexico voters passed a state constitutional amendment granting pretrial release to defendants who are not considered a threat but who would remain jailed because they cannot afford to post bail. State lawmakers and officials in recent years have proposed changes and overhaul to the state's pretrial detention laws, although none have been turned into law.
“You have to be aggressive. You have to defend the people that make this community what it is,” Dickerson said. “Our community doesn’t want to be the safe place for the homeless throughout the United States … We have to take care of our business people, our children, (and) our adults.”
While it can be a challenge to estimate the number of unhoused people living in a community, local providers across the state attempt to survey and estimate the population annually. The Mesilla Valley Community of Hope says it estimates about 200 to 300 people in the county experience homelessness on a given night, either staying on the streets or in a shelter. Community of Hope added that the number does not include people couch surfing or who are housing-insecure.
Property crime was also a major point of frustration for the businesswomen.
Bowman, the owner of Las Cruces’ Ashley Furniture Home Stores, said she fears for her safety and for the integrity of her property.
“I'm not the only person who says maybe the only way to shop from now on is online,” Bowman said. “I think I like brick and mortar.”
When asked, Bowman said she feels property crime in Las Cruces is worse now than it was 30 years ago.
Reports of crime compiled by the FBI show that most types of property crime in Las Cruces are near historic averages despite the city’s drastic population increase.
Among categories tracked by the FBI, only vehicle thefts have seen a sharp increase. Larceny (theft), arson, and burglary either rose slightly or have declined in recent years.
In a recent interview, LCPD Chief Miguel Dominguez told the Sun-News that about half of the cars stolen in Las Cruces are stolen by groups operating within a ring. The rest were stolen by individuals acting independently, Dominguez said, adding that about three out of five cars stolen are recovered by LCPD.
For Dickerson, car thefts are also a point of frustration. At her restaurant on South Espina Street, Dickerson’s installed cameras in the parking lot and a deer blind manned like a watchtower to observe the parking lot. Dickerson said the guard, who will sometimes be armed with a gun, is meant to act as a deterrent to potential thieves. She claimed it’s unlikely the security guard could shoot someone in the parking lot.
Many of the issues and concerns expressed by the businesswomen will likely be reiterated at the June 2 public safety meeting. Black, one of the organizers of the meeting, said she hopes the meeting is well attended.
Michael McDevitt is a city and county government reporter for the Sun-News. He can be reached at 575-202-3205, firstname.lastname@example.org or @MikeMcDTweets on Twitter. Justin Garcia covers police, crime and courts for the Sun-News. He can be contacted via email at JEGarcia@lcsun-news.com.
This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: Las Cruces business leaders slam city leaders over property crime, homelessness