APD in Context: Part of an American Tradition of Publicly Sanctioned Killing

Commentary By SAM MARKWELL

The ongoing acts of violence committed by officers of the Albuquerque Police Department have gained vastly heightened visibility in the months since the March 16th police execution of James Boyd. The video of a squad of police armed with lethal and non-lethal weapons, legally “solving” the problem of James Boyd’s “illegal” presence in the foothills, helped bring attention and energy to longstanding efforts to call the logical grounds and operating procedures of APD into question. The course of events following the killing of Boyd now includes major march-style protests (with a fourth scheduled for June 21st), numerous task-force and open forum meetings, four city council meetings (one of which was taken over by activists), a federal marshal shooting an unarmed man in the head, and four moreAPD killings: Alfred Redwine, Mary Hawkes, Armand Martin, and Ralph Chaves. What course the contestationsaround police violence will take is uncertain. But discernable contours have emerged.

These contours are shaped by the different ways people identify the problem and subsequently delineate possible solutions. Most pro-APD positions have endorsed the right of police to kill individuals deemed to be dangerously criminal, ostensibly in defense of public safety and order. In contrast, most opposition has rallied around the idea that police do not have such an expansive right. Those who are troubled by the police and city administration’s sanctioned killings tend to call for either a much more selective use of deadly force in line with U.S. constitutional and legal norms, or an outright abolition of any such police right to kill. As is usually the case, the devil is in the details.

People and groups that identify primarily as citizens tend to locate APD’sproblem in itssupposeddeviation from American norms of policing and see the solution as reestablishing a more authentic form of American policing. It is usually claimed that a prior moment of national life, when“good policing” prevailed,was lost during 9/11, World War II, or some other event of dramatic national transformation. This fall from grace, it seems, is always repairable by returning to the origins of the U.S. national project.

Territorial Governor William Carr Lane
Territorial Governor William Carr Lane

Of course, ongoing militarization of the police matters, and the ways people are connecting the dots between foreign war-making and domestic policing are important. But the claim that the militarization of police and technological surveillance are solelydue to post-9/11 invasions into citizen freedoms does not take seriously the decades-long problems with APD, or the historical dynamics of how citizenship has been racially defined and policed in the U.S, and in particular Albuquerque. To put it differently, legal killing did not arrive in Albuquerque with the execution of James Boyd andthe 25 killings APD has committed under Mayor Berry’s administration. Killing has been part of operative logics in the various legal regimes that have been enforced since the U.S. occupied the region in the mid-eighteenth century. As David Correia’s work in the Alibi and La Jicarita has emphasized— echoing the work of generations of Native, Chicano, and Black social justice activists—the problem must be situated in a much longer historical trajectory that is shaped by the racial structures and dynamics of U.S. colonization projects. Instead of representing police violence as a deviation from the national norm, this history alerts us to the ways that policing in New Mexico under U.S. rule has always justified the practice of killing people and locking people in cages. This critique resonates with abolitionist positions, which Dylan Rodriguez argues areefforts in which“the ethical imperative is to abolish (rather than merely render temporarily survivable) the social logics and institutional systems of violence.” The socially institutionalized aspects of APD’s violence can be better grasped when situated in the context of a longer history of police violence in New Mexico.

Consider the following letter written in 1853 by Dr. William Carr Lane, the second territorial governor, written after a year of administering order on the lands and peoples of New Mexico.

During my short residence in this country I have visited six of the nine counties which comprise the territory and…it cannot be denied the first aspect of things is discouraging.

We are very distant from the states, difficult of access and surrounded by barbarians. The population, which does not exceed over 60,000 is widely scattered over an area so immense that 20 companies of United States troops are insufficient for its protection against the Indians, and your people are so badly armed that they cannot protect their own property. Agriculture and stock raising, the two great interests of your territory, are depressed for the want of protection. Your mines are nearly abandoned and their products (gold a silver excepted) will not bear the transportation. Your highways are in bad condition and the schoolmaster is rarely seen amongst you.

The country is run over with red and white thieves and robbers. Your prisons are insecure, and no appropriation has yet been made for a territorial penitentiary. Your revenue laws are so defective, that sufficient funds are not provided for the ordinary purposes of government. Business amongst you languishes; indeed, a feeling of insecurity and uncertainty about the future is felt by many persons. And to crown all, unmeasurable jealousies and bickering exist between natives and immigrants.

I consider the territory to be now at its lowest point of depression; but feel assured that Providence has a bright future in store for her….As for our crude laws and imperfect administration of them, our bad roads, our want of schools, and our difficulties with the Indians, time, perseverance, and the exercise of wisdom and justice will assuredly correct all these evils…a well organized militia will protect you from red thieves and a penitentiary will rid you of white thieves.

This statement is quoted at length in a positive light in Thomas Donnelly’s The Government of New Mexico, which was published in multiple editions and distributed by the University of New Mexico press from the 1940s to the 1970s. Donnelly, who was the head of UNM’s Government Department at the time, informed his readers: “The two principal problems which the territorial government faced …were to establish satisfactory relations with the military, and to bring the Indian menace under control.” The formation of militia’s to kill “red thieves” and the construction of penitentiaries to imprison “white thieves” reveals the racial logics enshrined in the U.S. law and policing systems. These systems mutually determined how violent forms of policing targeted different populations to establish public order for the new U.S. settler regime.

New Mexico Territorial Penitentiary built in 1885
New Mexico Territorial Penitentiary built in 1885

These violent processes are the preconditions for U.S. civic rule, which deems who is a valued member of the national body and who is a killable “threat.” The military is not invading domestic police forces in an unprecedented fashion. They have long been interdependent entities whose boundaries are co-determined in and through the territorial and political contestations that shape them, and the national labor pool that provides them bodies to be set out on violent trajectories. The jurisdiction of the militias and police forces that secured the new settler legal order has been transformed since the beginning of the U.S. occupation in 1848. Essentially, this legal order has been organized around the protection of settler-citizen life and property against perceived threats (the Indian, the criminal, the homeless, the mentally ill).

Pablo Abeita, Isleta Pueblo political leader
Pablo Abeita, Isleta Pueblo political leader

Native communities in New Mexico have been critical of this system since its inception, pointing out the inadequacies and injustices of U.S. governance.For instance, at the 1934 Congress of the All Indian Pueblo Council, Pablo Abeita, a representative from Isleta Pueblo who had served a term as a judge, spoke to the ways that colonially and racially produced inequalities structured theU.S. legal system: “I can say, without hesitation, that when it comes to pure meanness, the white people take first prize, the blue ribbon, because when the Indians have killed one, they have killed thousands. When the Indians steal or rob 15 cents the white man has already stolen fifteen million or more. And that is not all; when the Indian is caught doing these things he is either jailed or hanged, and when the white man is caught he is given a good lecture, told to be careful so he won’t be caught the next time.” These asymmetries persist, and the U.S. legal system continues to police people in ways that create violent situations that result in killingsor locking the dispossessed in cages.

Arguing that we need to attend to the historical and geographical continuities that link APD’sviolence to patterns of violence in other times in places is not meant to excuse individuals or organizations from accountability, nor is it meant to shift the focus away from the visibility of APD’s recent pattern of unconstitutional policing. It is, however, to argue that we need to call into question a broader array of violence that links actions of police officers to structures of racial and colonial power that value some lives while devaluing others. Hopefully, as this argument against police violence is repeated and modified in anti-racist, anti-colonial, and abolitionist forms, it will make recourse to U.S. nationalism as a solution to violence a less desirable and logical way of dealing with the inequalities that are the products of U.S. colonialism.



  1. Hi: I collaborate on an alt-left paper in Las Cruces called The GroundUp. We would be interested in republishing this piece (or a version of it) on our website and/or in our next print edition. Think it’s a good way to start people thinking historically about APD and police brutality. I can’t find contact info for the author, so any feedback would be appreciated regarding republishing. Our email is groundupnmsu@gmail.com. Thanks.

  2. […] In April, the Department of Justice issued the results of an investigation of the Albuquerque Police Department which documented years of “unconstitutional policing,” coverups, and systematic excessive force. The report came on the heels of international attention to recent instances of police violence in New Mexico and multiple mass protests in Albuquerque. Sam Markwell completed a master’s degree at UNM in Spring of this year. Originally published at La Jicarita. […]

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