Body Cameras Bring No Accountability for Police Brutality in Albuquerque

December 6, 2014

Max Blumenthal says the city's police have killed citizens without provocation and faced no penalty

Max Blumenthal says the city's police have killed citizens without provocation and faced no penalty



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Story Transcript

ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

Demonstrations are continuing around the country against a New York grand jury decision to not indict police officers over the choking death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man killed in July this year. The Garner decision comes after a week of nationwide protests after a St. Louis grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown.

We now turn our attention to Albuquerque, New Mexico, another city plagued by police brutality.

We’re joined by Max Blumenthal. He’s an award-winning journalist, and his latest piece for alternate is Inside the Twisted Police Department That Kills Unarmed Citizens at the Highest Rate in the Country.

Thanks for joining us, Max.

MAX BLUMENTHAL, AUTHOR, GOLIATH: LIFE AND LOATHING IN GREATER ISRAEL: Good to be on with you.

WORONCZUK: So, Max, what prompted you to do this investigation into police brutality in Albuquerque?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, you can do investigation into corrupt, lethal police departments pretty much anywhere you go. I just happened to be in Santa Fe, giving a talk on my book, Goliath, and I went over to Albuquerque and asked people to tell me about what was happening there, because I had heard that the police department there was killing unarmed residents at eight times the rate that the NYPD was and at twice the rate of the Chicago PD, which is policing one of the most violent cities in America, which is also a megalopolis. I was wondering why 27 people have been–unarmed people–have been killed since 2010 and over 40 people have been shot and wounded and many more have basically been terrorized and tortured by local police in this city of just 500,000.

And what I found was a police department overrun with sociopathic characters who were heavily armed, some of whom were taking military training at a semi-secret federal facility in the desert, and had no accountability at all to the citizens or to local lawmakers who were basically tools of the police department.

WORONCZUK: What have official reports and inquiries said about the Albuquerque Police Department?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, in March an Albuquerque police officer named Keith Sandy, who was from this elite unit called the Repeat Offender Project, which uses as its symbol a hangman’s noose and whose members don’t disclose their names to the public, operate in plainclothes, work completely separate from the rest of the department, have adopted this cowboy kind of gangster mentality, and train at a Department of Energy facility in the desert in military tactics that the U.S. has used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sandy was involved in a videotaped murder of a homeless man who had been accosted for illegally camping. There was a three-hour standoff, in which this homeless man basically shouted but never advanced on the cops. And without really any provocation, Sandy riddled this man’s torso with bullets on video. I mean, you can go online and watch the video of James Boyd being killed by Sandy and his partner.

And so the Department of Justice comes into Albuquerque after mass protests. People were just sick and tired of being shot on camera and nothing happening to the cops. And so they took over Central Ave next to the University of New Mexico for a day, were teargassed; tanks barreled down the street, chasing them away.

But the Department of Justice came in and investigated and found that there was a pattern of police officers killing unarmed residents without provocation and without need, that there was no need to use lethal force in most of these situations. The Department of Justice found that the police were disproportionately killing people who were mentally ill, people who were poor, and people of color, particularly Latinos and Native Americans. I mean, this is well known around Albuquerque, but the Department of Justice report really confirmed a lot of what people in this city had known.

The Department of Justice just reached a deal with the city, and it disbands the Repeat Offender Unit, this elite, gangster-style unit. It will implement new training regimens and require more recording devices, like lapel cams.

But there’s no call for indictments of police officers. And this is what the bereaved family members, the scores and scores of people who have lost members of their family and their friends to the Albuquerque police, this is what they’re calling for, and it’s not in that Department of Justice report.

Sam Costales, who was a former member of the Albuquerque PD, who was driven off the force for testifying in the defense of Al Unser Sr., a famous racecar driver who was brutally arrested and then charged with resisting arrest–Costales was basically hounded off the force. And he told me that he sees no way in the current regime of reforms that there will be any change and that the police are just thumbing their nose at the public.

So this Department of Justice report is important, but there needs to be indictments, from my perspective and the perspective of the bereaved families.

WORONCZUK: So, Max, you’ve mentioned that the most egregious instances of police brutality in Albuquerque were actually caught on video. And as everyone knows by now, in response to the Ferguson decision, Barack Obama has announced that he will seek federal funding to put cameras on police throughout the country. Did any of the police officers in Albuquerque who were caught on video murdering or committing police brutality against people, did they face any greater consequence than other police officers?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, I don’t think lapel cameras are a panacea, and I think they might actually be a Band-Aid reform on a gaping bullet wound.

Now, the only reason that there was footage relayed to the public from one of the officers’ lapel cameras in the killing of James Boyd, the homeless camper, was because of the idiocy of the Police Department in Albuquerque, that they actually believed that this footage would exonerate them. And Police Chief Gordon Eden came out in a press conference and actually tried to spin the killing using the video, which he thought would exonerate his officers. Instead, it sparked an open rebellion in the city that hasn’t intended. So they’re completely tone deaf.

However, there was the killing of Mary Hawkes, who was a 19-year-old homeless teenager, who was a very popular, well-known person around the International District, which is an impoverished, gritty area in Albuquerque, where there are a lot of–there’s a lot of homelessness, there’s a lot of street crime. And Hawkes had been born into a very abusive family, grew up in foster homes, and found a community around this area that people in Albuquerque referred to as the war zone.

She fit the profile of the kind of person that gets preyed on by the Albuquerque Police Department and who often is killed. And she was chased around town by an officer named Jeremy Dear, who has a very violent history, a very disturbing past, and appears to have been executed face down. The autopsy showed that this 19-year-old teen was shot at a 60 degree downward angle in the back of her head or in the side of her head. Jeremy Dear was supposed to be wearing a lapel camera, but the footage never turned up from this incident. And there were three other incidents with Jeremy Dear, in two of which he was accused of using excessive force, brutally beating a motorist and beating someone in a bar fight. And so in four cases, his lapel camera footage went missing. And it was really because of the public outcry over Mary Hawkes’ killing that Jeremy Dear was finally fired this week over the missing lapel cam footage. But he’s not going to be indicted, and no one will know what happened on that night on April 21 when Mary Hawkes’s life was cut short.

I think this is an incredibly tragic incident. It’s a crime, arguably. And we should know Mary Hawkes’s name just as well as we know the name of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. And we should consider her death in light of Obama’s comments on lapel cameras. As I said, I think lapel cameras are being deployed as kind of a Band-Aid solution so that cops don’t have to be indicted.

WORONCZUK: You said that there’s been great public outrage in Albuquerque over these shooting deaths. Have they transformed any kind of grassroots movement or political leadership?

BLUMENTHAL: I mean, there is a strong community of grassroots activists in Albuquerque, many of whom are family members of those who’ve been killed by the Albuquerque police. And they’ve been been demanding answers. They’ve been hounding the mayor. They’ve protested at the City Council. The City Council has had to pass legislation barring public demonstrations. The mayor has hidden from public festivals like Summerfest and Cesar Chavez Day because he’s afraid of being confronted by protesters to whom he has no answer. It was really through public pressure that the Department of Justice was brought in to conduct this investigation.

And the pressure remains on. Demonstrators took over Central Avenue again in solidarity with Ferguson, where Michael Brown was killed. And what’s happening nationwide is really helping this ignored and hunted community in Albuquerque, but it’s important, I think, for us who have focused on what’s happening in New York City or in Ferguson, which is right next to St. Louis, which is another major metropolis and a media center, that we don’t ignore the most violent police department in the country, which was really an example of police militarization gone awry.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Max Blumenthal, whose latest piece on police brutality in Albuquerque can be read on Alternet, thank you so much for joining us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.

WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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