ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – The 17 men who comprise the Albuquerque Police Department SWAT team have an impressive stockpile at their disposal.
There’s enough weaponry on hand for the unit to give each member three tactical rifles, two handguns, a shotgun, a grenade launcher and a sniper rifle.
The SWAT team has stockpiled more than 175,000 rounds of tactical rifle ammunition. For sidearms, more than 137,000 rounds are at the ready. The unit’s snipers can pull from a cache of more than 23,000 high-velocity cartridges, including .50 caliber ammunition that can be lethal after penetrating an inch-thick steel plate more than one mile away.
The inventory, released only after a judge ordered APD to turn it over, shows a unit that, despite being roundly criticized by federal officials for its lack of effectiveness and overall use of force, has the firepower to handle nearly any scenario SWAT officers have experienced and likely some that haven’t yet been imagined.
That’s just as APD Chief Gorden Eden wants it.
“It has to do with availability,” Eden said. “And we can’t be in a position where if we need it, we have to wait a day or even hours. We just have to have it available.”
APD refused repeated interview requests by KRQE News 13, but when approached by reporters outside Monday’s city council meeting, Chief Eden agreed to talk about why the SWAT team is armed with such serious firepower and why it should not be an issue for people who live, work and play in Albuquerque.
“There should be absolutely no concern. None. And I say that with the highest degree of respect for our community. This is things that are needed ‘if.’ And you can fill in the blank,” the chief said.
He pointed to the recent attack on Dallas Police Department headquarters by a man in an armored van as a reason to have a .50 caliber sniper rifle at the ready.
“The way they were able to disable that armored vehicle was with a .50 caliber weapon,” Eden said.
While Dallas police say a sniper did shoot the van’s engine block with such a weapon, it was a deputy using standard-issue spike strips who got the vehicle to stop. Later, a sniper shot the man through the van’s front window. A remote-control robot ultimately penetrated the armored vehicle.
Police practices expert Samuel Walker, who co-authored a report on APD’s response to department shootings in the 1990s, said the robust SWAT arsenal can erode an officer’s ability to relate to the community.
“And I think what happens here is they acquire all these weapons and it just, it shapes the mentality of the officers in the unit,” Walker said. “(Officers are) saying ‘We are a military unit’ as opposed to ‘We are a police unit, we are a police department that serves the community.'”
Walker remembered APD’s SWAT unit as “kind of detached from the mainstream of the department.”
“The SWAT team had a very strong esprit de corps,” Walker said. “It was a group that really was, they were off on their own. And they had very much a military, attack mentality.”
But Walker said the same mentality can arise in a SWAT unit that has much less firepower on hand.
“In the end, it’s not really the weapons. It’s the department, it’s the management, it’s the supervision and the accountability,” Walker said.
The Department of Justice’s investigation of APD’s use of force said SWAT’s leadership often “failed to provide any meaningful assistance during dangerous situations.” The DOJ said SWAT officers too often showed up to a scene on their own and didn’t communicate with the other officers on scene.
Ultimately, the DOJ said the department as a whole had developed a “culture of aggression” and that APD command allowed “under-utilization of its crisis intervention team” and “overuse of SWAT.”
But Chief Eden rebuffed the theory that having high-end sniper rifles or more lethal sidearms like the .45 caliber handguns sported by SWAT officers makes police more anxious to put the weapons to work.
“It doesn’t mean you’re going to use it every single day,” the chief said. “You just have to have it available.”