Who Watches the Watchmen?
Every city administration tiptoes on a precarious thin line, balancing public safety against the civil rights of its citizens.
There have been 11 officer-involved shootings this year. Seven of those people have died, and one 19-year-old is at University of New Mexico Hospital in stable condition. On Tuesday, Sept. 14, Chandler Todd Barr tried to get a bus ticket to Oklahoma, according to Police Chief Ray Schultz. Barr grew frustrated, left, and returned with a knife and his wrists covered in blood, the chief says. Two officers confronted him, told him to drop the knife, and when Barr advanced, an officer shot him twice in the chest, according to Schultz. (The Alibi spoke with the director of training at the police academy. Read that story here.)
A few days earlier on Friday, Sept. 10, for the first time in his career, the police chief fired an officer for killing a suspect. Schultz said the shooting, which happened at the scene of a burglary in 2009, wasn't justified. This kind of firing doesn't happen very often. In fact, T.J. Wilham, APD’s public safety spokesperson, says no officer has been terminated because of an unjustified killing in recent memory.
The 2010 spate of officer-involved shootings is on Burqueños’ minds. But what about the situations that don't make headlines, excessive use of force that doesn't result in death? Andres Valdez, executive director of human rights organization Vecinos United, says that's not so rare. "Many times we don't hear about it or know about it."
That’s why citizens are forming a local copwatch, a group that intends to observe and record police activity.
Liza and Derek Minno Bloom moved to Albuquerque a year ago from New York City. A couple of months after they got here, APD gave the Minno Blooms a shocking welcome to their new home.
The two were at a Downtown micro bar on Second Street near Central on Oct. 24. A large window faces the street, and through it, they saw a woman being arrested outside. "It was going on for a long time," Liza says.
The recent Albuquerque transplant says she didn't understand why the woman wasn't just loaded into a police car, show over. Liza and partner Derek were involved in protests and community activism in New York City, she says, "so we knew our rights. We knew that we were able to go and observe peacefully from a safe distance."
They went outside and announced their intent to watch the arrest, Liza says. "They kept asking us, Why are you here? Why do you want to watch us?" Liza replied that there are fewer instances of police brutality when people are observing. "We just wanted to be there until she got into the car. I'm sure they were arresting her rightfully or whatever. That wasn't our bone to pick."
Liza and Derek returned to the micro bar—until the woman being arrested was hog-tied, says Liza. "I've never seen that before," she says. "They tied her wrists together and her ankles together and then tied those two together. Everyone in the bar was noticing."
So Liza and Derek headed back out of the taproom. They told the officer he was using excessive force and then were ordered to cross the street, Liza says. She and Derek refused, replying that they were at a safe distance. Patrons came out of the bar to see what was going on. Other officers were called for backup.
Finally, the woman was loaded into the car. As Liza and Derek turned to leave, Liza says the officers shouted at them insultingly. “I told them that was really unprofessional,” Derek says. He says he was pushed up against a wall and then thrown to the ground. "The crowd was like, Let him go!" Derek says. "The cops were stressed, but it wasn't really a riot situation. They just lost all skills of de-escalation and threw me into the middle of the street."
"Everyone is treated with suspicion. Everyone is a potential enemy."
Civil rights attorney Joe Kennedy
Derek was arrested and charged with blocking traffic, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, according to court records.
Officer Christopher Maes wrote in his police report that the woman being arrested outside the taproom that night was disorderly. When she was seated in the police car, she kicked Maes with her high-heeled boot, he says, so he pulled her out and put her into what’s known as a Passive Restraint System. This system is used to control someone who is noncompliant and a threat to herself or others, explains public safety spokesperson Wilham.
As Maes was loading her back into the car, he says, he heard people yelling at officers and saw them stepping into the road in front of northbound traffic on Second Street. "Traffic was forced to stop and remain stopped until the pedestrians were cleared."
He told Derek Minno Bloom to get out of the street about five times, according to the report. "He continued to ignore my commands, and at one time told me, 'I'm peaceful.' ” Maes says he grabbed Derek's arm and told him to turn around and put his hands behind his back, but Derek tried to pull away. Another officer came to assist, and "after several commands, and after Derek trying to pull away several times, we were able to forcefully get Derek to his knees and were able to handcuff him without his cooperation." Maes notes that Derek got a cut on his lip and a scrape on his knee.
About 30 people "that were known to Derek" crowded around, according to the report. "While we were trying to take him into custody, they continued to close distance with us.”
The Belt Tape
Joe Kennedy is the civil rights attorney who represented Derek Minno Bloom. He says Derek's situation was pretty typical of Albuquerque police, especially those Downtown. "Everyone is treated with suspicion," Kennedy says. "Everyone is a potential enemy."
Derek's court case came down to a device called a "belt tape," which officers are supposed to use to record certain interactions. "They claimed to have tape-recorded the interaction between Derek and the officers and were unable to produce it in court," Kennedy says. "That was a big issue in his case, whether he was complying with the officers or not."
Officer Maes writes at the end of his report that his belt tape was tagged into evidence. APD's evidence center sent a letter to the Kennedy Law Firm on Feb. 18 saying the tape was blank. Derek’s charges were dropped and not refiled.
Kennedy says officers consistently fail to comply with the APD’s belt-tape rules. The department demands officers turn on their belt tapes for domestic violence situations, during searches, when a person is resisting arrest and when someone announces they're going to file a complaint. The recordings are often lost, or the recorders fail or officers forget to turn them on, he says, and “unless they get some serious discipline for that issue, they're not going to do it.”
In 2009's annual report from the Police Oversight Commission, Chairman Steve Smothermon recommends that the penalty be more severe for not using belt tapes. He says it would help the commission determine what happened during an incident. This has been an ongoing problem for APD, Smothermon adds, citing a 17-year-old Independent Council report that asked that police be required turn on recorders for all calls. "It is amazing, but since 1993, some things have not changed," writes Smothermon.
In July, APD announced it would switch to mini digital cameras by the end of fall and may include more circumstances on the list of calls that must be recorded.
After their experience, the Minno Blooms decided Albuquerque needed a grassroots organization to observe police interactions with civilians.
Groups like this exist around the country, with the original copwatch forming in Berkeley, Calif., in 1990. Albuquerque even had one from about 2005 to 2009.
In mid-August, locals gathered to discuss forming another copwatch. People shared stories and concerns about APD. The goals of the group include reducing police violence by directly observing officers; documenting incidents and keeping police accountable; conducting "Know Your Rights" trainings; and encouraging people to solve problems without calling the police.
CJ Levine, who helped form Albuquerque's previous copwatch, says the tasks stack up. "Dealing with police brutality, it's work that literally never ends, and it goes in so many different directions."
There will be a Copwatch training on Saturday, Sept. 25 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the offices of Young Women United (120 Morningside NE). For more info, contact Derek Minno Bloom at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After years of patrolling, primarily Downtown, and doing outreach with young people and community groups, members scattered and the original copwatch fizzled out. "It's a lot to keep up with," Levine says.
Observing police works best with a group of people in specialized roles, he says. "People have a chance for planning and practice. We want to keep our cool. We don't want to be going to jail ourselves. We want to be a calming force in these situations, a de-escalating force." He adds that it’s best to patrol in large groups wearing clearly marked shirts—the old copwatch’s were bright orange.
Derek Minno Bloom says he returned to the micro bar a couple of days after his incident in October. He ran into some people who had been there that night, and the message they seemed to come away with was that civilians shouldn’t mix with the police. He says he hopes the copwatch will help shift Albuquerque's consciousness.
Civil rights attorney Kennedy agrees, saying a local copwatch is not only helpful, it's necessary. "We need people to educate folks about what their rights are and how to preserve their rights."
APD: Go Ahead and Look
APD welcomes people to watch arrests, says spokesperson Wilham. "They have a First Amendment right to watch us, and we welcome that." If someone spots a problem, the department prefers that you don't contact the officer at the scene, though APD’s policy is that bystanders are allowed to make short, direct inquiries. "We ask that they act as observers and stay out of the process," Wilham says. Instead, the observer should contact the Independent Review Office of the Police Oversight Commission and file a complaint.
Andres Valdez is the executive director of New Mexico Vecinos United, a nonprofit that formed in the early '90s when it organized the families of people who'd been shot by police. Along with the families, Vecinos called for a citizens’ review board to look into complaints against APD. They asked that the board have the power to fire officers who used excessive force. The group wanted it to be staffed by citizens, "independent from all the political corruption and cronyism that goes on in city politics," Valdez says.
At that time, there was a public safety advisory board in place that considered complaints and made broad policy recommendations to the police chief. "Really, they were confused because they thought they were there at the pleasure of the mayor," Valdez says.
The City Council eventually agreed to have a task force study APD’s oversight structure, he says. But the resulting change wasn't quite what Vecinos and the families were looking for.
The Police Oversight Commission is a city agency established by the City Council in 2000. Commissioners are volunteers. City councilors submit the names of two potential commissioners to the mayor. The mayor chooses one name from each district and sends all of them back to the Council for approval.
"City Council tried to pass it off as if they'd done this great reform," Valdez says. "We said, Well, it's better than what we had before, and at least there's some attention given to the things that are going on." Still, he says, there's no consistency in the oversight commission's decisions. "It all appears to be very arbitrary. They leave everything up in the air and don't make decisions. When they do, they exonerate the officer. Plus, they can still only make recommendations to the chief [of police]."
In 2009, about one-fifth of complaints were found to be violations of APD’s standard operating procedures.
Complaints come in and they're examined by William Deaton, the independent review officer for the commission, who is on the city’s payroll. He assigns them to either an in-house investigator with the Independent Review Office or to Internal Affairs at APD. Results of the investigation come back to Deaton, who writes a public record letter that outlines which of APD's own rules may have been violated, if any. Occasionally, there are non-concurrences, Deaton explains, which means the Independent Review Office and APD don't agree on the findings. Those cases are decided by the Police Oversight Commission.
The police chief has the sole authority for disciplining officers.
“We are at a time when it’s meaningful to start the reform process again in a serious way,” Valdez says.
Contact the Independent Review Office by calling 924-3770, or go to cabq.gov/iro
Rights of Onlookers
From the Albuquerque Police Department's general orders
Witnessing stops, detentions, arrests
Persons that are not involved in an incident may be allowed to remain in the immediate vicinity to witness stops, detentions and arrests of suspects occurring in public areas, except under the following circumstances:
A. When the safety of the officer or the suspect is jeopardized
B. When persons interfere or violate law
C. When persons threaten by words or actions, or attempt to incite others to violate the law
If the conditions at the scene are peaceful and sufficiently quiet, and the officer has stabilized the situation, persons shall be allowed to approach close enough to overhear the conversation between the suspect and the officer, except when:
A. The suspect objects to persons overhearing the conversation
B. There is a specific and articulable need for confidential conversation for the purpose of police interrogation
A. Persons shall be permitted to make a short, direct inquiry as to to the suspect's name and whether the officer or the suspect wishes a witness. The suspect shall be allowed to respond to the inquiry.
B. If a citizen is a witness to the activity for which the suspect was detained or arrested, the officer may request his/her name; however, the citizen is not compelled to disclose such information.
Bystander filming of officer-suspect contacts
It is increasingly common for bystanders, who are not involved in any criminal activity, to record contacts between officers and citizens, during which officers are detaining, citing or arresting a suspect or engaging in crowd control at a demonstration. Bystanders have the right to record police officer enforcement activities by camera, video recorder or other means (except under certain narrow circumstances as set in section "Witnessing stops, detentions, arrests" and "Overhearing conversation.")
A. An officer shall not seize, compel or otherwise coerce production of these bystander recordings by any means without first obtaining a warrant. Without a warrant, an officer may only request, in a non-coercive manner, that a bystander voluntarily provide the film or other recording.
B. These requests should be made only if the officer has probable cause to believe that a recording has captured evidence of a crime and that the evidence will be important to prosecution of that crime.
C. If a bystander refuses to voluntarily provide the recording, an officer may request the person's identity as provided in "Inquiries," segment B.
D. If a bystander voluntarily provides his or her recording and/or equipment, the officer shall provide the bystander with a receipt. The receipt shall contain a written statement verifying that the recording and/or equipment has been voluntarily provided to the department and shall be signed by the bystander.
As an alternative to arresting an onlooker who is resisting, obstructing or refusing to obey, officers may order onlookers to "move on"; however, the person shall not be ordered to move any father distance than is necessary to end a violation. Persons who believe that an officer did not comply with the provisions of this order shall be referred to an appropriate supervisor.
(This has been modified slightly for clarity.)