Even if Albuquerque isn’t the next Portland you should pay attention

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Federal agents are coming to Albuquerque, but officials have assured residents that New Mexico’s largest city isn’t the next Portland.

In Portland, protests for racial justice have continued nonstop since the killing of George Floyd in late May but had decreased in size, according to the local paper, by the time the Trump administration sent in federal agents early this month, ostensibly to protect federal property and guard public statues. That injection energized the protests, leading to nightly confrontations as throngs of new and old protestors clashed with camo-wearing, unidentified police roaming the streets. The Oregon Attorney General, responding to accounts, has accused federal agents of whisking people away in unmarked vehicles without probable cause in at least two instances, and two federal watchdogs have opened investigations. 

Images of tear gassed crowds and burning statues in that Pacific Northwest city have flashed across the country, putting to bed the wisdom of thinking that a show of dominance can be a calming force. 

But those images are likely one goal of a president seeking re-election on a law-and-order platform. I anticipate more than a few campaign ads over the next three and a half months featuring clashes between federal agents and Portlanders with a man’s voice intoning order against chaos and violence in America’s cities.

Politics aside, what concerns me about the Trump administration’s sending federal agents to Albuquerque is its rationale: It’s not to protect federal property or guard statutes, but to quell violent crime.  

Federal agents, in other words, likely will focus on neighborhoods, not protestors — if the administration’s messaging is to be believed. And if recent history of federal operations in Albuquerque is any indication, those neighborhoods likely will be low-income, predominantly neighborhoods of color. 

Attorney General William Barr said this week the program named Operation Legend is “a direct response to calls to defund or weaken police departments.” (Albuquerque’s Democratic Mayor Tim Keller announced his intention last month to create an alternative department to handle calls involving behavioral health, homelessness, addiction and other social issues, though he has not signaled a desire to cut back on traditional police.)

But New Mexico’s U.S. Attorney John Anderson believes Albuquerque got tapped because of its high crime rates— including a record 80 homicides in 2019. That’s despite recently released crime statistics from the Albuquerque Police Department showing violent crime holding steady and homicides lower than in 2019 at this point in 2020, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

A 2016 operation in Albuquerque run by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives supposedly targeted violent crime and the “worst of the worst.” 

A two-year New Mexico In Depth investigation into that program, known as Operation Gideon, revealed troubling outcomes different from what officials promised. 

When all was said and done, mostly low-income people of color, some living in their vehicles, were arrested, many for possessing small amounts of drugs or arranging minor narcotics sales. Black people, in particular, were arrested in disproportionate numbers.

A traveling team of ATF agents designed and carried out that operation, which was similar to other operations in other cities that generated pervasive complaints — and, in some cases, data-supported proof — of racial profiling. The Albuquerque Police Department also had input in the operation, handing over a list of names to the ATF that contributed to the disproportionate share of Black people  arrested.

What exactly will the federal agents be tasked with doing in Albuquerque? Are they here to help local agencies or run their own operation? Who will have a say in how the operation is designed  — by which I mean what federal, state and local agencies? In 2016, the U.S. Attorney’s office did. 

The city’s police department is under different management now than at the time of the ATF operation but Albuquerque’s mayor and police chief sound open, if wary, to the help. What role will the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office play? Sheriff Manny Gonzales appeared at the Trump news conference in Washington this week where Albuquerque and other cities were named as part of Operation Legend. Gonzales has since said his department will be an active participant, though he has not offered specifics. 

Given the 2016 federal operation, I’m curious. Who will oversee the operation to guard against mission creep beyond violent crime?

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Attorney General Hector Balderas have promised to actively monitor the federal agents’ activities for potential civil rights violations like those alleged in Portland.

My question to those two officials, as well as to the Keller administration in Albuquerque is: Will they commit the same resources to ensuring the operation doesn’t morph into a street-sweeping operation that targets poverty and low-level drug offenses?

Let us all hope they will. 

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