Changes coming to controversial APD drug stings — or not?

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Deputy Police Chief Eric Garcia

Deputy Police Chief Eric Garcia

Deputy Police Chief Eric Garcia

David Ley is hopeful — but confused — about the future of the Albuquerque Police Department’s controversial “reverse drug sting” operations, in which officers posing as dealers sell narcotics to people, then arrest them on suspicion of possession.

Ley, a clinical psychologist, sits on the Mental Health Response Advisory Committee (MHRAC), a creation of the court-enforceable reform agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and APD. The committee’s mandate is to help the police department improve its dealings with people living with mental illness — one of the key failures that led Justice Department investigators to conclude that APD had a decades-old practice of violating people’s civil rights through the excessive use of force.

On May 20, Ley read with concern my New Mexico In Depth report that detailed a recent reverse sting operation carried out by the APD Narcotics Unit. At least seven people were arrested earlier last month; six of them were homeless people of color, and at least three were living with mental illness. Those arrested traded what little of value they had — including $3, colic medication and, in one man’s case, the jacket off his back — to undercover officers for crack cocaine and methamphetamines. Each of the people was arrested on felony charges, which are still pending.

Hope came for Ley at a meeting six days later, on May 26, when he and other committee members met with Deputy Police Chief Eric Garcia and Lt. John Sullivan of the department’s Special Investigations Division, which oversees the Narcotics Unit.

Ley described the meeting as “productive” and “forward looking.” Garcia and Sullivan had made a number of concessions, which Ley detailed at a June 21 meeting of the MHRAC last week:

  • Dr. Nils Rosenbaum, who heads up APD’s new Behavioral Health Division, would consult with detectives before any operations that may impact homeless people or those living with mental illness “to ensure the rights and needs of such populations are observed and considered.”
  • Narcotics detectives would receive additional training related to the needs of vulnerable populations.
  • Detectives would include jail diversion, when possible, in an effort to connect people to services rather than send them to jail with felony drug charges.
  • APD officers would no longer accept trades, such as clothing, when conducting reverse stings — because that tactic does not fit within national best practices.
  • Garcia and Sullivan agreed to look for areas in which MHRAC members could assist officers in advance of law enforcement operations and develop a “strategy to prevent or mitigate negative impact on vulnerable populations.”

Garcia and Sullivan attended last week’s MHRAC meeting. After Ley’s presentation, Garcia praised the collaboration with committee members and the result of the May 26 meeting as “a way for us to make improvements and changes going forward.”

Sullivan believed that the May sting operation — and the controversy that followed — could be a “teachable moment” for APD, according to Bari Roberts, an adviser to APD and to the committee.

Nancy Koenigsberg, another member of the MHRAC, said at last week’s meeting that the concessions amount to evidence that the committee is functioning as the DOJ-APD agreement intended.

“This shows that MHRAC can be a partner with the police department,” she said. “This is going to help everybody.”

But there was a lingering concern for Ley.

Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden

Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden

He read my follow-up NMID story about Police Chief Gorden Eden’s response letter to City Councilor Pat Davis, who had asked the chief to halt the reverse sting operations and dedicate the department’s scarce resources to more serious crime.

In the letter, written six days after the meeting with Garcia and Sullivan, Eden indicated that the reverse stings would continue. And he denied that APD was targeting the homeless or people living with mental illness.

Ley told the MHRAC last week that he was “disappointed” to see that Eden’s letter made no reference to “what was a very positive meeting,” and that the chief’s position on the operations did not appear to include any of the agreed-upon changes.

In a telephone interview this week, Ley said there has been no movement since last week’s MHRAC meeting.

“It seems possible that the chief may not be fully aware of what (Garcia and Sullivan) said in our meeting,” he told me. “It leaves me confused as to where things are going from here, but I am hopeful that the agreements we made will hold.”

I’ve asked APD why Eden’s letter did not reflect the department’s concessions from the meeting with MHRAC meetings — and how the department will conduct reverse stings in the future. I will update this post with APD’s response if and when they send one.

6 thoughts on “Changes coming to controversial APD drug stings — or not?

  1. I’d like to share an article I’ve posted to my blog concerning Jeff’s continued dedication to the “reverse stings”, as well as my impressions of his journalistic integrity. I met Jeff at our last MHRAC meeting, and it’s only after I’ve had an opportunity to see someone in person that I can offer a true feeling of that person. Jeff is a dedicated journalist, and because our passions will often intersect, I feel it’s fair for me to share my impressions with others visiting NMID as we move forward.

  2. Hi Jeff,

    I read your recent article that shares your short phone conversation with David Ley, and I feel it is even, fair, and mostly accurate. Your article details one aspect of the ongoing evolution of our community’s relationship with APD, and I believe you reported honestly on the MHRAC conversation concerning the reverse sting operations. Well done.

    What I hope is that you’ll continue to come to MHRAC meetings. Personally, I feel your presence and reporting will help our community keep the focus on the points that matter most to peers, because without individuals like me who have mental health issues that sometimes require APD contact, there would be no reason for any of us to be at the table for MHRAC. Far too often, it’s easy for boards like MHRAC to get off-track with bureaucratic minutiae or debates that impede necessary progress for the needs of peers.

    There is also the benefit of you being involved with the most direct link between community stakeholders and APD. Many of the questions you may have while writing your articles can be answered firsthand. That is a very privileged opportunity not every community has available to journalists.

    I am very pleased that you reported on APD’s open response to MHRAC concerns. It’s noteworthy that Nancy provided the quote she did. Nancy’s praise is well-founded, and she has no issue voicing dissatisfaction within MHRAC if necessary.

    From my perspective as a peer, APD’s responsiveness and willingness to learn and to understand the needs of peers has grown stronger with each passing day. It was uncomfortable for some (not only law enforcement) to have peers involved in these sorts of meetings and committees when I first started my peer advocacy. Being told “You are so articulate for a consumer” was a common “compliment” I was afforded. In the early days of the formation of MHRAC, before there was a committee construct or even a name for the committee, Robert and I were the only two peers in the room when community stakeholders were jockeying for a seat at the table. Two peers out of 47 people in the room the first day. MHRAC marks the very first time peers were involved in this caliber of a committee from the very start, and with equal representation in the number of seats dedicated to peers. It was hard work, it was me being a pest, and it turned out to the benefit of APD to have “articulate” peer advice readily available in an accountable way.

    I want you to know this so you understand how important MHRAC is to me and to peers and why it holds this magnitude of importance. This is a first, to have peer involvement beyond the traditional “token peer.”

    For me, it’s good to get your take on things because I already know what I think, and for the reasons I just shared I’m already a strong supporter of the purpose and potential of MHRAC, so it’s the critical eye of others that helps guide my contribution to the committee.

    Thanks for what you’re doing for our community. Keep it up.


  3. APD has no business doing “reverse sting operations” let alone asking for permission from a District Court Judge in an Affidavit to manufacture “crack” for sale. The homeless individuals arrested in the recent reverse sting operation were probably more dangerous to themselves than the general public. “Reverse sting operations” are dangerous, ill advised and should be stopped immediately. Reverse sting operations are a pathetic use of very scarce police resources. APD has 850 sworn police officers but only 404 to 435 sworn officers are in field services, spread out over 3 shifts, handling and responding to 69,000 priority one, 911 emergency calls per year. Reverse drug sting operations also creates liability to the City if APD sells “tainted drugs”, or the drugs are used resulting in death from a drug overdose. Until APD develops better plans to target and go after major drug dealers, the entire APD Narcotics Unit needs to be ordered back into their uniforms to patrol our streets. If Chief Gordon Eden won’t stop the practice of reverse sting operations, the City Council needs to demand that he step down immediately and ask the Mayor to appoint a Police Chief that can do the job.

    • Hi Pete. Would you be willing to share your perspective at the next MHRAC (Mental Health Response Advisory Committee) meeting? MHRAC meets the third Tuesday of each month and there is time set aside at each meeting for public comment.

  4. Do not expect any written document from the cops’ chief’s office to EVER reflect any newer, difficult or pro-progressive policies. Talk is talk: nothing said by anyone other than the chief has any validity, no matter what or where. Nor does ANY written record other than that approved directly by the chief himself have any standing.

    Hence, the perfect fiefdom city, in its medieval fashion, while bowing to allowing committee meetings to assuage the “citizens’ complaints” uses the oldest trick in the book by tyrants against those citizens deceived into taking part: the authorities who must change only allow THEIR records to reflect the meetings and the actions to be taken.

    The heels are deeply dug in. Systems theory tells us that corrupt systems cannot be repaired: they must be completely destroyed and replaced with some similar but NEW.

    Just the way it is. Give up on ‘reform’. Your opponents who must do the actual changing are not able to do so and regard your involvement as
    unwanted and un-necessary ‘de-forming’ their MO. And they are the experts, of course. Their knowledge is superior to yours, of course…’go ahead and have your little talky meetings and be happy we don’t arrest you all for gathering with intent, or something.’

    • Leslie, you have an interesting perspective that would be greatly appreciated at our next MHRAC (Mental Health Response Advisory Committee) meeting. The MHRAC meets the third Tuesday of each month at the ROCK at Noonday. Can we count on your participation?

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