The Political Art of Police Violence in Albuquerque


When Emilio Naranjo died in 2008 at the age of 92, New Mexico politicians flocked to his funeral to sing his praises. Bill Richardson lamented Naranjo’s death calling it “the end of a unique political era in Northern New Mexico.” Former House Speaker Ben Lujan called Naranjo “the last crown jewel of the political patron system.” The Santa Fe New Mexican covered the event like a State funeral, remembering Naranjo as New Mexico’s “last patron.”

His prominent eulogists remembered a life of public service. For more than forty years, he served in a variety of elected and appointed positions: state senator, county sheriff, chairman of the Democratic Party and U.S. Marshal. From these posts Naranjo built a political machine through which he dominated Rio Arriba County politics.

But his reign was not as benign as his eulogist made out. If Naranjo should be remembered for anything, it should be for his embrace of police violence as political tactic; he turned police violence into a frightening political art.

Early in his long political career, Naranjo realized that of all the many political posts he held, County Sheriff was perhaps the most important. It meant being in control of a small army of loyal, well-armed deputies who, under color of law, could enforce his authoritarian rule. It was police violence as politics.

Despite his silly, high-pitched, squeaky voice, Naranjo was no idiot. Police violence under the Naranjo regime was not arbitrary, but rather an instrumental practice that followed a particular pattern. He targeted his critics, many of whom were Chicano activists allied with land grant communities.

His deputies harassed, arrested and beat-up dissidents and political opponents. In a two-year stretch beginning in 1974, they beat or shot eighteen people. Dozens more, according to some, went unreported by his frightened victims. Once, in a close re-election campaign for Sheriff, Naranjo ordered the arrest of both of his opponents.

Naranjo was allowed to wreak havoc because he made himself useful to powerful political interests in Santa Fe and Washington, D.C. He delivered votes for political allies in tough-fought local and state elections; he defended wealthy ranchers against the challenges of land grant activists; he refused to defend traditional forest users against the racist patterns of Forest Service paternalism. “Emilio has become the sort of man,” one Rio Arriba County resident remarked in the late 1970s “no one will say anything about except that he’s a very kind and generous man we’re afraid of.”

Police violence under the Naranjo regime was never understood as a problem of training or policy. No one pretended Naranjo’s goons-in-badges suffered from bad leadership or low hiring standards. If you had suggested to anyone in Española or Tierra Amarilla in 1975 that they just needed to reform police policies on the use of force, they would have laughed you out of town. They shot people, and falsely arrested people, and beat-up people. That was the whole point.

Police violence was a problem because it was also a solution. Naranjo practiced the art of police violence. He recognized it for its ability to reinforce a social and economic order organized around the interests of wealthy landowners who profited from controversial tourist development. He saw how police violence could sustain federal control and authority over Rio Arriba’s Carson National Forest, and thus give him political allies among grateful federal officials. He recognized how violence, under the color of law, transformed his critics into common criminals.

This is Naranjo’s real legacy: the political art of police violence. And over the last thirty years it’s been on display in Albuquerque, where police violence has been a solution to those seeking power long before anyone admitted it was a problem to its victims. Dozens shot and killed in the 1980s and 1990s. Reports concluded that most were unjustified. Dozens shot and killed since 2010. Reports concluded that most were unjustified.

As in Rio Arriba County in the 1970s, police violence in Albuquerque has followed a pattern. It has been through coordinated violence that APD has confronted the problem of homelessness and untreated mental illness in Albuquerque. Nearly every victim of lethal force by APD since 2010 suffered from untreated or undertreated mental illness or was in the middle of a mental health crisis at the moment of their death; many were homeless. They were military veterans who suffered from PTSD; they were elderly homeless men who suffered from schizophrenia.

The SWAT shooting death of James Boyd on March 16, 2014 was shocking for many reasons. He was clearly suffering from mental illness and incapable of responding to orders from aggressive, military-equipped officers. He was shot in the back just as he finally agreed to give himself up to officers. And then APD sicced a German shepherd on his prone and lifeless body.

But perhaps most chilling was the organized manner in which it all happened; the businesslike way in which APD officers went about their deadly work. They were just doing their job. And their job included, without question, the use of lethal force in order to keep a homeless man from sleeping too close to the wealthy homeowners who lived in small mansions crowded up against the Sandia foothills.

This was their city, not James Boyd’s, and APD’s job was to make it so.

But this seems far-fetched. Who after all would willingly victimize the most vulnerable members of our society? What motivates APD officers to unleash such organized, overwhelming violence on men like James Boyd?

In the months since Boyd’s death, APD has tried to depict Boyd as dangerous, and the moment of his death as chaotic. Officers suddenly, after an hours-long standoff, feared for their safety. Few who’ve seen the video believe the defense, but without evidence of premeditation, how can it be refuted?

This week the release of an audio recording of APD officer Keith Sandy, James Boyd’s killer, may finally provide that evidence. Just two hours before firing fatal shots, after Sandy first arrived on the scene, he stopped to talk to a New Mexico State Police Sergeant who recorded their brief conversation on his belt tape:

Sandy: Where they got you guys going, what have they got you guys doing?”

Sergeant: I don’t know, the guy asked for State Police.

Sandy: Who asked for you?

Sergeant: I don’t know.

Sandy: For this fucking lunatic? I’m going to shoot him with [unintelligible] shotgun here in a second.

APD claims Sandy told the NMSP Sergeant he was going to shoot Boyd with his Taser shotgun, a less-than-lethal weapon. Given APD’s recent history, it makes little difference. The Department of Justice investigation of APD focused, in part, on APD’s use of less-than lethal force, particularly its use of Tasers. It concluded that APD “officers engaged in a pattern of using Tasers unreasonably, including in situations that placed individuals at risk of death or serious bodily harm; against individuals experiencing mental health crises, or who, due to inebriation or inability, could not comply; against subjects requiring medical treatment; against unarmed subjects; and against individuals in a punitive manner.”

Whether Sandy referred to his Taser shotgun or his standard shotgun, the implication is the same: Sandy walked into that conflict with lethal intent. He saw the mentally ill Boyd as the legitimate target of lethal police violence because he was mentally ill.

In the organizational logic of APD, the condition of mental illness stands in as a proxy for the condition of criminality.

Days after the release of the audio of Sandy, APD Chief Gorden Eden, who wouldn’t comment on the case to the press, gave awards to a number of officers “who intelligently perform his/her duty in an outstanding manner.” Among the officers who received the award was Sean Wallace. In 2004, then State Trooper Wallace shot an unarmed man named Leo Lopez four-times in the back killing him. APD then hired Wallace in 2007 and in 2010 he shot and wounded an unarmed man named Wayne Cordova. Wallace admitted to investigators that he knew Cordova was unarmed prior to shooting him. Cordova, who suffered from mental illness, was huddled on a rooftop, crying and asking to be killed when Wallace shot him in the back. Less than six months later, in May of 2011, Wallace shot and killed an unarmed Alan Gomez during a SWAT standoff. Gomez, like Cordova suffered from mental illness.

In the organizational culture of APD, demonstrating consistent and violent aggression against homeless or mentally ill people is the quickest route to awards and promotion.

Criticism of APD in the wake of the award to Wallace called it another example of APD’s tone-deaf response to criticism. But perhaps it reveals something else, something essential about the political art of police violence. Police violence, in order to be effective, must never be understood as a systemic issue. It cannot be understood as the inevitable outcome of an entire institution organized around violent social control of the mentally ill and homeless. It must be a problem of a bad policy or a bad cop. Once those problems are rooted out the logic of the institution can once again unfold.

The City Council recently abolished the old, toothless Police Oversight Commission and replaced it was a new Civilian Police Oversight Agency. Its proponents celebrate it as a reform measure that can address key policy problems at APD. But final authority over discipline and policy remains with the Chief of Police.

And the US Attorney, Damon Martinez, who has promised to get tough with APD, got tough with the Sheriff of Rio Arriba County instead.

A federal jury found Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella guilty last month of a felony in a March 11, 2014 incident that prosecutors called an unconstitutional arrest of a motorist. Rodella and his son were in plainclothes and driving in their personal vehicle when they chased down a motorist they claimed was driving erratically.

US Attorney Martinez held up the prosecution of Rodella as proof that he takes the problem of police violence seriously.

But why Rodella and not Keith Sandy? Rodella has no connection to APD and has never before been charged with the unjustified use of lethal or less-than-lethal force. And no deputy in his Sheriff’s Department has used lethal force.

But Martinez wanted to look tough on police misconduct. And, it turns out, he had political reasons to get rid of Rodella.

After becoming Sheriff, Rodella ended the practice of deputizing federal agents. It has been routine practice in Rio Arriba, and in nearly every other County with federal lands, to deputize federal agents so that they can wield local police power. The always-savvy Emilio Naranjo routinely deputized federal agents. He knew enough not to bite the hand that feeds him. But at a May 7 meeting in Albuquerque, Damon Martinez demanded that Rodella deputize federal agents. Rodella, the first Sheriff to end the practice, refused Martinez’s demands. He told Martinez he didn’t trust federal agents. Former Rio Arriba County Commissioner Felipe Martinez, long one of Rodella’s staunchest critics, was at that meeting. He called Rodella’s refusal a principled stand in solidarity with land grant communities. Local land grant communities reserve their harshest criticism for the loss of land grant common lands to the federal government. Today the federal government controls millions of acres of former Spanish and Mexican common lands. Rodella told Martinez federal land management is unjust to the people and communities of northern New Mexico and therefore he would not deputize its agents.

In interviews following Rodella’s conviction, Martinez called Rodella “a political prisoner.”

Keith Sandy and Sean Wallace continue to work under color of law, wearing a badge and carrying a gun. Today Rodella sits in jail awaiting sentencing on a conviction that could bring him as much as 17 years.

“This is the first time I can remember a county sheriff being prosecuted,” Commissioner Martinez told the Santa Fe New Mexican, “Yet the U.S. attorney has ignored the cases where law enforcement officers have killed New Mexicans without justification.”

Emilio Naranjo may have practiced police violence in Española. But it has been elevated to an art in Albuquerque.


  1. This is an excellent article! The Rodella portion of the story is very revealing about the feds actions. Too bad mainstream media won’t touch it.

    Date: Mon, 6 Oct 2014 17:03:23 +0000 To:

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