By KAY MATTHEWS
Tribunals are seats of judgment, assigned to settle specific disputes or problems, often outside the purview of “official” judicial proceedings. Such a judgment took place on Saturday, March 14 in Albuquerque’s North Valley when a group of jurists constituted a People’s Tribunal on Police Brutality to hear the findings of a report, “Prejudice and Racial Bias in the Albuquerque Police Department.” The report is the result of a six-month investigation of police violence by ABQJustice and other Albuquerque-based community organizations. The groups conducted field interviews from September 2014 to February 2015 with people routinely victimized by the Albuquerque Police Department (APD). The investigation is part of an ongoing effort to address the failure of the Department of Justice’s 2014 to investigate racial bias and prejudice in its own investigation of APD, which concluded that the department engaged in unjustified and excessive use of force.
The jurists who sat on Saturday’s tribunal are dedicated activists who represent social justice organizations in New Mexico:
- Charles Powell, president of the Albuquerque chapter of Veterans for Peace.
- Eleanor Chavez of the American Federation of Teachers and District 1 representative on the Public Education Commission.
- Francis Quintana, founding pastor of the Blessed Oscar Romero Catholic Community.
- Margaux Lopez, organizer for ANSWER New Mexico and Women Organized to Resist & Defend.
- Sally Ellis Thompson, co-founder of the Albuquerque chapter of Veterans for Peace, co-founder of the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice, and member of Raging Grannies.
- Sam Gardipe, co-founder of the Red Nation, dedicated to the liberation of indigenous peoples.
Alan Wagman, assistant public defender, explained to the tribunal why the DOJ’s Consent Decree with the City of Albuquerque fails to address the structural problems within APD. The Consent Decree, he said, has to be seen as a “technical and legal” document that does not deal with the charges of racism with the police department: “Neither city management or the legislative branch is interested in real change.” He also stressed that “Anything that gets done will be the result of political pressure from this community, not a police oversight commission.”
David Correia, one of the organizers of the tribunal and a professor of American Studies at UNM, laid out how the six month study was conducted and summarized the findings that were subsequently presented to the tribunal: 1) APD systematically engages in racially motivated forms of policing targeting people of color, particularly Native Americans; 2) APD engages in violence against women, including sexual violence; and 3) APD specifically and routinely engages in harassment of homeless people.
None of these charges are new. As several speakers told the tribunal, there is a history of APD engaging in racist profiling and violence. Richard Moore, of Los Jardines Institute, talked about the longtime struggles of the Latino community in Albuquerque to address this violence: the Brown Berets, the Poor People’s Campaign, the Black Berets, student and youth groups, Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), and the Southwest Network of Environmental and Economic Justice all organized to expose systemic violence in APD, which resulted in the murder of several Chicano activists.
Andrew Nance, an African-American member of the ANSWER Coalition, put racial profiling in the context of national policy: one million of the 2.3 million incarcerated people in prison are black. People like Eric Garner, who was killed by members of the New York Police Department, and James Boyd, who was murdered in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains by APD, are regarded as “undesirables” by cops whose job it is to maintain the divide between the rich and the poor.
Excerpts of testimonials that were collected on the streets of Albuquerque—from the International District, Downtown, UNM campus, and the Barelas neighborhood—were read aloud by ABQ activists and also addressed by expert witnesses who helped analyze the narratives. The testimony was divided into five sections: violence against people of color; violence against the homeless and working poor; violence against women and LGBTQ people; violence against people with mental healthcare needs; and systemic problems with APD training.
Targeting Native Americans
Kathy Brown and Bernadette Garcia of ABQJustice laid out in graphic detail the fear that Native Americans in Albuquerque (55,000 native people live in the city) experience at the hands of APD, whose officers often use racial slurs such as “dirty Indian” and often tell them to “go back to the reservation.” While Native Americans make up 0.8 percent of the population they comprise nearly two percent of the victims of police violence. Melanie Yazzie, a PhD graduate student at UNM and co-founder of the Red Nation, stressed that colonialism has to be acknowledged when we’re talking about native people, whose very existence as sovereign nations, supposedly protected by treaties, pose a threat to the United States, and, like Andrew Nance referenced, are racialized as “disposable.”
Targeting the homeless:
Kathy Brown, Dina Vargas, and Steve Kramer, all of ABQJustice, described the routine harassment of homeless people by APD that includes intimidation, unjustified non-lethal force against people, destruction of their possessions (ripping up their tents), and cutting up their ID cards and social security cards. When asked why the cops do this, one of the interviewees answered, “Because they can. Because I’m homeless.” Destroying their ID cards creates a vicious cycle that prevents the homeless from qualifying for services, being able to respond to warrants issued for loitering or other trumped up charges, and essentially dehumanizing them.
Targeting women and LGBTQ people:
Darcy Brazen of Cop Watch and (Un)Occupy spoke about the harassment by APD of queer women who protested against violence in the early 2000s and the use of derogatory language against LGBTQ people, which she referred to as “gender policing.” A devastating testimony was read documenting the violent encounter of an Hispanic woman with an APD cop that resulted in rape.
Targeting the mentally ill:
Karen Cathey of La Raza Unida Party talked about how APD cops are supposedly trained to deescalate situations involving the mentally ill but instead often respond with violence. The mentally ill often fill APD quotas as easy targets for tickets and arrests. She also described meeting James Boyd eight days before he was murdered: “I was not fearful of him.”
Systemic violence within APD:
All of these stories from “outsiders” about the culture of violence within APD made a chilling impression. But when Sam Costales, a 20-year veteran of APD, spoke about this culture from the “inside” that chill made everyone’s blood run cold. He began his testimony this way: “It would take hours to describe the violence I’ve witnessed by my fellow officers.” What he did talk about is why this culture of violence is endemic within the APD. Police are trained to never show weakness, to never go back on a decision once it’s been made, to never apologize, which would demonstrate weakness. This allows the APD to use its power to maintain a class divide between the homeless, working poor, people of color and the middle class. When Costales tried to intervene in instances when this power was used to excess, or he threatened to report the brutality he learned he had to “remain silent for my own well being.” Police officers who might object to the use of unwarranted violence don’t because they’re afraid for their jobs.
Father Quintana asked Costales about the validity of the often-repeated remark that while most cops are good a few bad apples are ruining the department. In an especially chilling response Costales answered, “I absolutely disagree that most cops are good cops.” And in response to a question from Margaux Lopez about whether Hispanic cops are less likely to engage in profiling people of color, Costales responded, “Once they put on a uniform they’re all blue.”
Bill Bradley of ABQJustice summed up the meeting by laying out four areas of reform within the police department that must be addressed before any meaningful or substantive change can occur: accountability, transparency, training and recruiting, and leadership and administration. A detailed explanation of these reforms can be found in “The People’s Tribunal on Police Brutality” report, which you can read here:
The meeting ended with a plea by Father Francis Quintana: “We call upon APD to end the use of this kind of force and immoral treatment of the people you are called upon to protect.”