Changes coming to controversial APD drug stings — or not?


Deputy Police Chief Eric Garcia

David Ley is hopeful — but confused — about the future of the Albuquerque Police Department’s controversial “reverse drug sting” operations, in which officers posing as dealers sell narcotics to people, then arrest them on suspicion of possession.

Ley, a clinical psychologist, sits on the Mental Health Response Advisory Committee (MHRAC), a creation of the court-enforceable reform agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and APD. The committee’s mandate is to help the police department improve its dealings with people living with mental illness — one of the key failures that led Justice Department investigators to conclude that APD had a decades-old practice of violating people’s civil rights through the excessive use of force.

On May 20, Ley read with concern my New Mexico In Depth report that detailed a recent reverse sting operation carried out by the APD Narcotics Unit. At least seven people were arrested earlier last month; six of them were homeless people of color, and at least three were living with mental illness. Those arrested traded what little of value they had — including $3, colic medication and, in one man’s case, the jacket off his back — to undercover officers for crack cocaine and methamphetamines. Each of the people was arrested on felony charges, which are still pending.

Hope came for Ley at a meeting six days later, on May 26, when he and other committee members met with Deputy Police Chief Eric Garcia and Lt. John Sullivan of the department’s Special Investigations Division, which oversees the Narcotics Unit.

Ley described the meeting as “productive” and “forward looking.” Garcia and Sullivan had made a number of concessions, which Ley detailed at a June 21 meeting of the MHRAC last week:

  • Dr. Nils Rosenbaum, who heads up APD’s new Behavioral Health Division, would consult with detectives before any operations that may impact homeless people or those living with mental illness “to ensure the rights and needs of such populations are observed and considered.”
  • Narcotics detectives would receive additional training related to the needs of vulnerable populations.
  • Detectives would include jail diversion, when possible, in an effort to connect people to services rather than send them to jail with felony drug charges.
  • APD officers would no longer accept trades, such as clothing, when conducting reverse stings — because that tactic does not fit within national best practices.
  • Garcia and Sullivan agreed to look for areas in which MHRAC members could assist officers in advance of law enforcement operations and develop a “strategy to prevent or mitigate negative impact on vulnerable populations.”

Garcia and Sullivan attended last week’s MHRAC meeting. After Ley’s presentation, Garcia praised the collaboration with committee members and the result of the May 26 meeting as “a way for us to make improvements and changes going forward.”

Sullivan believed that the May sting operation — and the controversy that followed — could be a “teachable moment” for APD, according to Bari Roberts, an adviser to APD and to the committee.

Nancy Koenigsberg, another member of the MHRAC, said at last week’s meeting that the concessions amount to evidence that the committee is functioning as the DOJ-APD agreement intended.

“This shows that MHRAC can be a partner with the police department,” she said. “This is going to help everybody.”

But there was a lingering concern for Ley.

Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden

Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden

He read my follow-up NMID story about Police Chief Gorden Eden’s response letter to City Councilor Pat Davis, who had asked the chief to halt the reverse sting operations and dedicate the department’s scarce resources to more serious crime.

In the letter, written six days after the meeting with Garcia and Sullivan, Eden indicated that the reverse stings would continue. And he denied that APD was targeting the homeless or people living with mental illness.

Ley told the MHRAC last week that he was “disappointed” to see that Eden’s letter made no reference to “what was a very positive meeting,” and that the chief’s position on the operations did not appear to include any of the agreed-upon changes.

In a telephone interview this week, Ley said there has been no movement since last week’s MHRAC meeting.

“It seems possible that the chief may not be fully aware of what (Garcia and Sullivan) said in our meeting,” he told me. “It leaves me confused as to where things are going from here, but I am hopeful that the agreements we made will hold.”

I’ve asked APD why Eden’s letter did not reflect the department’s concessions from the meeting with MHRAC meetings — and how the department will conduct reverse stings in the future. I will update this post with APD’s response if and when they send one.