Alibi V.25 No.28 • July 14-20, 2016 

Opinion

Crime and Mirrors

Why good behavior matters

Have you ever felt like a plastic bird blowing in an existential crippling wind? No? Ok.
Have you ever felt like a plastic bird blowing in an existential crippling wind? No? Ok.

People who grew up here seem oblivious to the fact that we live in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. They ask themselves, “Why would anyone move here?” while indescribably textured clouds gather overhead and a purple mountain frames their shoulders. The Land of Entrapment.

Maybe no one's seen what the rest of the world has to put up with. If we did, we'd probably stop trying like hell to turn this beautiful clump of dirt between the mountains and the desert into a hellhole. According to the Albuquerque Police Department's 2015 annual report, our city—so desperate for any good press since the state (once again) rated in the bottom five on the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count report, and major news outlets started telling parents not to raise their children here—is becoming a rotten and dangerous place.

According to the report, violent crime in 2015—including homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery—went up by 9.6 percent. Property crime—burglary, auto theft, arson—went up by 11.7 percent. Meanwhile other US cities of comparable population—between 500,000 and 999,999—have watched their violent crime rates fall by an average of 0.1 percent, according to preliminary reports made by the FBI. Murders went from 30 in 2014 to 46 in 2015. Auto thefts increased 45.6 percent. This is the fourth straight year violent crime numbers have increased since 2010.

A quick answer as to why we are so uncommonly blessed with a rich criminal landscape is our atrocious poverty level. With around a quarter of our state's population under the poverty line, and the rating for child poverty 50th in the nation, the correlation between poverty and crime can't be ignored. After all, desperate people do desperate things.

Mayor Richard Berry has hired an outside consultant, Professor Peter Winograd, to analyze the data in the hopes that he can make sense of the crime increase. The mayor told the Albuquerque Journal that some of the rise might result from APD's staffing issue. The department currently has 850 officers, with a plan to reach the target 1,000 by 2020. He also mentioned a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that mandates speedier prosecutions and a decrease in jail population.

… there's also something to be said about the way we model behavior, and how it affects our culture

But there's also something to be said about the way we model behavior, and how it affects our culture. Although it's still theoretical (and hotly debated from time to time), one interesting idea to consider is that our brains host something called the “mirror system,” a group of neurons that play a role in deciding if a behavior we observe is worthy of imitation. This system fires up when we watch other people perform actions and has been tentatively connected to learning and empathy. Meaning negative systemic behavior—like aggressive driving or thinking it's okay to burglarize someone's home—probably stems back to a single act that was imitated and spread memetically.

Which is why it's so important to remember that the “criminal element” of our society isn't some other class of human—villains in domino masks and striped shirts—it's just people. And if those negative behaviors exist because people copied them, then the same goes for positive ones.

It's easy to write articles quoting statistics and talking about the cycle of poverty and crime, shake your head and tsk-tsk the rest of the world—it's hard to recognize the aspects of criminality that live inside your own head. This morning I cut off someone driving too slow on I-40. Yesterday I ignored a knock at my door, knowing it was just my neighbor trying to bum smokes again. I cussed between my teeth and blamed him for making me feel like a jerk.

I guess being rude isn't exactly the same thing as murder or grand larceny, but like most things I'm sure it's just a matter of degrees. Somewhere in there, the thought becomes a shout: “Me first! Gimme, gimme!” and the next thing you know …

Maybe all those city officials are right, and once APD is fully staffed and up to standard, these problems will all just drift away like a bad dream. I sure hope so. I never planned on joining the force myself, so there's not much I can do except lead cheers from the sidelines. But I can do something about the space immediately around me. I can make sure my own little spot is a place that doesn't need cops. Keep that Gimme Gimme demon—the one that lives inside of me—locked up tight, and try like the devil to make my part of the city a nice place, at least.

I know. It sounds like hippy bullshit to me, too. But if what they say about mirror neurons is true, maybe turning on my blinker before I switch lanes will trigger someone's mirror system, and they'll copy my behavior. Weirder things have happened. And the next thing you know…