A debate over how so many black people came to be arrested in a 2016 gun- and drug-sting operation in Albuquerque is playing out in the city’s federal courthouse. Following months of silence from the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a narrative is beginning to emerge. It’s a story of good police work. According to this version, a pivotal moment happened a few days after the operation started in April 2016. Albuquerque Police Department detective Vic Hernandez handed ATF Special Agent Russell Johnson two sets of documents.
How and even whether the Albuquerque Police Department was involved in a 2016 undercover federal drug and gun sting has lingered for more than a year under scrutiny from legal scholars, defense lawyers and New Mexico In Depth. Police and city officials under previous Mayor Richard Berry’s administration denied the department was involved. Now, with a new mayor at City Hall and new leadership at APD, the city is acknowledging the department had a “minimal role” in the sting, which was led by the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF). That included “cross-commissioned” APD officers who have long worked as part of an ATF task force assisting the federal agency during the operation. Whatever the size of APD’s role, the department’s involvement appears to have led, in part, to one of the more controversial aspects of the sting operation: the arrest of black people at a rate highly disproportionate to their population in the city.
Detective Geoff Stone shifted in his chair behind the witness stand and glanced at the defendants’ table where two former Albuquerque Police Department officers sat. Stone knew the men well. He attended the police academy around the same time as one of the men, Keith Sandy, and worked the same late-night shift on the city’s northeast side with the other, Dominique Perez. But with his two former colleagues on trial for murder after gunning down a mentally ill homeless man in March 2014 during an hours-long standoff in the Sandia foothills, special prosecutor Randi McGinn wanted to know whether Stone’s relationship with the officers was a problem when it fell on him to investigate them. “No,” Stone told her after a moment.