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Serious crime down in Nogales; officials hope folks elsewhere notice

Police Sgt. Robert Thompson knows his way around the city he grew up in; he's patrolled it for more than a decade.

Maneuvering his department SUV down dirt side streets and waving to residents as he passed, Thompson recalled a time when cops here engaged in car chases two to three times a week.

Now, he said, Nogales is safe and mostly quiet.

A big part of the reason, he said, has to do with concerns about violence across the border.

"With everything that's been happening in Mexico and the intimidation factor from the cartels in Mexico, it has brought a lot [law enforcement] impact into this area," Thompson said.

His department's data for 2010 shows an 11 percent drop from the previous year in serious crimes like homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults.

While FBI uniform crime statistics for 2010 haven't been released, the police department's annual report showed that 459 major felony offenses were committed in 2010, down from 515 the previous year. No rapes or homicides were reported in 2010; one rape and no homicides were reported in 2009. Vehicle theft, burglaries and aggravated assaults also fell.

In the last several years, the Nogales Police Department has bolstered its coverage of the city, Thompson said, supported by money from the federal government and surrounded by officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Patrol and other agencies.

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"We patrol the areas that are non-conventional to regular police work: the outskirts of town, the dirt roads," he said. "That's brought down the crime rate extensively."

City leaders, residents and businesspeople said it's unfair that Nogales is often portrayed as rife with conflict and bloodshed from drug cartels.

Noting that a domestic violence-related homicide last month was the first murder in three years, Police Chief Jeffrey Kirkham said serious crimes in town are usually committed by residents, not illegal immigrants.

"People want to make it look like the immigrants are coming across here and committing crimes, but that's not true," Kirkham said.

Over the last five years, Nogales hasn't seen any homicides related to drugs, he said.

Since Kirkham joined the department a year ago, officers have followed a new beat system and targeted problem areas. Even with a slashed budget and officer shortages, crime is down.

The city has just 21,000 residents, but the population swells each day as more than 75,000 people enter from Mexico.

Still, its economy is suffering. The perception that Nogales is unsafe has led to a severe drop in U.S. tourists over the last several years, and hospitals have problems recruiting doctors, Mayor Arturo Garino said.

"This is not a war zone. This border's not out of control," he said. "This is one of the places that you can honestly say that you can walk in the streets at 3 o'clock in the morning and be very safe."

Businesses have felt the impact. At lunchtime recently, store owners along the main drag downtown stood idly outside their shops while few customers strolled.

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Bruce Bracker, a partner at Bracker's Department Store, said tourism has been down because of several things, including the perception of violence.

In reality, crime downtown near the border is almost nonexistent, he said, pointing to the various law enforcement agencies that have moved in and local cops who patrol the area on foot and bicycle.

"The law enforcement presence in downtown Nogales is about as good as you anywhere in the world," Bracker said, adding that he typically only deals with some shoplifting by local kids.

Last month, Garino joined mayors from the border cities of Douglas and San Luis asking Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu to tone down his comments about the dangers of the border, saying his facts were false and that they were creating unwarranted fear.

FBI data suggests that serious crime has remained mostly flat in Douglas in recent years, and serious crime reported by the San Luis Police Department has also stayed about the same.

San Luis Police Chief Rick Flores, who joined the department in April of last year, said that when he arrived he thought the department must be doing something wrong because he didn't see the crime he'd heard about.

"I thought either we're not being proactive and we're not engaged in investigating border crimes or there's nothing happening," he said in a telephone interview. "But it's just safe. There isn't the crime."

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Tessa Muggeridge/Cronkite News Service

Police Sgt. Robert Thompson, who has been with the Nogales Police Department 14 years, inspects items left in an abandoned home near the border. A common crime in Nogales is illegal immigrants squatting in houses like this one.

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