An Albuquerque City Council committee voted Monday evening to defer for 90 days a resolution asking New Mexico’s congressional delegation to push for an investigation of a 2016 federal law enforcement operation that netted a highly disproportionate number of black people.
Councilor Pat Davis, who sponsored the measure, cast the lone vote to send it to the full City Council.
Voting to defer the resolution were councilors Don Harris — who made the motion to delay the vote — Ken Sanchez, Brad Winter and Klarissa Peña. That means the council’s Finance and Government Operations Committee will rehear the resolution after 90 days during which time city officials hope to gather more information.
During discussion about the resolution, Sanchez asked what good it would do and why the congressional delegation couldn’t take up the issue on its own. Harris and Winter also wondered whether it was the city’s place to ask for a congressional investigation or chastise federal law enforcement.
“I agree with you, councilor,” Davis said to Sanchez about his observation that New Mexico’s congressional delegation could take up the issue itself. “Somebody should have taken this up a long time ago, … But this is a serious issue that’s causing real problems and not just here. And our community members are not being listened to.”
Davis filed the resolution following a multipart New Mexico In Depth investigation that raised numerous questions and concerns about the operation, which led to 103 arrests.
NMID found that the operation, led by the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF), swept up a 27 percent African American defendant class in a city with a 3 percent black population. Further, in nearly every case, agents did not take down the “worst of the worst” criminals they said they were after.
The operation has led to legal challenges alleging racial profiling, as well as questions about the tactics ATF used to zero in on an impoverished, largely minority part of Southeast Albuquerque in its search for targets.
Before Monday’s vote by the committee, Davis invited black community leaders and families of people swept up in the sting to speak at an informal session.
Speaking in favor of the measure, Harold Bailey, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said his organization was “very concerned about how the operation was conducted.”
“Sometimes, you can do the right thing the wrong way,” Bailey said in response to a question from Councilor Diane Gibson.
Gibson, whose council district includes part of the area targeted by ATF, showed up to listen to members of the public comment on the operation. Speaking publicly for the first time about the operation, Gibson said she was “disgusted” by how the agency appeared to target low-level drug offenders rather than kingpins.
Eric Nixon of the Sankofa Men’s Leadership Exchange said his group supports Davis’ resolution, which also would call on the ATF to stay away from Albuquerque in the future with operations like last year’s.
“This may have looked good on paper, but in the black community it absolutely did not,” he said.
Also speaking at the meeting were Dan and Denise “Scooter” Sullivan, whose daughter, Jennifer Padilla, was swept up in the sting by an ATF informant who had passed himself off as her boyfriend before luring her into participation in two drug deals.
“My daughter is a heroin addict,” Scooter Sullivan told Davis and Gibson before describing her dismay with how ATF targeted her daughter. “I don’t know what justice is anymore.”
Davis also invited several law enforcement officials to the informal meeting. He said Police Chief Gorden Eden and John Durastanti, Special Agent in Charge of the ATF’s Phoenix field division, did not respond to the invitation.
James Tierney, acting U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, sent a letter in response to Davis’ invitation. It contains verbatim language from numerous emails the U.S. Attorney’s Office has sent to NMID denying requests for information about interviews concerning the sting operation.
Tierney said he could not speak publicly about the operation “because DOJ policy generally prohibits its component agencies, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the (ATF) from commenting on matters that are pending in the judicial process, including prosecutions that have yet to be resolved by guilty plea or jury verdict,” the letter reads, in part.
Tierney pointed out in the letter that 79 of the 103 people arrested in the operation have pleaded guilty to at least some of the charges they originally faced; 44 of them have been sentenced.