Police Watchdog raises concerns over State Police ‘Surge’ in ABQ

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A member of Albuquerque’s official police watchdog group is questioning the tactics and results of the recent “Metro Surge Operation,” in which 50 New Mexico State Police officers flooded the city ostensibly to help fight violent crime.

“This is the perfect atmosphere, the perfect storm for civil rights violations, and it completely undermines the serious energy people have invested in police reform in Albuquerque,” Chelsea Van Deventer of the Albuquerque Police Oversight Board told New Mexico In Depth earlier this week.

Homicides and non-fatal shootings have gone up in Albuquerque in recent months, including the high-profile murder of a University of New Mexico baseball player outside a Nob Hill bar last month.

In response, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mayor Tim Keller, both Democrats, agreed on the “surge,” with Keller’s office saying publicly the operation would focus on “targeting violent crime in Albuquerque.”

The results, according to a KOAT-TV story, have not matched the stated goal. The station reported 452 arrests by State Police during the operation; 300 people were arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor crimes. That’s roughly two-thirds.

“I’m not surprised the results don’t match the rhetoric — they threw this together in two days. Just sending officers to patrol poor neighborhoods is irreconcilable with solving serious crimes,” said Van Deventer, who was speaking on behalf of herself and not the board. “It’s pretty clear they’re not doing community policing, which is what we should all be aiming for — the type of policing all the evidence shows promotes safety.

“This approach creates lots of opportunities for civil rights violations, which are always visited most on the most vulnerable.”

One man was arrested on suspicion of possessing a marijuana pipe and a “pill bottle,” according to KOAT. Albuquerque police would have been forbidden from arresting that man due to a 2017 directive that came after a long-running civil rights lawsuit over conditions and overcrowding at the county jail.

The operation has targeted the Central Avenue corridor in the southeast and South Valley portions of Albuquerque, two of the city’s lower-income areas. During a ride-along interview with the Albuquerque Journal, State Police Chief Tim Johnson said the city and state put the “surge” together in a matter of days, and that State Police sent officers to Albuquerque with little to no experience in working such large-scale operations.

“Writing citations for traffic violations is their experience,” said Van Deventer. “We see how that bears out when you have two police shootings within minutes of each other on opposite sides of town. They appear to have happened because officers were trying to effectuate traffic stops … There’s no reason for shootings in those kinds of instances.”

The two shootings remain under investigation, but civil rights advocates have raised questions about them both.

“It would be naive to expect that this kind of operation wouldn’t sweep up all different types of crime,” Stelnicki said. “Yes, we’re going to try to hit a homerun every at-bat — aim for the bleachers. That’s the approach. But we will take base-hits. So the contention that maybe this isn’t being applied the right way, or whatever it is, we’ve got to reduce crime.”

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, said the governor is waiting for data on the operation’s results, but that so far, she has received thanks from teachers and other community members and is “pleased” with the results of the “surge.”

A spokeswoman for Keller sent a response that did not address NMID’s questions about the “surge.” But APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said in a written response that “Gov. Lujan Grisham graciously offered state resources to help APD more effectively target violent crime.” He added that: “The (State Police) patrol units alleviate understaffing while we work to hire more officers, and investigators continue to supplement APD’s focus on auto theft, gang activity, narcotics trafficking and tracking down dangerous felons.”

The Police Oversight Board has no jurisdiction over State Police Conduct, Van Deventer said.

But she and civil rights advocates aren’t the only ones who have an eye on the “surge,” she said.

The court-appointed monitor and the U.S. Department of Justice team that are overseeing a sweeping police reform effort in Albuquerque indicated to the board that “they have taken notice and are paying attention,” Van Deventer said.