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Apr 20 at 11:42 PM
FNS Feature

A Great Test of Democracy in Albuquerque

With each passing day, the uproar over shootings by the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) is transforming into a broader struggle over governance. Apart from basic issues of justice and human rights, defining moments in democratic rule, government transparency and official accountability and impunity are playing out in Albuquerque.

“I think it’s testing (democracy) to see how officials, especially municipal, are paying attention to citizens,” said Albuquerque City Councilor Rey Garduno.

Only days after an April 10 report from the U.S. Department of Justice found excessive force employed by the APD another political bombshell hit when three members of the Police Oversight Commission (POC) resigned. In April 15 letters to Mayor Richard Berry, POC Commissioners Jennifer Barela, Richard Shine and Jonathan Siegel blamed interference from the Albuquerque’s city attorney, a weak Police Oversight Commission Ordinance and provisions of the collective bargaining agreement with the local police union for turning the Police Oversight Commission into a rubber-stamping club.

In a pair of instances, commissioners were even blocked by the city attorney from conducting studies to examine internal investigations of officer-involved shootings and trends in litigation against APD officers, resigning Commissioner Richard Shine charged.

The conditions under which POC members served constituted a “complete mockery any independent civilian oversight of the APD in Albuquerque,” Shine wrote in his letter to Berry.

“Due to complete lack of authority of the Police Oversight Commission, I am resigning from the Commission,” read the letter from Barela. “I will not mislead the citizens of Albuquerque into believing that our City has any civilian oversight.”

The triple resignations brought the POC to its death bed, with only three of nine commissioners still left on the body. Reform of the POC, as well as adoption or modification of recommendations issued by the Police Oversight Task Force earlier this year, are still pending issues before the Albuquerque City Council.

The demise of the POC occurred as other political actors, institutions and a resurgent civil society were asserting themselves on an issue that catapulted to the forefront of New Mexican political life after the March 16 killing of homeless camper James Boyd by APD officers.

On April 21, the Albuquerque City Council will once again be an arena of struggle as citizen activists turn out to demand justice and reform of the APD. What’s more, control over APD’s management is looming on the city council’s official agenda, with councilors mulling two competing, proposed amendments to Albuquerque’s city charter.

Drafted by Councilor Garduno, one amendment would make the chief of police an elected position. Sponsored by City Council President Ken Sanchez and Councilor Brad Winter, another amendment stops short of giving voters the decisive choice in selecting the police chief but requires the advice and consultation of the city council in naming the heads of the police and fire departments.

In comments to FNS, Garduno described his proposed amendment as a response to public outrage over the police department’s management. “(Officials) have not paid attention to the community, and the community has been asking officials to be more accountable,” Garduno said.

The representative for City Council District 6 said the proposed amendments could see council action next month. If either amendment is approved by the city representatives, the winning proposal will go before the voters next November.

In the meantime, Garduno urged Albuquerque to quickly accept the Department of Justice’s prescriptions for changes in policing practices and policies. “We now need to act on these recommendations to become a better city and a greater police department,” he said. “I think we have a good police department, meaning the folks in there are good but mistrained.”

The two-term city council member cautioned that he did not want to generalize about the specific training of individual officers, but that an “us or them” attitude prevailed among some officers in their interactions with a community the police should protect and serve.

Although street protests have faded in recent days, many activists are busy with the nuts-and-bolts of grassroots organizing. At a large April 17 meeting held at Albuquerque’s Mennonite Church, activists debated street protests, media coverage, outreach to the police rank-and-file, grand jury petitions, and political recalls.

“Citizen are not Insurgents” and “Release all Videos of Officer Involved Shootings,” read two signs inside the building.

“The reason we engaged in street protest is because we don’t have confidence in public officials,” said Joel Gallegos, organizer for the ANSWER Coalition. “All of these protests are really great, but we have to consult with the community so people are responsive.”

Protests from below, Gallegos said, are “platforms” to address issues like racism that cut deeper than “the surface issue of police violence.”

Paul Heh, 24-year veteran of APD who retired in 2011, urged the recall of Mayor Richard Berry, a strategy for change that is supported by a cluster of other activists as well.

“He’s lost the trust of the citizens of this community,” Heh contended.

In an interview with FNS, Heh said a notice of intent for a recall election has already been filed with the City Clerk of Albuquerque. The next step, he said, will be for a state judge to grant activists permission to circulate a petition for a special recall election. The former APD sergeant criticized the judicial branch’s power over a citizen initiative, branding the court’s potential veto power “idiotic.”

Last fall, Heh mounted an unsuccessful mayoral campaign in the three-way race that saw Berry easily reelected to a four-year term.

Heh blamed the crisis over APD shootings on former Police Chief Ray Schultz, who he said solidified a top-down command structure and stripped authority away from sergeants-the very officials in the police hierarchy who best know the street cops and their issues. “Lack of leadership,” Heh pronounced. “It comes down to lack of leadership.”

According to the former APD sergeant, brewing trouble was identified by Berry’s transition team in late 2009, with the preparation of a draft report that included an observation that the APD was “exhibiting many of the signs of a culture of corruption.”

Among the red flags, the draft report stated, were the never-prosecuted 2004-2005 evidence room scandal, when drugs, guns and other confiscated items vanished from the APD evidence room, as well as rank-and-file fears of the chain of command.

The draft report cited the work of Dr. Neal E. Trautman, veteran Florida policeman and nationally-recognized law enforcement trainer.

Trautman has developed a schema mapping out the different stages that mark a police department’s descent into corruption, which include poor recruitment and training, workplace back-biting, bad officer morale, and a tendency to cover-up scandals.

According to the draft Berry transition report: “Leadership is often viewed as remote and individual officers and front line supervisors are often out of the loop when it comes to the successes of the department while disciplinary actions are frequently high profile.” The APD, the draft report continued, “has repeatedly mishandled its media relations…first reaction is make every attempt to keep a breaking scandal out of the media at any cost.”

The final Berry transition report omitted any mention of a creeping culture of corruption, Neal Trautman or the evidence room. Ray Schultz was then reappointed police chief by the incoming mayor, much to the chagrin of many officers, according to Heh.

If activists are given the go-ahead to circulate a Berry recall petition, they will need to obtain the valid signatures of 23,500 city voters to hold a special election. Heh acknowledged the enormity of a task that will require a “small army” of signature gatherers, but insisted that an impassioned movement was up for the challenge.

Some movement activists question the strategy of focusing energies on removing high-ranking individuals from office. “It’s not a question of who is in power, it is a systemic, structural problem,” one young man told the crowd at the Mennonite Church.

Nora Tachias Anaya, however, supports a Berry recall. An activist with the O22 Coalition, Anaya has a personal motivation for joining the citizen movement.

In 1988 Tachias Anaya’s nephew, 23-year-old Levi Tachias, was shot to death by APD officers after a reported shooting at a party in the South Valley. According to Tachias Anaya, her nephew was then shot by police in unclear circumstances while driving his wounded girlfriend away from the party, and the family was never able to view the victim’s body. The young man had served with the Green Berets in Grenada, she said.

Now, more than a quarter-century later, Tachias Anaya said some in the movement are so committed that they are ready to lay down their lives to bring about changes.

“We’re going to keep on fighting,” she vowed.

Besides Monday’s Albuquerque City Council meeting, citizens will have numerous other opportunities to speak out on justice, policing and governance issues before a turbulent month of April winds down. On Friday, April 25, the Southwest Organizing Project is sponsoring a 5:30 pm forum on the historical resistance to police brutality at the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice.

On Monday, April 28, friends of Jonathan Mitchell, an African-American Iraq war veteran shot to death by an Albuquerque resident last year, have scheduled an afternoon protest in front of Bernalillo County

District Attorney Kari Brandenburg’s downtown office to demand an indictment of the alleged shooter be indicted. An Internet petition demanding an indictment has so far gathered more than 3,000 signatures. Brandenburg is also the target of movement criticism for her failure to indict any officers involved in numerous shootings during the past four years.

Also the week April 28, the Department of Justice is expected to meet with elected officials, city leaders, police union representatives, and citizen activists to discuss the April 10 report and the next steps in implementing reforms, according to media reports.

Readers interested in seeing other FNS stories about the events in Albuquerque can go to our website at: http://fnsnews.nmsu.edu/
-Kent Paterson
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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Author: Editor


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