El Paso Times
August 3, 2010
by Daniel Borunda
EL PASO -- About 1,700 homicides have occurred in Juárez this year. El Paso has had one.
Despite the rampant bloodshed in Mexico, the overall crime rate in El Paso has decreased slightly this year.
The drop in murders comes as the El Paso City Council mulls raising taxes or furloughing police officers. Neighborhood Watch groups this evening will get together for block parties as part of the anti-crime National Night Out.
Police officials said crime is down 1 percent citywide with decreases in the number of murders, burglaries, auto thefts and vehicle break-ins. Assaults are up 4 percent and robberies have remained the same.
One homicide this year is unusual even for a city that normally has few slayings. El Paso, estimated population of 751,000, had seven homicides at this time last year. The year ended with 13 homicides.
"It almost defies explanation," said Jack Levin, one of the nation's best known criminologists. "I can't think of another city in the U.S., another large city, that has only had one homicide. It's absolutely outstanding."
Homicides in recent years have been declining nationally with the aging of the baby boomer generation, said Levin, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston.
Levin, in a telephone interview, said cities with large Latino immigrant populations, such as El Paso, San Diego and San Jose, Calif., tend to have low crime rates.
"Immigrants -- whether from Mexico, Italy, or Poland -- have often left family and friends to have a new life and begin anew," Levin said. "They are very success oriented, middle class. They simply have a very low crime rate."
But Levin said that while the immigrant factor helps explain El Paso's low crime numbers, it doesn't explain why murders would plummet one year to the next.
"I've actually said to the reporters in other cities, 'If you want to be safe from murder, move to El Paso,' " Levin said.
However, Levin cautioned, killings tend to occur in clusters and the rest of the year could be different.
Detective Mike Baranyay, an El Paso police spokesman, said the credit for the drop in crime goes to police working with residents who are willing to report suspicious activity.
"The community, I believe, is really taking an active role in keeping their community safe," Baranyay said.
Tina Gianes, president of the Neighborhood Watch Association of El Paso, said most of the complaints she hears are about cars speeding on residential streets or shady door-to-door salesmen.
Gianes said one of the reasons El Paso has a reputation as a safe city is because crime is kept from escalating because residents will report suspicious activity.
"I think more people are getting involved. They are not afraid to speakup," she said.
The contrast is Juárez. The city of 1.3 million has been described as the murder capital of Mexico and one of the most dangerous cities in the world. A two-year war between the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels has escalated to the use of car bombs, explosives and frequent attacks on police.
Levin said the drug violence in Mexico has its roots in extreme poverty, powerful organized crime gangs and a "tremendous amount of corruption."
The violence in Juárez is the backdrop as the city of El Paso struggles with its budget and a contract dispute with the police union that could lead to higher property taxes, the canceling of a police academy class or furloughs for police officers.
The El Paso police union last week voted against reopening contract negotiations.
The city wanted to delay a 2 percent cost of living raise that is due Sept. 1. The city has made $3.5 million in cuts to its budget and is looking to cut $1 million more.
A crime is committed in El Paso every 16.1 minutes, according to a "crime clock" in the police budget presentation using data from last year. A murder occurred every 28 days.
Ron Martin, president of the El Paso Municipal Police Officers Association, said taking officers off the street will affect services.
"If you are already stretched thin, how are you going to furlough officers and not affect response times?" Martin said.
Some members of the City Council have argued that further budget cuts to other public services are not feasible.
"City Council can say whatever they want," Martin said. "They are not the ones who reduce crime. It is the police officers. Crime has been reduced because officers are out there every day."
Levin, the criminologist, said other cities face the same dilemma.
"El Paso may save money by reducing the size of the police force, perhaps reducing programs for children, but in the long term it will be very costly," Levin said.
"Part of the reason the crime rate is low is El Paso has been willing to spend the money to keep youngsters busy and supervised and keeping police on the streets," Levin said. "You can pay now or you can pay later. But one way or another, you pay."