Criticism of a massive undercover drug- and gun-crime sting spilled into the Albuquerque mayoral race last week, when candidates were pressed about a 2016 federal law enforcement operation that netted a disproportionate number of black people.
It was a serious question, made all the more serious by the man asking: Joe Powdrell, a longtime local activist past president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which sponsored the Sept. 8 forum.
The operation has drawn community and legal scrutiny for alleged racial profiling and for scooping up many who did not fit the “worst of the worst” profile trumpeted by federal officials after New Mexico In Depth investigations.
Picking up on the alleged racial targeting, Powdrell asked the candidates “where your head is at in terms of this biased policing.”
Only three of the seven candidates who attended the forum addressed the sting directly.
Dan Lewis, a second-term, Republican city councilor who has spoken out on a number of police-related issues during his seven-plus years on the council, gave the most forceful response.
“The first thing I’ll do is make sure that ATF sting is thoroughly investigated,” Lewis said. “I support Pat Davis’ resolution that’s before the council right now to have Congress investigate that and root it out. Any alleged profiling, we’ll make sure that never happens again, certainly not in our city.”
Lewis was referring to a piece of legislation floated last month by Councilor Pat Davis, a Democrat who is running for the soon-to-be-vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives representing New Mexico’s District 1.
Lewis is the first councilor to publicly support Davis’ bill.
Democrat Gus Pedrotty, another mayoral hopeful, responded to Powdrell’s question about the sting with some frustration: “Are any of us really surprised about the ATF sting? No.”
Earlier in the forum, state Auditor Tim Keller, a Democratic candidate for mayor, mentioned the ATF operation, saying it appeared the bureau racially profiled Albuquerque. He called the tactic “wrong.”
Powdrell widened the lens on his question, pointing out the Albuquerque Police Department’s court-enforced reform agreement with the U.S. Justice Department does not address racially biased policing.
“What will you do to prevent racial profiling by the Albuquerque Police Department?” he asked.
All seven candidates condemned the practice and offered a variety of proposals to keep it off the streets of Albuquerque.
True community policing is one solution, Pedrotty said, and APD must engage residents to address the “systemic issues” they want solved.
Susan Wheeler-Deichsel, an independent, said: “Your mayor needs to lead from the front. She needs to set a tone that there will not be any more racial profiling.”
Democrat Brian Colón said he hasn’t “had to deal with much racial profiling.” If elected, he plans to bring on people who have to help him craft policies that would prevent it:
Michelle Garcia Holmes, a retired APD officer and Republican, said: “I will have a no-tolerance policy on that. Absolutely not.” She said officers must be trained on racial sensitivity, and the city must address skyrocketing drug addiction in minority communities and elsewhere.
The city’s Police Oversight Board’s mandate needs to include monitoring racial profiling, Keller said, and it would if he is elected. “We need to set up a system and try to prevent it from happening in the first place,” Keller said.
Wayne Johnson, a Republican serving his second term on the Bernalillo County Commission, said racial profiling by law enforcement is “ridiculous,” and added: “I don’t think of crime in terms of color.”