ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Police officers are coming under fire for secretly filming peaceful demonstrators at a rally over the weekend.
Anti-police sentiment has bubbled up in the city since an April report by the U.S. Department of Justice found officers had a pattern of using excessive force against individuals, including fatally shooting nearly two dozen individuals since 2010.
The report prompted a wave of anti-police demonstrations, including one that took place at Albuquerque’s Roosevelt Park last weekend. The rally drew hundreds of supporters, but also attracted undercover police officers who were outed by a local television station.
Reporters at CBS affiliate KRQE-TV said undercover officers with the department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit were observed taking photographs of demonstrators during the rally on Saturday. One officer identified as a sergeant with the department carried a “high-end Canon camera with video and still-image capabilities,” according to the report.
KRQE did not identify the officer by name, but said he was involved in the shooting of a 20-year-old man outside a restaurant during an undercover sting two years ago.
A police spokesperson told KRQE that undercover officers were dispatched to the rally to “ensure (the protesters’) safety and the safety of the community.” But the station noted that officers who are a part of the Criminal Intelligence Unit are dispatched to investigate individuals considered to be “active criminal targets.”
Protesters were angry to learn that an officer who was involved in a shooting infiltrated their demonstration.
“If that is true, that someone who has (shot) a member of our community, and that’s what we were talking about today, that is very upsetting for people to hear,” demonstrator Sayrah Namaste told KRQE. “We are peaceful, we were lawful, there was no issue with the people who were marching today so, why were they surveilling us? That doesn’t make sense.”
On Sunday, TheBlot Magazine filed a request under New Mexico’s open records act for information about officers involved in undercover operations at the rally. Under state law, police departments are not required to disclose information stemming from criminal investigations. The request was filed on the claim that officers were dispatched to the rally to “ensure…safety and the safety of the community,” as asserted by the police spokesperson. The department has until early July to provide a response; so far, police have not replied to the request.
In April, the DOJ found that a majority of the department’s 20 fatal officer-involved shootings were unconstitutional.
“Albuquerque police officers often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to officers or others,” the report said. “Instead, officers used deadly force against people who posed a minimal threat, including individuals who posed a threat only to themselves or who were unarmed.”
In other cases, officers used deadly force when the conduct of the officers — not the suspects — “heightened the danger and contributed to the need to use force.”
The report also found that a majority of non-lethal tactics used by officers in other cases were also unconstitutional. A sample of 200 police reports reviewed by the DOJ found that Albuquerque police often used Tasers against subjects who were “passively resisting” or otherwise unable to comply with police direction due to their “mental state” or “posed only a minimal threat to officers.”
One case cited by the DOJ involved a man who poured gasoline over himself during a police encounter. Officers used a Taser on the man, setting him on fire. According to the DOJ, the use of a Taser in this case “endangered all (parties) present.”
UPDATE, June 27, 2014: One day after the publication of this story, the custodian of records with the Albuquerque Police Department acknowledged receipt of our open records request. In a follow-up e-mail on June 26, Albuquerque police said it was “reviewing your request to determine what public records are responsive and whether any exceptions to their production apply.” The police department said they would be in touch within the next two weeks.
UPDATE, Oct. 6, 2014: Several months after the publication of this story, the Albuquerque Police Department fulfilled our request in part by providing us with a copy of video released to other news organizations as well as documents that were not previously made public. Our follow-up story can be found here. We anticipate receiving additional documents and media in the future.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.