ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Kenneth Ellis II watched on Monday as hundreds of people poured into the City Council chambers to testify about police misconduct.
This time, it was clear he wouldn’t be alone.
Ellis’ own son, Kenneth Ellis III, is among the 23 men shot and killed by Albuquerque police since the beginning of 2010. He’s been attending council meetings ever since to testify, often with a handful of other regulars.
But he had plenty of company on Monday. The chambers were filled to capacity before the meeting even started, and the council heard five hours of testimony.
There were tears, jeers, shouts and even silence as people filed up to the podium to speak, two minutes at a time.
“We have an opportunity here to do great things for our community,” Ellis said as he watched people stream in. “Kenneth Ellis IV had to bury his daddy at 4½ years old. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone’s child.”
After weeks of protests – sparked largely by the shooting of James Boyd, a mentally ill homeless man caught camping illegally in the Sandia foothills – the council dedicated its regular meeting Monday to public testimony and discussion of the Albuquerque Police Department. About 175 people signed up to speak.
Most of them called for change and reform within APD, but a few also defended the department, usually to boos from the audience.
The unprecedented meeting and turnout came as the U.S. Department of Justice wrapped up an investigation into whether Albuquerque police have a pattern or practice of illegally using force. The investigation was a frequent topic among speakers who addressed the council Monday.
“The only solution is a complete takeover of the entire department from square one,” said Ralph Arellanes, state director for the New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizens and a member of a City Council task force that reviewed Albuquerque’s police oversight system.
Councilors listened quietly to the speakers, for the most part. But Councilor Isaac Benton said many of the suggestions from the public, such as firing officers, aren’t within the council’s power, which lies in policymaking.
“Everyone who’s spoken tonight needs to understand what our limitations are,” he said.
City Councilor Rey Garduño announced after public testimony concluded that he will introduce legislation asking the Justice Department to appoint an independent monitor to run APD and a City Charter amendment that would make the police chief an elected position.
Kathryn Turnipseed, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, had a rather specific recommendation. She called on the City Council to pass a law requiring officers to wear cameras, turn them on during encounters with the public and release them in a timely manner upon request.
“The only reason that we are now having a community-wide discussion about the urgent need to reform APD is that a body-worn camera caught James Boyd’s death on tape and the recording was released to the public,” Turnipseed said.
She also said the city needs a court-ordered monitor who can ensure that reforms are carried out within APD.
The Boyd shooting that spawned so many protests over the past weeks sparked plenty of testimony Monday. Police opened fire after he appeared ready to surrender. The shooting was captured on video released by APD and has been viewed online more than 1 million times.
Jose B. Martinez, a 47-year-old man who used to be homeless, urged councilors to dedicate more money to social services that help the homeless population and to affordable housing. Martinez is now a student at the University of New Mexico.
Homelessness “was a living hell,” Martinez said. But “everyone else can help themselves if we help them.”
He said the police department is “out of control.”
A few speakers defended APD.
Retired officer Greg Avila said he was shot twice in the line of duty. It’s a far more dangerous job than some people admit, he said.
“These police officers take on a tough job,” he said. “They do a job nobody else wants to do.”
Derek Bennett, an Albuquerque resident who runs the Facebook page “Veteran Support for APD,” said officers ought to patrol in pairs so “they have a battle buddy” like in the military, a comment that drew jeers.
“It’s a scary scenario,” Bennett said. “These officers have families, too, who count on them coming home after their watch.”
The crowd on the whole was critical of APD. Most spoke bluntly but abided by the time limits.
Others shouted and tried to talk over councilors as they called the next speaker up. A few carried signs, including one that had Mayor Richard Berry’s face with a circle and red line through it, like in a “no smoking” sign.
“This is going to take a generation to rebuild the trust that APD has lost,” said Albuquerque resident Scott Albright, who testified while holding his 7-month-old son, Ian.
Robin Schmidt, also of Albuquerque, spoke through tears as she said police hadn’t taken her complaints against them seriously. Another person used much of his two minutes for a moment of silence.
The council meeting began with jeers and groans about 5 p.m. as City Council President Ken Sanchez announced that Mayor Berry wasn’t present. Sanchez had invited him, but Berry said he had previously scheduled meetings on APD to attend.
Albuquerque mayors rarely attend council meetings. The mayor’s top administrator, Rob Perry, and his police chief, Gorden Eden, sat in the audience Monday to watch.
The council chambers hold about 240 people and nearly 140 others watched from elsewhere. A room on the ninth floor was filled to its capacity of 86 people by 5:30 p.m. Members of the audience clapped and cheered along with spectators in the main chambers.
More than 50 people sat outside City Hall watching the meeting from two televisions with speakers. Most didn’t seem upset that they were turned away.
Ellis, in his turn to address the council, said: “I’m just taking a deep breath. We’ve got a great chance to do some really good things and set an example for the rest of the country.”
The U.S. Department of Justice this week plans to release the results of its 16-month civil investigation into whether Albuquerque police have a pattern or practice of using excessive force, including unreasonable deadly force.
The department said it will announce the results Thursday morning, then meet with city, police and community leaders afterward.
In a written statement, Mayor Richard Berry said he looked “forward to receiving their findings so that we can move forward on behalf of our police department and the entire community.”