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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Nine months after a sheriff’s deputy, claiming fear of impending battery, pointed his gun at a motorcyclist doing a wheelie on Tramway, the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office says the deputy has been cleared of any wrongdoing.
The exoneration comes over the objection of a former internal affairs investigator, who says in a court deposition that his opinion that the incident was not justified contributed to him getting booted from the coveted IA position.
Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said in an interview last month he was unaware of that investigator’s opinion. As far as he knew, he said, the investigation found no wrongdoing by deputies Bradley Maestas and Daniel Mauricio and Lt. Alfonso Rodriguez.
Gonzales and Internal Affairs Lt. Lori Carrillo said the investigation examined whether the three violated any of the department’s standard operating procedures. Those would have included how the deputy used his gun, appropriate internal communication following the incident, and honesty in report writing.
“This was a very high-profile case, so we looked into it on our own initiative,” Gonzales said of the IA investigation, which the department started in the days after the Oct. 7, 2017, incident.
In that incident, the department said, dozens of motorcyclists who had been disrupting traffic surrounded the deputies and blocked them in by communicating among themselves using hand signals.
The BCSO report said the group created a “borderline deadly-force situation” in which the deputies were afraid of an “impending battery” by being rammed by a motorcycle.
Mauricio said in his report that when motorcyclists surrounded their unit after they pulled into the group on Tramway near Paseo del Norte, “it felt like a cage in the water surrounded by sharks on the fear of being assaulted.”
Maestas, who was driving, said in his report that a motorcycle rider in a pink shirt “became parallel with my unit” and was “within feet of the passenger side.” He said that at that moment there was no way for him to drive away from the group.
So Mauricio rolled down his passenger-side window and aimed his gun, one-handed, at the rider in the pink shirt who was in mid-wheelie.
A view of this moment is caught on a 24-second video taken by a motorcyclist riding nearby.
That video, which circulated widely on social media after the encounter, does not support the sheriff’s department reports.
It does not show the deputy’s vehicle surrounded by other vehicles as they follow, with lights off, the pink-shirted rider.
It shows a deputy pull his vehicle from behind that motorcyclist and straddle the middle white line until he is alongside the motorcyclist, who is mid-wheelie in the right lane.
The video shows the rider look up toward the deputy, who is pointing a gun out the passenger window. The motorcyclist then drops out of the wheelie.
The video then scrambles and ends.
But Gonzales and Carrillo said the video clip doesn’t show the whole story.
The “angles and perspectives” present a false vision of what happened that day, Carrillo said.
To get the full story, Carrillo and Gonzales said, the public needs to view a longer video of the incident. It wasn’t clear from their comments if they were referring to a longer version of the 24-second clip or a separate video.
Journal requests to see the video were declined.
“We can’t give you that,” Gonzales said. “It would violate the officer’s right to privacy.”
The sheriff said the video was made by someone who works for the department, but he wouldn’t say who it was or how it was made or how it was different from the video circulating on the internet.
BCSO deputies do not wear body cameras, and only a few vehicles – not including the one involved in this incident – have dash cameras, according to a department spokeswoman.
Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said an “officer’s right to privacy” does not appear to be a valid reason in this case to withhold the video.
“The New Mexico statute is very clear as to what it considers an exemption – there are seven of them – and FOG doesn’t believe the sheriff’s response falls under any of those exemptions,” Majors said.
Carrillo said the alternate video was longer than the 24-second video and that the “whole incident was much longer” than 24 seconds.
She said this case is like many that can be found on the internet in which one perspective on a video makes the situation appear unjustified, but another perspective from another video makes it look justified or explains it better.
Undersheriff Rudy Mora said in an interview last month that looking at just the 24-second video is unfair to the deputies and the department and doesn’t show the whole story.
When asked for help explaining discrepancies between the 24-second video and the department’s reports and communication, Mora said there aren’t any discrepancies.
“That’s only opinion,” he said.
The true story, Mora, Carrillo and Gonzales said, is in the IA report, which the department “can’t” release.
Gonzales said the public needs to trust that the Sheriff’s Office did a “thorough investigation” and takes honesty seriously.
“We’ve fired people for lying,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Office initially declined to release nearly all of the report on the IA investigation, citing state public records law allowances for redaction or exemption of matters of opinion. After further requests from the Journal, the office released portions of documents in the IA investigation, still exempting most as “documents concerning infractions and disciplinary action.”
Documents released include letters declaring exoneration, letters alerting employees they are being investigated or are witnesses, the deputies’ reports, dispatch records and a criminal investigation report into the actions of the motorcyclists by detective Mark Carver.
On that Saturday, around 3 p.m., emergency 911 operators received three calls from drivers who said a large group of motorcyclists – estimates ranged from 20 to 100 – was disrupting traffic all the way from Paseo and Coors east to Tramway, then south.
Callers said the motorcyclists were doing wheelies, blocking intersections, weaving between cars and slowing down in all lanes of traffic to give riders ahead space to do tricks.
“It’s just out of hand … it pisses me off, that’s why I’m calling,” one of the three 911 callers tells dispatchers.
Deputies Mauricio and Maestas, already in the Foothills area, say in their official reports that they saw the motorcyclists passing by. Mauricio then jumped into Maestas’ patrol unit and Maestas pulled into the middle of the pack.
According to Carver, after Mauricio pointed the gun, the riders surrounded the deputies’ vehicle and never pulled over for the traffic stop the deputies were attempting. The deputies were able to escape after finding a pause in the traffic flow, his report says.
After the incident, the deputies and their chain of command emailed each other discussing what happened and how to put out a news release about it.
In emails, Lt. AJ Rodriguez wrote to his captain that the deputies “were in a borderline deadly-force situation” and if similar incidents happen again, he would approve “hitting the bikes, to create safe space … if the deputies are being actively blocked in by motorcycles.”
Carver’s report said that after the incident, he got about 60 calls from drivers who said the group of motorcyclists inconvenienced them or endangered them that day.
A video of the gun-pointing incident was shared widely on social media, prompting “an overwhelming number of responses and messages from our community,” a department spokeswoman said.
Much of that feedback was received on the BCSO Facebook page, where commenters derided the department and said the deputy’s response was unjustified. Others said the motorcyclists were reckless and endangering lives, and the deputies responded appropriately.
Justified by policy
While the department issued the exonerations, at least one person in the IA office felt the incident was not justified.
In a court deposition taken in May for an unrelated case filed against the Sheriff’s Office, now former Internal Affairs Sgt. Ryan Tafoya testified that he believed Mauricio’s use of his gun was unjustified and inappropriate for a traffic violation.
He said in the deposition that his commanders felt differently, and once he had expressed this and another critical opinion in a separate case, he was transferred.
Gonzales said last month he didn’t know of Tafoya’s opinion of the case and didn’t have anything to do with his transfer from IA to a graveyard shift in the South Valley.
From the beginning of the case, Gonzales has said the deputy’s use of his gun was likely justified.
“Driving a motorcycle on one tire is a traffic violation, and deputies are allowed to use a show of force according to our standard operating policies,” Gonzales said at a news conference.
He called for an internal affairs investigation but said then that detectives needed to speak with the rider to proceed with a more serious investigation into the show of force. Detectives were not able to locate the motorcyclist for an interview.
Gonzales said at the news conference that riders might be reluctant to speak with law enforcement out of fear of “being charged criminally because you were out there lawlessly driving in the streets and you might be identified as a criminal network.”