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 V.23 No.5 | January 30 - February 5, 2014 

La Jicarita

Life and Death and APD

The problem of police violence in Albuquerque

Jesse Schulz

Kenneth Ellis III, 25, bled to death in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven at Eubank and Constitution at 9am on Jan. 13, 2010. Albuquerque police officer Brett Lampiris-Tremba shot the Iraq war veteran in the chest after Ellis, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, placed a gun to his own head.

Chandler Barr, 19, lives with bipolar disorder. He told a 911 dispatcher in September 2010 that he was suicidal. After three days at UNM’s Psychiatric Center, he was released from the hospital and turned up at the Downtown bus station where he argued with an attendant over the price of a bus ticket. Employees called police after Barr began cutting himself with a dull butter knife. APD dispatched officers to what it described as a “welfare check.” Witnesses told authorities that APD officer Leah Kelly was smoking a cigar as she yelled at Barr before shooting him twice in the stomach, nearly killing him.

Officer Trey Economidy stopped Jacob Mitschelen, 29, near the corner of San Pedro and Kathryn SE on Feb. 9, 2011 in a routine traffic stop. Mitschelen fled the scene on foot. According to the statement the officer made to investigators, Mitschelen stumbled as he ran, and a gun fell from his jacket pocket. Economidy fired fatal shots when, he said, Mitschelen grabbed the gun and turned to fire. The autopsy revealed, however, that Mitschelen died of gunshot wounds to his back.

Just days after Mitschelen’s death, on Feb. 13, a hotel parking garage security camera captured video of APD officers John Doyle and Robert Woolever kicking an unarmed Nicholas Blume in the head more than a dozen times. Doyle claimed that Blume, who they pulled over in a routine traffic stop, had a gun and needed to be restrained, but evidence later proved that Blume was unarmed at the time of the beating. The video of the attack ended with the two officers celebrating with chest bumps and high-fives over a bloody and unconscious Blume.

Despite the official exonerations, Albuquerque has found itself constantly defending APD in court. Those lawsuits have brought to light a disturbing culture of violence in APD.

Alan Gomez, 22, who endured mental health issues and drug addiction, arrived at his brother’s house in May 2011 under the influence of methamphetamine. His brother, frightened and concerned that Alan might hurt himself, called 911 for help. As an agitated Alan Gomez smoked cigarettes and paced in the kitchen, a SWAT team swarmed the property. APD officer Sean Wallace shot and killed Gomez with a bullet to the chest while Gomez stood in his brother’s doorway holding a spoon.

Since 2010 Albuquerque police officers have killed Ellis, Gomez, Mitschelen and 19 other people and shot and wounded Barr and 11 others in a pattern that, according to the Los Angeles Times, gives Albuquerque one of the highest per capita rates of police shootings in the United States.

Beginning in 2010 APD internal affairs has investigated each shooting and has cleared every officer of wrongdoing. In addition to internal affairs, police shootings are also investigated by the Office of the Second Judicial District Attorney. An April 2012 Albuquerque Journal investigation examined the DA’s special “investigative grand juries.” The DA investigates police shootings through the use of unique panels that are unlike regular grand juries. Jurors cannot indict police officers but can only investigate to determine whether a shooting is justified or not. In the decades since the special panels were created, every single police shooting has been found justified.

Despite the official exonerations, Albuquerque has found itself constantly defending APD in court. Those lawsuits have brought to light a disturbing culture of violence in APD. In the days after Trey Economidy killed Jacob Mitschelen, a local reporter scoured social networking sites and found that Economidy had listed his occupation on Facebook as “human waste disposal.” Another officer, Pete Dwyer, the former president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, wrote on MySpace that, “some people are only alive because killing them is illegal.” He listed his occupation as “oxygen thief removal technician.” The wrongful death suit in the Kenneth Ellis case revealed that Officer Lampiris-Tremba had once Tasered a motorist during a routine traffic stop, and he was suspended for lying during an investigation. Alan Gomez was not the first person Sean Wallace killed. As an undercover New Mexico State Police officer in 2004, he shot an unarmed man four times in the back. Just days after Lampiris-Tremba killed Kenneth Ellis in 2010, Wallace killed a mentally ill man named Wayne Córdova. According to a complaint in the case, Wallace shot and killed Córdova while he huddled “on a rooftop, crying and asking to be killed.”

What explains the failure of every reform effort to resolve the problem of APD violence? It might start with the way in which each report has always presented police violence as an isolated problem of the present, unconnected to an ongoing history of police violence.

After a multi-million dollar jury award to the family of Kenneth Ellis last year, the City settled out-of-court this week for $8 million. The family of Jacob Mitschelen filed a wrongful death and civil rights suit against Trey Economidy and the city. In mid-January of this year, the City settled that lawsuit for $300,000. The Gomez family also sued for wrongful death and settled out of court late last year with the City for $900,000. Lawsuits and out-of-court settlements have cost the city more than $24 million since 2010, an amount nearly equal to one-fifth of Albuquerque’s annual police budget and greater than Albuquerque’s total budget for parks and recreation.

A number of victims’ families, including the parents of Kenneth Ellis and Alan Gomez, have become vocal critics of APD violence. And they have joined with a number of groups, such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center and Vecinos Unidos, in calling for an independent investigation of the Albuquerque police department.

In November of 2012, The United States Department of Justice responded to these calls and announced that the Special Litigation Section of its Civil Rights Division was launching an investigation of “allegations that APD officers engage in use of excessive force, including use of unreasonable deadly force, in their encounters with civilians.” The ongoing investigation includes an evaluation of APD’s internal affairs, a unit made up of APD officers who investigate APD officers involved in allegations of wrongdoing.

The much-anticipated DOJ report is expected any day. When it arrives it will add to an existing library of reports from previous years that have documented frightening patterns of police violence in Albuquerque.

Nearly 30 years ago, in the late 1980s, Vecinos Unidos was involved in efforts to confront a troubling pattern of police violence in Albuquerque. At the time, their efforts drew attention to an internal APD report showing that its officers killed 15 people between 1987 and 1991, a number that exceeded fatal shootings over the same period in Tucson, Austin, El Paso, Colorado Springs and Tulsa combined. Then, as now, the shooting victims included unarmed suspects. Then, as now, APD called the pattern isolated but agreed to institute a number of changes in response to community outrage. Despite promises of reform, the changes failed to reduce the rate of police shootings.

The much-anticipated DOJ report is expected any day. When it arrives it will add to an existing library of reports from previous years that have documented frightening patterns of police violence in Albuquerque.

In 1996 the Albuquerque City Council once again commissioned another study to examine the problem. The subsequent Walker-Luna report, as with the previous report, selected an arbitrary time frame and found that APD killed 31 people in the 10-year period ending in 1997, a number that placed Albuquerque in a category all its own. No other police department in the United States of comparable size (or smaller) killed as many people as the Albuquerque Police Department did. Among the recommendations in the 1997 report were suggestions to create a Police Oversight Commission (POC) and the office of an Independent Review Officer (IRO). The City Council adopted these and other recommendations.

These were important changes, but they have had little effect. Each “unjustified” ruling by the IRO was overruled by the Chief of Police. Each citizen complaint filed with the POC was rejected. In 2001, the APD Internal Affairs Unit investigated 52 complaints of excessive force but upheld only one complaint.

And the shootings continued. Officers killed 23 people in the six years between 1998 and 2004, a number that marked an increase in the rate at which Albuquerque police officers were killing people. Officials were quick to point out, however, that APD “only” shot three people in 2004, offering the number as evidence that new policies and procedures were starting to take effect. However Jay Rowland, the city’s Independent Review Officer asked APD to release data on the number of times officers used force in the line of duty. The resulting report, the third since the late-1980s, revealed that officers used force 551 times in 2004. They tackled somebody to the ground nearly 200 times; they used mace or pepper spray nearly 150 times; they Tasered 85 suspects; they punched or kicked 63 people; they delivered 22 baton blows; they sicced dogs on 12 suspects; and they killed three people.

The City of Albuquerque produced a fourth report on the problem of police violence in 2011. This time city officials asked the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, DC-based, nonprofit police research organization, to study and explain the disturbing pattern of police violence in Albuquerque. As has become standard operating procedure with every report on Albuquerque police violence, the authors selected an arbitrary time frame and found a pattern of police violence. In the years between 2006 and 2010, Albuquerque police officers killed 18 people, nearly 60 percent of whom suffered from mental illness, in 37 separate shooting incidents. The report made recommendations. The police promised reforms. The rate of killings continued.

What explains the failure of every reform effort to resolve the problem of APD violence? It might start with the way in which each report has always presented police violence as an isolated problem of the present, unconnected to an ongoing history of police violence. No report has made any effort to link current problems to historic patterns of violence at APD. Instead each report has selected an arbitrary time period and found a new and alarming trend of police shootings. The effect of selecting an arbitrary time frame for all studies of APD violence has been twofold. First, while it has not concealed the troubling nature of police violence, it has given the impression that the violence has always been an isolated problem unique to a particular time period. Something strange has gone awry with APD in the here-and-now, these studies have suggested—something unrelated to the past. And because the problem has been represented as something new, it has never been depicted as a problem systemic to APD policing.

Second, this imaginary isolated problem of APD violence suggests that the problem can be blamed on police officers who are “bad apples,” and thus is a problem that can be fixed with new reforms. It must be bad training, poor leadership or low morale. And so each report is followed by the same reforms that followed previous reports: APD needs new leadership, or its officers need better qualifications, more pay or better training. Yet each period of police violence under study is followed by another period of police violence equally as violent as the last. And the reforms of one period have become the problems of another.

And perhaps most concerning, each report looks to APD for a solution to the problem of police violence in Albuquerque. Instead of improved mental health services in Albuquerque, the reports propose an increase in the armed police presence on the streets. Instead of robust support for veterans, the homeless and the mentally ill, the City devotes scarce resources to an increasingly militarized police force. These reports suggest the solution to the problem of police violence is a well-trained SWAT, not fully funded social services.

And so the pattern continues. The last nine weeks of 2013 ended with five shootings and four fatalities in a series of dramatic and violent confrontations that included one unarmed victim who remains hospitalized. Meanwhile Albuquerque awaits the conclusion of the Justice Department’s investigation of APD and the release of yet another report on police violence that will likely offer familiar reforms for an old problem.

"Protestors Rally Against Albuquerque Police Violence: A Photo Essay"—bit.ly/ljphotoessay

"APD Kills Two More This Week, La Jicarita Weighs In"—bit.ly/ljweighsin
 

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