Arrests at syringe exchange spotlight APD tactics

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On June 28, APD detectives stormed a mobile syringe exchange like this one as they searched for two suspects. Tomas Abeyta/Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless

On June 28, APD detectives stormed a mobile syringe exchange like this one as they searched for two suspects. Tomas Abeyta/Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless

Albuquerque police Detective Herman Martinez had an anonymous tip: a man and woman had warrants out for their arrests, they had been selling large amounts of heroin in the city, and the man had a gun.

So shortly after noon on June 28, Martinez and seven other plainclothes officers from the APD Narcotics and Vice units followed Camille Gabaldon, 38, and 37-year-old Greg Chaparro, in unmarked police cars as the pair drove through the city in a maroon sedan.

Within an hour, the officers were in another fraught drug investigation — the third such incident involving the Narcotics Unit and street-level users during the last several weeks. The June 28 encounter provides another lens through which to view a New Mexico version of the tension between law enforcement and marginalized communities that is roiling the nation.

The incident also raises questions about APD and the type of policing done by its specialized units as the agency attempts to reform what the federal Department of Justice called a “pattern or practice of excessive force” in a 2014 report.

Detectives with the two units watched Gabaldon and Chaparro go in and out of two residences. They also observed as Chaparro, a previously convicted armed robber, conducted what appeared to be a drug deal in a parking lot near Coors and Iliff SW, police records show.

Detectives then followed the pair to an area near the intersection of 60th and Central SW, where Chaparro stopped the sedan near a white van. Gabaldon got out and entered the van. A short time later, Chaparro exited the car and stood with a few other people.

The van was a mobile syringe exchange on Albuquerque’s far West side, well known among drug users, field officers assigned to police the area, local merchants and others. An APD spokeswoman says the detectives did not know in advance that the white van was a mobile syringe exchange.

Either way, shortly after Gabaldon and Chaparro got out of the sedan, the detectives stormed the exchange, rifles raised and shouting, ordering some people to the ground and others out of the van, according to witness accounts. Among those present and staring down the barrels of the officers’ assault-style rifles were two employees of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless (HCH), the nonprofit group that runs the exchange, the organization’s executive director told New Mexico In Depth in an interview.

By then, the detectives and their sergeant knew they were standing near a state-run, legal syringe exchange — though none of their police reports filed later mentions this fact.

The incident lasted around 20 minutes and yielded six-tenths of a gram of heroin detectives allegedly found on Gabaldon. Officers later found a handgun in the maroon sedan, according to police reports.

Jennifer Metzler, executive director of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, described the incident as “shocking.” Syringe exchanges are legal in 17 U.S. states, including New Mexico. The program, administered by the state Health Department, exists to blunt the spread of blood-borne, infectious diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV.

That the police would arrest two people who were seeking services at the syringe exchange, regardless of what they were up to beforehand, concerned Metzler.

“I think that, in the environment that we’re living in nationwide right now, all kinds of things can happen in those sorts of encounters,” she said. “We’ve seen where things can go awry.”

More broadly, the incident highlights the complicated push and pull between the sacred duty of the police to enforce the law and another sacred duty: protecting the health of the public, particularly its most vulnerable segments.

Gabaldon and Chaparro, after all, were wanted on felony warrants and Chaparro had a history of violence and was considered armed and dangerous. At the same time, syringe exchanges are sacred spaces in the public health community. Metzler worried about whether people would return to the exchange after an incident with heavily armed police officers.

Beyond that clash of sometimes competing ideals, the incident invites additional questions about what is or is not aggressive policing or excessive use of force, particularly pertaining to APD’s specialized units. Among them: are the units’ tactics overly aggressive, particularly with vulnerable populations? Do the specialized teams communicate before or during their operations with field officers and others within the department who may know a particular area of town better than a specialized detective team?

For example, it is unclear whether the team of detectives had spoken on June 28 to field officers who knew the area and were familiar with the syringe exchange.

APD refused to make anyone from the department available for an interview for this story. In a written response sent after NMID’s deadline, spokeswoman Celina Espinoza did not answer a question about whether the Narcotics and Vice units communicated with field officers in the area on June 28.

And she said detectives did not “contact” or “interact with” anyone who was receiving services or staff at the exchange — an assertion disputed by HCH and APD’s own reports.

“We support the mission of Healthcare for the Homeless 100% and have a cooperative and collaborative relationship,” Espinoza’s statement said. However, the department’s specialized units were not aware of the HCH mobile syringe exchange that has operated at 60th and Central for seven years, she said.

‘Stunned and surprised’

New Mexico in Depth reconstructed the June 28 incident through reports filed by the eight officers who went to the syringe exchange that day and an interview with Metzler, who was not present but recounted her employees’ experiences.

The two versions of the event couldn’t be further apart.

The police reports show that, from the detectives’ perspective, Gabaldon and Chaparro were potentially dangerous felons who needed to be taken off the streets. The APD team was growing increasingly eager to get them into custody, the reports suggest.

Prior to the sedan arriving at the exchange, Sgt. Luke Languit, who was with the team, authorized stopping the sedan with a high-risk “vehicle blocking maneuver” — a favored but controversial driving tactic among detectives in some of APD’s specialized units that has been criticized and described as a last resort in law enforcement trade publications.

Traffic prevented them from executing the maneuver, the reports state. Instead, the team chose to make the arrests at the area of 60th and Central — the location of the syringe exchange — because that’s where Gabaldon and Chaparro got out of their car.

As the detectives moved in, according to police reports, the situation escalated because Chaparro was slow to comply with their commands to get on the ground — and he reached a hand into his pocket. He was not armed and, eventually, he acquiesced.

Neither the police reports nor a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court against Gabaldon mentions the syringe exchange.

Espinoza, the APD spokeswoman, said the exchange “was not a focus or necessary to identify as part of the arrest,” and that’s why it wasn’t mentioned in the reports.

Metzler, of HCH, said the omissions troubled her. From her staff’s perspective, the June 28 event looked like eight plainclothes officers pouring out of unmarked vehicles, pointing rifles at people and shouting commands. The staff were “stunned and surprised,” Metzler said.

When the police rolled up with their rifles drawn, seven HCH clients, including Chaparro, stood outside the van with one staffer. Another staffer was inside the van — where people are allowed, by law, to exchange used syringes for clean ones — with Gabaldon, who was there to participate in the exchange.

As the incident unfolded, Metzler said, the detectives were aware the van was a syringe exchange because employees identified themselves and showed them their HCH badges, which officers acknowledged. Detective Martinez’s report – in which he lists one employee’s name, birth date, telephone number and employer — appears to corroborate Metzler’s account.

Some of the clients were ordered to lie on the hot pavement, according to Detective Matt Vollmer’s report and Metzler’s account.

Together, Metzler’s account and the two detectives’ reports challenge APD’s claim that detectives did not interact with staff or any of the exchange’s clients. 

Several officers captured at least some of the incident on their body-worn cameras, according to the reports. NMID requested that footage but an APD spokeswoman did not provide the video and NMID has filed a public records request.

At one point, officers entered the van, though it is unclear whether they conducted a search, Metzler said. The officers did not show the staffers a warrant.

The June 28 incident made Metzler question whether APD’s tactics at the syringe exchange matched the department’s public statements about being committed to reforms after the U.S. Department of Justice found a deeply rooted culture of excessive force among city police.

Both Chaparro and Gabaldon were seeking services at the exchange that day, Metzler said.

“Whatever these two individuals were doing prior to their arrival at the harm reduction outreach is not something we take into consideration,” she said. “We provide services and care. It certainly appears that there could’ve been numerous other opportunities to bust them, if that’s what APD needed to do.

“Look, illegal is illegal, and we have plenty of rules regarding safety and behaviors that aren’t acceptable,” Metzler said.

But HCH’s staff, trained to recognize volatile situations, did not feel like there was any danger before the police arrived.

“We all, as an organization, have questions about why it was necessary for APD to enter this small space, armed, while we were providing services,” Metzler said.

Three incidents in six weeks

The incident marked the third time in a little more than a month that controversy has arisen around operations conducted by the APD Narcotics Unit — a team within the department’s Special Investigations Division.

On May 20, narcotics detectives posed as drug dealers and arrested eight people in a “reverse sting” operation in which the officers accepted clothing, $3 and colic medication for cocaine and methamphetamine. Most of those arrested were homeless people of color; some were living with mental illness. City leaders and longtime APD observers criticized the operation, although Police Chief Gorden Eden has indicated that the reverse stings will continue.

And on June 24, four days before the incident at the syringe exchange, Narcotics Unit detectives arrested two dancers at a Downtown topless club. Detectives paid the dancers for lap dances, then asked whether they could “score” cocaine, according to an Albuquerque Journal story. When the women returned with cocaine — $40 worth and $20 worth — they were arrested.

Some of the same detectives were involved in each of the recent, controversial incidents. And at least one of the detectives who stormed the syringe exchange, Vollmer, of the vice unit, was previously assigned to the Repeat Offender Project (ROP) team, which the Justice Department disbanded because of its overly aggressive and, essentially, rogue tactics.

Taken together, the two operations and the incident at the syringe exchange appear to challenge recent APD statements that it has shifted its approach to low-level drug crime from arresting people to referring them to social services and drug treatment programs.

Staff at the syringe exchange often refer people to those types of programs as part of the New Mexico Department of Health’s harm reduction program, which includes syringe exchanges. A Health Department spokesman did not respond to NMID’s request for comment about the APD incident.

Syringe exchanges are not foreign to law enforcement. APD, for example, has a standard operating procedure that states officers must follow the state law governing exchanges.

That’s partly why Metzler was so surprised by what happened on June 28.

“We have a very good working relationship here, at our main health campus at First and Mountain, particularly with the (APD) Valley Area Command,” she said. “We are in communication with them. They really honor the importance of people without homes being able to come here and feel safe.”

Metzler said her organization hasn’t worked with the Narcotics Unit in the past, although the exchange is well known, having operated at 60th and Central for seven years.

“We’ve been providing those services in that van in that parking lot for many years at that time on Tuesday afternoons,” she said. “We’re not hiding anything. We’re providing perfectly legal and important health services.”

‘We had one person show up’

As of Wednesday, Chaparro remained jailed at the Metropolitan Detention Center on an unspecified violation of his probation, which stems from 2004, when he pleaded guilty to three counts of armed robbery and was sentenced to nine years in prison. He was being held without bond.

Gabaldon also remained at the West Side jail Wednesday without bond. The heroin possession charge from June 28 was dismissed, with the possibility of being re-filed. She has outstanding warrants from a 2012 drug possession charge and a 2014 trafficking charge, reports show.

Meanwhile, Metzler expressed worries the police intrusion at the syringe exchange in late June could damage the hard-won, but fragile trust HCH has built with one of the city’s most marginalized populations.

“There’s a lot of stigma attached to those behaviors and those circumstances,” she said of drug use. “My concern about what happens with something like this is that people will feel like they can’t come to us for care … and that it becomes a huge barrier to resources and services that can be life-changing in dramatic ways — and life-saving, or death-preventing.”

Gabaldon and Chaparro were two of eight people seeking services at the time of the police incident.

On an average Tuesday, the exchange serves about 50 people.

The week after the June 28 incident, HCH sent its entire team to 60th and Central.

“We had one person show up,” she said.

“I think people will come back,” Metzler said, citing occasions in the past when there were crackdowns on drug dealing around some of HCH’s programs. “But what happens in the meantime? My fear is about that gap. Because continuous engagement is what really makes a difference … But there’s this huge disruption. Who’s going to fall through the cracks in the meantime?”

5 thoughts on “Arrests at syringe exchange spotlight APD tactics

  1. Wow these medical professionals rights were completely violated and APD knows it. This Matt Volmer was a former rope team officer, so he’s been a cop for many years. This guy has no respect for the law, or for people just doing their jobs. This is beyond unprofessional. Its plain stupidity or a depairment of thinking due to drug use! These officers need to be drug tested before they shoot one of their own again or an innocent bystander.

  2. Typical Media bias trying to make a nothing story into a racial or socioeconomic bias by police. Yawn Proctor, most of us are tired of the excuses you all make for criminals.

    • Scaring people away from a syringe exchange is far from “nothing.” It could easily lead to more cases of HIV or hepatitis, which could then affect the larger community. Syringe exchanges are a crucial part of the fight against HIV in particular.
      You probably have no clue how difficult it is to work in a public health situation like this, let alone what it’s like to be an addict in poverty. No compassion from you, you just dismiss them all as “criminals.” While the two who were being pursued by the cops may have fit that label, there’s no reason to think that the other clients or the staff were, yet they were all threatened.

  3. Does no one recall the client who was shot in the parking lot of Recovery Services of NM in the south valley? That is a private substance abuse treatment facility! I have also witnessed DEA walk right into a methadone clinic masked and armed (Duke city recovery toolbox, 2014) and we did not know if we were being robbed or if it was terrorists or what, until they grabbed a suspect.

  4. This was the same group that shot their own detective in January 2015. There is a heroin problem at La Cueva, why don’t they spend some time in the far northeast heights arresting those folks for their drug use? The rich get to use drugs. The rich use the cops to put poor people in jail for using the same drugs.

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