Black community leaders and citizens have taken to the airwaves to call for reform as more information surfaces about a federal sting operation that arrested a disproportionate number of blacks in a city with comparatively few African Americans.
Earlier this month, I interviewed leaders from several black community groups, as well as black citizens, for a New Mexico In Depth story about the design of the 2016 criminal operation conducted by the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
The ATF operation used three black and two Hispanic confidential informants (none were white) and focused on a low-income, largely minority section of southeast Albuquerque. Last week on NMPBS’s public affairs show, New Mexico In Focus, I continued that discussion with Patrick Barrett of the local chapter of the NAACP and Janette McClelland, a resident of one of the neighborhoods targeted in the operation. (NMPBS is an NMID partner. You can watch the video below.)
We discussed how ATF’s decisions led to some shocking statistics.
Twenty eight of the 103 individuals arrested in the ATF operation, or 27 percent, were black, a striking number when compared to Albuquerque’s African American population, which is 3 percent. Another striking comparison: The percentage of black defendants in federal court in New Mexico between 2006 and 2015 was just 5 percent. Hispanics were also overrepresented among those arrested in the ATF operation while whites were dramatically underrepresented.
Barrett told me he was bothered in particular by the use of barbershops, a traditional institution in black communities, to identify targets for the ATF operation.
“One of the most disturbing things after reading the (New Mexico In Depth) article was that they were attacking our black institutions again – particularly where black men go at to the barber shop for example,” Barrett said during the New Mexico In Focus segment.
Barber shops are one of the only places in America where black men “go in and feel safe, where we can be our natural selves,” Barrett told me. “If we can’t go in a barber shop and feel safe in this space, where we can go to be authentic and feel safe?”
For both Barrett and McClelland, the operation also evoked images of now-condemned tactics used by federal and local law enforcement to unequally police black communities going back to the 1950s and 1960s.
Federal prosecutors and an ATF agent who supervised the operation have denied claims of illegal racial profiling made by defense attorneys.
Both Barrett and McClelland also want answers on how local authorities might have helped to shape the federal criminal sting.
“Logically I don’t see a federal operation going into the city of Albuquerque without (Albuquerque Police Department) command knowing about it, which means the mayor probably had to know something about this,” Barrett told me.
An APD spokeswoman has declined to answer detailed questions about the department’s involvement and has directed New Mexico In Depth to the ATF. The ATF has not responded to NMID’s questions.
A spokesman for New Mexico State Police has confirmed that agency’s officers “assisted” in the operation but would not elaborate.
McClelland, who moved to Albuquerque in 2004 from South Central Los Angeles, also had strong words for black community leaders in Albuquerque, especially their response to the news that blacks were disproportionately arrested in the operation.
“Locally, I haven’t heard much. And that disappoints me, very disappointing,” McClelland said. “I would have loved to see them on TV right then and there saying something. Back in L.A., something like this happens, you see the leaders out there. They are immediately out there. They are demanding answers right then and there and they stay on it. No one is staying on it” in Albuquerque, she said.
Barrett responded to that criticism.
“I think she has valid points,” said Barrett, second vice president of the local NAACP chapter. But Albuquerque’s black community first needs to “gather the facts,” he said.
The NAACP is among a couple of local organizations that are drafting letters to federal agencies seeking answers about the operation. Earlier this month, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office told New Mexico In Depth when the agency receives those letters “it will respond directly to the authors of those letters.”
Both McClelland and Barrett also want to see more communication and cooperation between the black community and Albuquerque’s city government.
“In all the years I’ve lived here, and it’s been almost 14 years, we are ignored,” McClelland said of the city’s African American community. “Whoever comes in as mayor in October or December, whenever that is, get on him immediately and say ‘Listen to us,’ ‘Make sure this does not happen again.’ “
The first thing that needs to happen, Barrett said, is that Albuquerque’s black community and city government need to restore trust.
“What we are hoping to do is to start a dialogue,” which would include conversations about “what types of policies can we put in place to prevent things like this happening again,” he said.