ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – A wide cross-section of disparate community groups, family members and friends of people shot by police and others turned out on a sweltering Saturday for another demonstration against police violence in a city that has been rocked by it during the past several years.
One of those groups was there for another purpose, and it’s raising concerns.
The Albuquerque Police Department sent undercover officers to the peaceful demonstration, which featured numerous speakers at Roosevelt Park — itself the scene of a police-vs.-citizens riot in the 1970s — a march through the middle of the city and a mock trial that turned up a guilty verdict against Police Chief Gorden Eden.
An APD spokesman, officer Daren DeAguero, said the undercover officers were sent to the demonstration to “ensure (the protesters’) safety and the safety of the community.”
“I don’t understand how protecting us is infiltrating us,” Sayrah Namaste, who helped organize Saturday’s event, said after KRQE News 13 told her about the undercover APD presence. “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.”
DeAguero and top city officials — including Eden and City Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry — refused to answer follow-up questions from KRQE News 13.
Although KRQE News 13 does know the identity of the officer, we have chosen not to show him because he is an undercover officer and the station does not what to hinder any ongoing investigations.
One of the officers did come as a surprise to a KRQE News 13 reporter and producer, who observed the sergeant of the APD Criminal Intelligence Unit milling about the crowd of a few hundred at the park.
The sergeant appeared to be trying to blend in with demonstrators. He wore a tie-dyed T-shirt, long hair brushed back out of his eyes, dark sunglasses and a lengthy, unkempt beard.
The sergeant did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
It is unclear whether the sergeant was armed, but he carried something to shoot with: a high-end Canon camera with video and still-image capabilities.
At several points on Saturday, he had the camera trained on demonstrators, who chanted things like “They say ‘justified,’ we say ‘homicide,'” and carried signs bearing messages such as “Not one more shooting,” “Jail killer cops” and “End APD violence.”
The nature of the protest — and the root of the simmering discontent that has engulfed New Mexico’s largest city this year — makes the sergeant’s presence at Saturday’s event even more curious.
On Aug. 6, 2012, he shot 20-year-old Domonick Solis-Mora in the stomach outside a West Side buffet restaurant during an undercover drug sting. APD had set up surveillance on the area, and an undercover officer, according to police, bought more than $200 worth of heroin from Solis-Mora in Solis-Mora’s vehicle during an operation.
The man had a gun under his legs, according to police, and pulled it out when he saw undercover officers coming toward the car. According to APD, the man was pointing the gun toward officers when the sergeant shot him.
“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 that,” Namaste said. “There’s no need for that.”
“If the officer who infiltrated us today was someone who shot a member of our community, that officer should not be on the streets … and it’s very insensitive that, instead, he was put into a protest of family members, of people who’ve had family members killed. That he would be in that group is insensitive, offensive.”
Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg cleared the sergeant of any wrongdoing in the shooting, just as she has with every other police shooting her office has reviewed during her decade and a half in office.
APD officers have shot 36 people since January 2010, killing 26 of them. For years, family members of men shot by police, civil libertarians and others have demanded reform in what many see as a police department out of control.
The discontent boiled over in March, when APD released a video of two officers firing multiple shots from assault-style rifles at James Boyd, a homeless man who was living with mental illness, killing him as he appeared to be cooperating with police.
On numerous occasions since the release of the video, protesters have taken to the streets. They’ve also shut down two City Council meetings and staged a sit-in in the Mayor’s Office at City Hall. That incident resulted in 13 arrests.
In April, the U.S. Department of Justice announced its findings after a 16-month investigation of APD. The DOJ determined that city police had a systemic pattern of violating citizens’ civil rights, specifically through the use of force.
Justice Department investigators also found that city and police leadership had failed to hold accountable officers who used excessive force and a deeply-ingrained unwillingness to address problems within the Police Department.
The findings ultimately will result in a court-enforceable consent decree mandating changes to APD training, accountability mechanisms and other aspects of the way the department operates and deals with the community. It’s unclear whether negotiations toward that decree have begun.
Saturday’s event had been months in the making. Organizers worked with APD to plan the route of a march through the city and other details.
Those planning meetings included no discussion of an undercover presence at the demonstration, Namaste said.
“It’s very upsetting when we know that today, we exercised our right to peacefully assemble, and we were in constant contact with our police liasion with APD,” she said. “So, this is inappropriate.”
Among the questions News 13 sent to Perry, Eden and DeAguero was whether sending an officer who has shot someone — and who works with the Criminal Intelligence Unit — was appropriate.
The unit collects and maintains intelligence on targets and organizations to support the APD Special Investigations Division in its operations and, more broadly, provides vital intelligence to the entire department about known criminals. The unit also handles high-profile, sensitive cases.
The Criminal Intelligence Unit is supposed to work cases involving active criminal targets, and probable cause is required for many of its operations.
News 13 also asked the city why the sergeant would be at a lawful demonstration with a camera and whether he was gathering intelligence on protesters and other members of the community who are not suspected of criminal activity. We received no response.
“We don’t know what the APD is doing,” Namaste said. “If they’re undercover, we don’t know. There isn’t any need. Nothing we’re doing is illegal … This is inappropriate that they would be putting us under surveillance, because we were peaceful and we have the right to assemble. And they were aware that we were doing this. We were in communication with them.”
In fact, there was a sizable uniformed APD presence in the streets on Saturday. Several officers on foot, others on motorcycles and still others on bikes were patrolling the area and blocking traffic so demonstrators could march up Central Avenue and back down Silver Avenue through the heart of the city.
There appeared to be no incidents between the uniformed officers and the demonstrators.
One man yelled at an expletive at two officers on bikes near Roosevelt Park, and the officers just kept riding by.