ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) — Secret law enforcement surveillance of people at a peaceful demonstration against police violence over the weekend has drawn the ire of event organizers and the state’s leading civil liberties group.
And the surveillance, conducted by the sergeant of the Albuquerque Police Department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit, may also have run afoul of the department’s own standard operating procedures, according to a KRQE News 13 review of the procedures.
“It shows a shocking disregard for free speech rights,” Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, told News 13 on Monday. “It signals to the community that officers view civilians broadly with disdain and distrust. That is at the heart of the problems we’ve seen at APD over the years, and it sends a signal that things haven’t changed, business goes on as usual inside APD, and a lot more aggressive efforts at reform need to take place.”
Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry’s Police Department has been the focus of growing public distrust in recent years. Citizens’ fears about APD were largely confirmed in April when the U.S. Department of Justice released the findings of its 16-month investigation of city police: a deeply rooted culture of aggression that too often violated citizens’ constitutional rights, leaving many of them dead, and a leadership that too seldom held officers’ and itself accountable for wrongdoing.
The DOJ’s findings are likely to result in a court-enforceable consent decree that mandates sweeping reforms of APD. It is unclear whether negotiations have begun between the city and the Justice Department.
And since Saturday’s demonstration — which featured a few hundred protestors marching along Central Avenue through the center of the city and a gathering at Roosevelt Park — a new question has been hanging in Albuquerque’s tense summer air.
Why was an undercover APD officer, dressed in hippie garb, mixing in with protestors and aiming a high-end camera capable of taking video and still images at them?
News 13 spotted the officer — who we are not naming because of the sensitive nature of his other, legitimate undercover work — at the park.
Another concern for event organizers and the ACLU is the fact that the officer with the camera was the man behind the trigger in one of APD’s 36 shootings since 2010.
“I mean on the face of it, it seems like a lack of common sense,” Simonson said, adding that, given the current climate of devastated community-police relations, APD should be doing everything it can to heal the wounds.
Apparently conducting surveillance on lawful protestors does just the opposite, he said.
News 13 has been stonewalled since Saturday by APD, whose only comment was to confirm the presence of multiple undercover officers at the demonstration. A department spokesman said those officers were there to “ensure the safety of the community and the protestors.”
Sayrah Namaste, one of the event’s organizers, didn’t buy that explanation. “I don’t understand how protecting us is infiltrating us,” she said.
News 13 went to a public event where Berry was speaking Monday in search of more specific answers. As the event concluded, Berry, who made remarks in front of numerous reporters and others, dodged our cameras and ducked into a waiting SUV, which sped away.
Late Monday afternoon, city Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry had a spokeswoman send News 13 a one-sentence statement that didn’t address any of our questions. “The mayor’s office is never in a position to confirm or deny the identity of an undercover officer which could jeopardize officer safety and public safety,” Perry’s statement said.
Prior to airing a story on Saturday night about the apparent surveillance, News 13 made clear to city and police officials that no photographs or video of the officer would appear on air or online.
Late Monday night, Police Chief Gorden Eden sent an additional statement. Again, the statement failed to address why the criminal intelligence officer was equipped with a camera and attempting to blend in with demonstrators.
Undercover officers were at the protest, Eden said in the statement, “for the sole purpose of monitoring for public safety issues.” He cited a man with an assault-style rifle and graffiti vandals’ presence at a previous protest as reasons for the undercover officers attendance on Saturday.
“Officers at such events are normally assigned to watch for criminal behavior such as theft, emergency situations or otherwise suspicious activities in order to ensure public safety, regardless of the topic or nature of the event,” Eden’s statement said.
The Criminal Intelligence Unit is supposed to work cases involving active criminal targets.
Constitutional concerns aside, the officer’s handiwork at Saturday’s demonstration may violate APD policies governing the work of the unit.
Officers need reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred to conduct surveillance or gather intelligence on anyone, according to department policies. And those policies specifically ban surveillance and intelligence gathering based on race, religious or political affiliations, “personal habits or lifestyles” or “support of unpopular causes” unless the information “is necessary and relevant to the investigation of criminal wrongdoing …”
The city’s refusal to answer specific questions leaves no way of knowing what the Criminal Intelligence Unit was really up to Saturday.
But what is clear is that this has happened before.
The unit’s work has come up at least twice in lawsuits — for conducting unconstitutional surveillance and keeping files on people who weren’t suspected of committing crimes.
One suit came in the 1980s, and APD was enjoined from maintaining such files. And in 2003, the practice came up again when the unit allegedly infiltrated a group that was protesting the United States’ involvement in the Iraq War. The ACLU lost that lawsuit, which was not specifically focused on the work of the Criminal Intelligence Unit.
Demonstrators say surveillance only increases their distrust of APD.
The ACLU agrees that it amounts to more heavy-handed tactics from a Police Department that has displayed too many of those through the years. And news of the intelligence officer’s presence at Saturday’s event with a camera couldn’t come at a worse time, Simonson said.
“I think it shows a real numbness to the community’s mistrust of the APD and the need to rebuild public confidence in the department,” he said.