Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Class, Prejudice and Outrage in Albuquerque

I watched most of the evening's doings at the Albuquerque City Council meeting last night (on live video, not in person, as we are quite a ways out in the country and all). The meeting was primarily dedicated to hearing from citizens regarding their feelings about the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) and the recent events in which several individuals were killed by police, most notably James Boyd as he was surrendering up in the Sandia foothills after a several hour standoff. The video of that incident has gone viral around the nation and the world. It seemed to me that the Council was primarily interested in dealing with the public relations disaster that ensued, but, as I usually do, I gave the electeds the benefit of the doubt, as it seemed some of them were actually interested in hearing from the public whatever ideas they might have for correcting the situation.

However, it was pointed out very early that the Mayor had "an important meeting" elsewhere and so would not be attending this Council meeting. Interesting. Also, during the meeting, there was a statement from one of the public participants that the AP had just announced that the DoJ's long-awaited report on APD's actions would be released on Thursday. 

At some point, the newly installed -- and rather bumbling -- police chief, Gorden Eden, made an appearance at the back of the room, where apparently he stayed at least as long as I watched, until about 10pm.

The meeting was well attended -- a full house in the Council chambers (241 capacity), and many watching a live feed outside the room on the plaza in front of the government building and apparently in an overflow room as well. It was anticipated that there would be a large crowd for the meeting, and so there was, but from what I could tell, the numbers were not in the "thousands" as had been suggested by some advocates might attend. My estimate is around 500, but I wasn't there, so that's more a guess than I would like it to be.

Quite a few of the speakers were relatives of those who had been killed by police in Albuquerque over the years, and some reported on their own experiences in police custody. There were reports of incidents of police misconduct and brutality going back to the '60s and '70s, the upshot being that "this is nothing new," the APD has always been a sketchy outfit and brutal at best.

I don't know what to say about that. I'm not familiar with what went on in the more distant past, but I did a little research about the Roosevelt Park riots (1971), and indeed, what happened seemed so familiar considering what has been in the news lately. Except for one thing: Crowds don't seem to riot any more. Despite the chief's hyperbole about "mobs" at one of the protest demonstrations against police misconduct and brutality recently, there were no riots.

There were several references to police infiltration, misconduct and brutality during the anti-war protests in 2003, but none about police brutality toward (Un)Occupy demonstrations in 2011 and 2012.

Most of those who spoke were upset with police misconduct and excessive use of force and weapons in Albuquerque, though there were a few speakers who justified and supported practically anything the APD wanted to do. Some of them were current or ex-police officers. I noted that the defense of police actions -- such as the shooting of James Boyd which touched off this latest round of protests against the APD -- often pivots on definition of terms; keep re-defining "justified" for example, and you can justify anything at all. And that's what many police defenders do. Whatever the police do to civilians is "justified" by re-definition. It's bizarre, but it's what happens.

What was clear to me from the testimony last night was that class and prejudice enters into police actions so often as to be definitive. As one speaker pointed out, you don't hear about police shootings in the Northeast Heights. That's because they don't happen there, or in any of the well-off enclaves that dot the Albuquerque Metro area. The police shoot to kill in poor neighborhoods, and their targets are often young, poor white, black or brown men with sketchy backgrounds, often homeless, often struggling with mental illness and/or substance abuse issues.

I believe one of the speakers pointed out that of the 23 men killed by police in the past four years, 11 were clinically mentally ill. There was little or no treatment available for many of them, little or no safety, little or no effort made to keep them out of trouble or out of the line of police fire.

Mental health care services and social services for Albuquerque's growing cohorts of poor, homeless, mentally ill, and substance abusers were broken or absent altogether, and the APD, when called on, too often used lethal force where there was little or no danger to themselves. They got away with it, too, because the men they shot and killed were "the least among us."

The killing of James Boyd was a last straw. He was well known to social service workers and to the police. Despite obvious need, there was no help for him. He was just being cycled between jail and homeless shelter, with occasional interludes at a mental health facility. But he was on his own much more than not, and he was shot and killed because he was trying to survive away from the people who had simply rejected him or couldn't offer him anything.

There are thousands of homeless in Albuquerque, many tens of thousands of poor people, many of them young or youngish, many barely getting by or desperate. These are the people the APD concentrates their force on, and these are the people they shoot and too often kill. Some have extensive criminal backgrounds, but often enough, they are "criminals" for being homeless, for being young, sassy, black or brown, or because they use drugs or get drunk.

The APD is trained to persecute these people. There was testimony from poor, homeless, brown and black people who went through "living hell" from the Albuquerque police because of their status, their color, their location.

It's a a prejudice the police are trained to act on.

And it's not just in Albuquerque.

As more and more Americans are forced into poverty by the endless recession, more and more Americans face this kind of gross prejudice by authority, prejudice based on status, or rather lack of it.

The outrage felt by so many Burqueños is based on long and in many cases very cruel experience. Many said they had been warning the council and the mayor's office for years about the dangerous behavior of the police, and they had been advocating reform after reform, but nothing was done. They were ignored. And now this.

There were a number of representatives of A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, which has been in the forefront of police misconduct protests in Albuquerque. I haven't seen them on parade since the Anti-Iraq-War protests which they organized and implemented on an enormous but ultimately ineffective scale.

In concert with Anonymous, the members of the coalition who testified last night issued the following demands:

1) We demand an immediate takeover of APD by the D.O.J.
The recent outrageous and disgraceful shooting of James Boyd by the APD clearly demonstrates that the Chief of Police and his subordinate commanders are unable or unwilling to do anything to address the ongoing excessive use of force and disregard for human life by APD officers.  It is simply imperative that the D.O.J. step in immediately and assume control of APD in order to prevent further abuses.  Whether by consent decree, some type of federal receivership or otherwise, immediate D.O.J. intervention is critical.
2)  We demand authentic and verified citizen oversight of APD to include the authority over hiring and firing (and discipline) of APD leadership and officers.  Once again, the Chief of Police and his subordinate commanders have demonstrated a complete lack of authority/ability in supervising and, where necessary, disciplining and/or dismissing officers who continue to perpetrate abuses of force.  Over the last several years officers have learned that they are free to utilize excessive use of force and that their actions will always be determined justifiable.
3)  We demand the immediate arrest of the officers who participated in the shooting and killing of James Boyd, particularly the two identified shooters. These officers are entitled to the same constitutional protections we all have but they must be arrested and charged just as we ordinary citizens would have been had we surrounded and shot Mr. Boyd.
4)  We demand the immediate termination of Chief Eden.  Despite his assurances of appropriate discipline if and when necessary which he promised when he was appointed, the Chief has clearly shown that his tenure as police Chief is simply going to be more of the same business as usual when it comes down to justifying actions of his officers.  Different name, different face, same result.
5)  We further demand indictments of all officers who have been guilty of violating citizen rights.  
It is time to bring charges against all of the officers who have engaged in excessive use of force cases over the last several years and let them face the same charges and prosecution we would be facing.  Officers cannot be allowed to escape above the law simply because they wear a badge.  In fact, they should be held to a higher standard, not a lesser more lenient standard.
6) We demand the demilitarization of APD.  We have become dismayed and disgusted with the new, modern 'look' of our APD officers.  These officers appear to enjoy strutting about in their tough muscle cars and showing off their modern tactical weapons including high powered rifles, and assault type, almost military looking uniforms, including helmets and bullet-proof vests.  They seem to enjoy the opportunity to roll out their armed assault vehicles.  One recent event involved an officer who arrived late at a police scene and exclaimed that he was sorry he has arrived late and wasn't going to be able to try out his new toy "i.e. his assault rifle.
7)  We demand an increase of funding for social services including substance abuse prevention and treatment, preventing homelessness and an acknowledgement that each of us is entitled to housing, shelter and the peaceful enjoyment of our city.  A redirection of funding from police weaponry and tactical training to social services will certainly go a long way in reducing the confrontations between the police and the homeless in our City.  Similarly, substance abuse treatment will reduce the crime rate which leads to violent confrontations.
8)  We demand a new vigorous investigation of the APD hiring practices.  We hae learned that APD recently lowered minimum standards for new officers and is not requiring lateral transfers to undergo background checks and psychological exams.  This has resulted in a rash of 'reject' officers from other jurisdictions finding a home in APD.  There was a reason these rejects were let go by their departments.  How can we believe they will no longer be problem officers?
9)  We demand that access to deadly weapons by APD officers be dramatically reduced.  As mentioned in demand number 6 there is too much emphasis on more modern, more tactical weapons.  Officers place more and more emphasis on newer more deadly weapons.  This has resulted in more officer involved shootings and overkill where the victims are not just shot once or twice but multiple shots.
10) We demand authentic and verifiable policing that puts positive police-community relationships ahead of violent confrontation.  Clearly officers and citizens are both better served and safer when they can work together in collaborative rather than a confrontational fashion.  What has happened to 'community based policing?' This is a term we never hear anymore.
11)  We demand a non-police emergency response of trained mental health professionals and crisis negotiators who can be called upon at all encounters that carry the potential for possible use of deadly force.  Especially in situations like that which led to the killing of James Boyd, there was plenty of time to bring in trained crisis intervention personnel to help defuse rather than escalate the situation.
12)  We call upon those police officers who recognize the problem of the police violence to publicly support these demands.  In spite of the many problem officers within APD, we acknowledge those officers who are just as disgusted as we are with the outrage which have occurred.  We call upon these officers to stand up and be counted in taking a stand for sound and rational police practices designed to serve and protect the citizens.
13)  We demand that the city counsel adopt the Police Oversight Task Force's recommendations for police oversight immediately and without amendment or alteration. These recommendations are well thought out and reasoned approaches to the problems we are facing.  These recommendations must not be diluted or watered down so that they become ineffective.
14)  We demand immediate and ongoing medical evaluation of all APD officers to determine their mental fitness to carry a weapon and serve as a police officer.  As mentioned in demand number 8, we insist that APD reinstate previous screening procedures designed to identify and weed-out potentially problem officers.  These procedures are already in place, they have not been enforced during the last few years.
The council accepted the Police Oversight Task Force's report at last night's meeting, but what will become of it is anyone's guess. There have been many reports over the years, none have made much difference. The problem with the APD is inbred in its culture, and is reinforced by leadership. There were calls for the immediate resignation of the police chief and the mayor, but the council pointed out that the city's Chief Administrative Officer is actually the one who has authority over the police. Some called for his resignation as well, but the council was at some pains to assure the public that they had very little actual authority over the police and their conduct. They pointed out they only had policy and budget authority, not operations authority. Some wags responded that "policy and budget" are two of the chief ways to control the police department, but that seemed to go right over the council's head.

I was curious about whether this would be as raucous a meeting as I'd witnessed in Oakland, but it wasn't. It was far more polite.

But the mayor wasn't there, and the police chief stayed in the background. How it will all turn out remains to be seen.

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