ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – The debate has been raging since Saturday on social media, news websites, talk radio and in the halls of the state’s leading civil liberties group.
Why were undercover officers from the Albuquerque Police Department, including at least one from the unit that is supposed to gather intelligence on suspected criminals, carrying a camera and blending in at a demonstration against police violence here over the weekend?
“We’ve got a job to do, and I think we did it in the parameters of the law and to the benefit of the citizens.”
That’s the answer KRQE News 13 received Wednesday, five days after we began asking questions about the surveillance, from city Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry.
Perry, Mayor Richard J. Berry’s second-in-command and the man who oversees APD, said he was aware of the presence of the Criminal Intelligence Unit at Saturday’s peaceful demonstration in Roosevelt Park before it went down.
Perry said the city’s spy squad was sent to the demonstration for public safety and to keep the community safe.
But event organizers and the American Civil Liberties Union say that’s what the large, uniformed APD presence was for. The uniformed officers helped control traffic during a march through the city and generally kept their distance from protesters.
There was no need for the intelligence-gatherers, they say.
“I don’t understand how protecting us is infiltrating us,” Sayrah Namaste, who helped organize the demonstration, said in an interview Saturday evening.
The APD Criminal Intelligence Unit has been called out at least twice through the years for conducting surveillance and gathering information on people who were not suspected of criminal activity and were just exercising their constitutional rights.
In 1989, the unit’s officers set fire to files they’d been maintaining on politicians and others less than an hour before a federal judge issued an injunction ordering the department to turn the files over to a citizens’ group that had sued APD.
And in 2003, new allegations arose that the CIU had infiltrated groups in Albuquerque who were protesting against the war in Iraq.
So what really has people on edge now is the possibility that APD, which, according to a recently released report from the U.S. Department of Justice, has a deeply-rooted accountability problem, is up to its old tricks.
Activists have been demanding answers since News 13 aired a story Saturday night about a CIU officer, disguised as a demonstrator, mixing in at Roosevelt Park and using a camera.
On Monday, the ACLU decried the surveillance, saying it “shows a shocking disregard for free speech rights.”
On Tuesday, the group announced it had filed a public records request for any data gathered by APD at Saturday’s event to get to the bottom of what APD is doing with the CIU’s handiwork.
News 13 has filed a similar request under the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act.
When asked Wednesday whether APD was keeping files on people associated with various police-accountability activist groups, Perry said: “No.”
It was the final question News 13 was able to ask at the end of a truncated, 10-minute interview we’d been trying to set up for four days.
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News 13 asked Perry whether the CIU was targeting anyone specifically, then pointed out that APD’s own policies require reasonable suspicion of ongoing criminal activity for the unit to monitor or collect information on people.
“You don’t need reasonable suspicion to basically be present there,” Perry said. “You need reasonable suspicion to do certain activities … Those are going to be things like photographing, recording and the like, and the only thing that I understand was recorded in this incident was one antagonist got out of line basically, and he was removed by the protestors’ security themselves.”
News 13 observed one CIU officer aiming his camera at demonstrators who were speaking and reading poetry from a makeshift stage in the park. The officer also panned the crowd with the camera.
“I can’t speak to it because I was not at the protest itself,” Perry said, adding that he was looking into whether any additional photos or video were gathered.
Perry then shifted gears, saying activists were being “disingenuous” by complaining about being filmed in a public park when they, themselves, were using cameras to shoot video of the event that was published and streamed online.
“I followed the protest on a streaming video that the protesters themselves provided,” he said. “So when you have the very protesters broadcasting their protest, I think you’re hard pressed to make any expectation of privacy, or otherwise, anything improper occurring … (Officers are) collecting the same things the protesters themselves are broadcasting to the public. Isn’t that an irony?”
But neither activists nor the ACLU has raised any concerns about the basic reality of being filmed by the police. Rather, their concern is over APD’s spying tactics, as employed by the Criminal Intelligence Unit, and what the city may be doing with the images and information it is collecting.
“We knew this was going on (in the 1980s and early 2000s,) and we see it going on today,” Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, said in an interview earlier this week. “I suspect that the bit that we have been able to witness at the protest (on Saturday) is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Perry acknowledged that APD has had an undercover presence at other protests this year. There have been several since APD released video in March of two officers fatally shooting James Boyd, a homeless man who was living with mental illness and who appeared to be cooperating with police during an encounter in the Sandia Foothills March 16.
But Perry would not say whether the Criminal Intelligence Unit was involved at earlier demonstrations. Nor would he say how far back the CIU’s interest in the police-accountability movement’s activities goes.
Several people got unruly at one of the demonstrations in late March. Vandals spray-painted a police substation and a man showed up with an AK-47.
That kind of behavior, Perry said, helped form the basis for the city’s concerns about public safety at protests.
“We’re trying to protect the community, and we’re trying to protect the protesters,” he said. “A little man from the moon didn’t come down for the last protest … and bring an AK-47 and a side arm and a long rifle.”
But why the CIU, which, by policy, is supposed to work on cases involving ongoing, organized criminal activity?
“Aren’t we splitting hairs?” Perry asked in response to that question.
Demonstrators say we’re not.
“This community has a First Amendment right to peacefully assemble. Since our event was completely peaceful and no one broke any laws, there is simply no justification for this behavior,” event organizer Namaste said in a written statement. “Spying on peaceful protesters scares anyone who would otherwise want to voice their outrage at APD’s behavior.”
News 13 asked Perry whether it was it the right call to send a member of the CIU, given the level of distrust many in the community have toward APD, to a peaceful protest with a camera.
“That’s a fair question,” he responded. “But I just kinda want to say: I don’t think the overall community in Albuquerque has great distrust. It may be that way in your newsroom, but I’m not so sure that the community has that distrust.”