LIFE AND VIOLENT DEATH IN ALBUQUERQUE: POLICE VIOLENCE AND ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM
[March 24, 2012, BREAKING NEWS: APD Union Running “Bounty” Program for Killer Cops]
EDITOR’S NOTE: The story below, uploaded on March 23, 2012, came one day before new developments in the story of police violence in Albuquerque. Yesterday Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry distanced himself from the Albuquerque Police Department after a report in the Albuquerque Journal revealed an APD cash reward program to officers involved in fatal shootings. “The administration has nothing to do with how the union conducts their business,” said Berry in a statement regarding the $200—$500 payments made by the union to cops involved in both fatal and non-fatal shootings, “but I was shocked yesterday when made aware of this practice. I cannot stand aside and condone this practice. It needs to end now.” Even APD Chief Ray Shultz, an apologist for police violence, found the program troubling. Despite criticism from many, including Mike Gomez, a father of a recent APD victim, that the payments amount to a bounty for killer cops, Union leaders defended the program. Union President Joey Sigala told KRQE news that the payments “help [officers] get their bearings back….They really need to get away [after a fatal shooting].” After nearly two dozen police shootings and 18 deaths in the last two and a half years, the union program has distributed more than $10,000 to APD officers.
Editorial By DAVID CORREIAFollow @DavidCorreiaUNM
On Monday an Albuquerque Police Department officer named Martin Smith shot and killed 31-year-old Daniel Walter Tillison after Tillison rammed his car into Smith’s cruiser. Tillison, according to police, was selling stolen stereo equipment out of his car near the corner of Marquette Avenue and Texas Street. Tillison tried to escape in his car when Smith confronted him. APD Chief Ray Schultz told the press that “(Tillison) then produced a dark item in his hand and pointed it in the direction of the officer,” Smith killed Tillison with one shot. The “dark item” was a cellphone. Officers found no weapons in the car.
Two days later a chase that began in Albuquerque ended in violence near Laguna Pueblo when an APD SWAT officer Russell Carter shot and killed Gary Atencio, a man suspected of earlier shooting at his estranged wife. This is Carter’s third fatal shooting in a 15-year APD career. In February of 2005 Carter was one of seven officers involved in a 12-hour standoff when Torrance County Sheriff’s deputies tried to serve an eviction notice on 58-year old John Loche. Loche, however, refused to leave and instead barricaded himself in his McIntosh, N.M. trailer. The standoff and gun battle that ensued left two officers wounded and Loche dead of multiple gunshots. In June 2007, Carter and another APD SWAT officer shot and killed 42-year-old Jay Martin Murphy after Murphy barricaded himself inside his Albuquerque home with his teenage daughter. According to police Murphy had been lobbing glass bottles at officers from his car and then, wielding a knife, barricaded himself in his house. According to the warrant Murphy stood on his porch from where he continued to throw bottles and various objects at police. The victim’s son, Jay Murphy Jr., 19, exited the house when his father entered and “advised the officer his dad was `harmless’ and tried to calm the situation down.” Instead an APD SWAT unit stormed the house and killed Murphy. Yesterday Shultz called Carter “a hero” for his role in killing Atencio and in the two previous fatal shootings.
Two shootings in three days and another bloody week in Albuquerque comes to a violent close. The three police shootings in 2012 continue APDs frightening pattern of deadly force as first option. In the past 30 months, APD officers have killed 17 people and wounded 7 others.
What’s going on in Albuquerque? In November I wrote an essay on APD violence for CounterPunch (www.counterpunch.org/2011/11/23/the-return-of-the-albuquerque-death-squads/] that I provocatively titled, “The Return of the Albuquerque Death Squads.” In it I argued that the recent spate of deadly police shootings in Albuquerque is a function of both a frightening blood lust among some APD officers and an example of the violent results of institutionalized racism and structural inequality.
I told the story of the September 2010 killing of Chandler Barr after he threatened an APD officer with a butter knife. I recounted the day an unarmed Dominic Robert Smith was shot and killed in October of 2009. Smith had a history of mentally illness and on that day he was on the streets of Albuquerque acting strangely, alternately waving his arms and shoving pills in his mouth, when an Albuquerque Police officer, using a hunting rifle, shot him in the chest. I recalled how Trey Economidy, an APD officer who shot Jacob Mitschelen in the back in February of 2011 killing him instantly, posted his job description on Facebook as “human waste disposal.” And I mentioned the controversy around Detective Jim Dwyer’s MySpace page, which listed his occupation as “oxygen thief removal technician” and included alarming posts like “Some people are only alive because killing them is illegal.” I suggested that these people and patterns tell us that APD is a department populated by thugs that operates more as a death squad than a police department.
The response I got to the essay was not what I expected. While there were a few angry reactions, including a few forwarded emails from outraged police officers, what I mostly received were comments that suggested I actually had not gone far enough in my analysis of police violence.
One young woman sent me this email:
My dad was a police officer on the Navajo nation and occasionally he would attend trainings with APD. At one training he was having a conversation with an Albuquerque police officer and the officer asked my dad “So what’s your throw down weapon?” My dad wasn’t familiar with the term so he asked him what a “throw down weapon” was. The officer replied that it was a weapon you throw down at a scene where you have shot an unarmed individual.
I received another email from a reader who reminded me that the shooting of Chandler Barr in 2009 was even more disturbing than I had depicted. He wrote this in his email:
When APD bicycle cop Leah Kelly left a position of cover, her car, to shoot Chandler, she was smoking a cigar. She has an endless record of citizen complaints, and a history of procedural violations. After killing Barr she was rewarded with a transfer to CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) unit.
I’m not sure what the members of the Crisis Intervention Team do for APD other than perhaps, given its composition, intervene and create crisis.
Another reader suggested that I was onto something in my essay when I recounted the history of police violence in Albuquerque and New Mexico against young Chicano and Native political activists. He sent me a detailed history of APD violence that includes the following:
Between 1987 and 1996, APD officers killed 31 people. In the wake of these killings, intense community pressure led the Albuquerque City Council to commission the 1997 Walker-Luna Report that confirmed the findings of a 1991 APD study. The 31 people killed in the previous ten years meant that APD killed people at a rate higher than every other similarly sized city in the U.S. The report led the City Council to create the Police Oversight Commission (POC) and its investigative arm the Independent Review Officer (IRO) in 1998, based on the recommendations of the report.
In the six years after these reforms were put in place APD officers shot 41 people, killing 23.
Tasers were introduced to the APD in 1999. Police officials suggested that the use of Tasers would provide non-fatal options to officers and thus reduce the pattern of fatal shootings. Police killings increased in the years following the proliferation of Taser use by APD, including a number of deaths by Taser.
This frightening pattern of APD violence has been matched by an equally bizarre blue wall of silence. Bizarre because all of the statistics I’ve offered above come from APD Internal Affairs reports. And yet in 2001, when APD Internal Affairs Unit (IA) investigated 52 complaints of excessive force it upheld only one complaint. Perhaps the fact that APD recognizes the pattern but can’t recognize it as a problem is not bizarre at all but rather an illustration of a terrifying truth: APD knows exactly what it’s doing and, as history tells us, plans to continue doing it.
The emails I received offer compelling evidence that I got at least one thing very wrong in “The Return of the Albuquerque Death Squads.” It was incorrect to suggest that the death squads returned because from the evidence offered above it’s clear that they never left.
That this violence is nothing new tells us something important about the APD. Violent is what they are and violence is what they do. And the violence is directed at the poor and the mentally ill. And that its victims are overwhelmingly Chicano or Native tells us that this police violence is a tool of racialized socio-spatial control of poor people. The police, as German social critic Walter Benjamin wrote in the 1940s, use violence as a law-preserving tactic. What kind of law is it, exactly, that this violence preserves? That this violence is racialized and directed at the poor suggests something fundamental, and profoundly disturbing, about the law.
The shootings this week have led to renewed calls for reform and pressure on Mayor Berry to do something about his violent police department. But the possibility for real change seems unlikely. The periodic reform efforts directed at the problem of police violence have failed time and time again. This suggests that the focus on police violence as a problem—whether it’s a problem defined as a few bad actors who need to be purged or a problem of a poorly trained and thus poorly managed force—is perhaps the wrong place to look for solutions. Rather perhaps police violence is less a problem than it is an effect. An effect of the demonization of the poor; an effect of institutionalized racism; an effect, more broadly, of capitalist social relations.
The struggle against racialized police violence directed at the poor in Albuquerque must confront this issue as part of wider patterns of environmental racism in Albuquerque, a place, like so many other places, where poor residents suffer the health problems from the disproportionate effects of noxious land uses. Residents in the South Valley, for example, struggle daily against the toxic effects of a legacy of ground water contamination from the release of chemicals, petroleum and chlorinated solvents from commercial, industrial, military and municipal facilities.
Improper fertilizer use on an industrial farm in the South Valley in the 1950s and 60s created what is today one of the largest toxic underground plumes in New Mexico with a nitrate concentration 30 times greater than allowed by National Drinking Water standards. The plume, larger than 500 acres in size, has been slowly migrating east toward residential areas.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad saturated local soils with creosote in an area of the South Valley where groundwater levels are found only 20 feet below the surface.
The patterns of pollution that South Valley residents in communities like Mountain View confront, however, are not just historical. Underground pipelines crisscross the valley and deliver millions of gallons of fuel and gasoline to five major bulk terminals located just south of Rio Bravo. These massive steel tank farms serve as the distribution point for most of the fuel for gas stations throughout Albuquerque and the Sunport. The constant truck traffic into and out of Mountain View contributes to air quality problems linked to elevated levels of childhood asthma.
The spills and leaks from this industrial infrastructure are a constant part of life for Mountain View residents. The Bernalillo County Mountain View Sector plan includes a section describing Mountain View’s toxic history. The Valero Logistics bulk terminal has spilled tens of thousands of gallons of jet fuel in the Valley. In 2001, tanks spilled 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel and perhaps as much as 40,000 gallons of gasoline was spilled in 2003.
Of the 40 registered petroleum storage tanks in the South Valley, the New Mexico Environment Department admitted in 2005 that state inspectors found at least 20 of them leaking petroleum into the aquifer in Mountain View. Over the past 20 years, 206,000 gallons of chemicals from several companies (that we know of) have spilled into local surface and groundwater in the South Valley, with most of this concentrated along the Broadway corridor south of Rio Bravo.
Mountain View residents have long organized around issues of environmental injustice and many of the same activists who have been at the forefront of struggles around environmental racism have also been involved in campaigns against police violence. They see these issues as linked because, when understood in an historical and spatial context, it is clear that the poor in Albuquerque live in sacrifice zones and the police enforce these patterns of social and spatial exclusion. The poor live in polluted neighborhoods and to APD this means that they too are pollution. This is the logic of Economidy’s description for his job with APD—Human Waste Disposal.
What activists in the environmental justice movement have done, both locally and nationally, is to historicize and politicize the spatial patterns of unequal pollution. It is impossible to locate racist intent in an isolated fuel spill or to find an example of institutionalized racism in a single zoning decision, much in the same way that it is plausible for Chief Shultz or Mayor Berry to deny anything wrong with violent police acts. Against this logic EJ activists have become quite skilled at demonstrating how environmental racism is not about discrete acts but about the social production of spaces of poverty as polluted spaces. Environmental racism is understood as a structural issue visible in the histories of redlining in minority communities, exclusionary zoning that reinforced the spatiality of segregation and speculative real estate markets. Therefore it is not enough to clean up a Superfund site or stop a polluter—these are important struggles, but it is not where environmental justice begins and ends. Rather the racist system that makes these patterns possible is the object of struggle.