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State Police role in ABQ questioned

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A New Mexico State Police officer directs traffic after one of the 50 officers brought in through the Metro Surge Operation fired at a suspect on Washington north of Central on Thursday evening. It was the second of two shootings within a little more than an hour. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A New Mexico State Police officer from Gallup – one of 50 in Albuquerque for the newly created Metro Surge Operation – pursued a suspect in a stolen vehicle who ran a stop sign Thursday night.

He chased the vehicle into a cul-de-sac and shot at it after the driver did a U-turn and drove toward him, according to court documents. The suspect was shot in the shoulder.

Both the pursuit and the shooting appear to be in violation of policies the Albuquerque Police Department developed for its use as part of a yearslong effort to reform after it was found to have a pattern of unconstitutional use of force.

However, the State Police officers who were brought to Albuquerque from around New Mexico – increasing the number of officers patrolling the city by 9.3% – follow their own policies and are not held to the same standards, and that’s raising red flags for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

APD officers have been told not to pursue vehicles unless the suspect is a “clear and immediate serious threat” or is committing a violent felony.

And the department’s policy on use of force prohibits shooting at a moving vehicle unless the occupant is using lethal force other than the vehicle itself or there is no other reasonable alternative.

Also, State Police officers are generally equipped with dashboard-mounted cameras but not on-body cameras.

A State Police spokesman did not respond to questions about the agency’s policies regarding pursuits and use of force.

The shooting in the cul-de-sac was the first of two that State Police were involved in within about an hour and a half.

The second incident also involved a pursuit, and a pursuit intervention technique maneuver, by a State Police officer before he fired at the vehicle. The driver, later identified as 40-year-old Daniel Franco by police, escaped soon after, when the officer crashed into a bystander’s vehicle.

A warrant has since been issued for Franco. It is unclear whether anyone was struck by the gunshot.

Different standards

The back-to-back shootings six days into the operation raised concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico about what the State Police officers will be doing while they’re in town.

Peter Simonson, the executive director of the ACLU, referenced a time when police shootings were happening “practically every month” and said the organization doesn’t want to return to those days.

“I think we feel like the State Police need to be held to the exact same standard that APD officers are held to and that the governor and the city should be giving the people of Albuquerque some assurances that will be the case,” Simonson said.

In response, Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said that shootings are treated with the utmost seriousness but that it would be premature to comment until the incidents have been investigated.

“The governor fully expects State Police officers to conduct their duties within the agency’s standard operating procedures and at the highest standard of ethical professionalism, whether as part of this project in Albuquerque or anywhere else, irrespective of the settlement between APD and DOJ,” Stelnicki wrote in an email.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Tim Keller said that he remains fully committed to constitutional community policing and that the city has made a lot of progress addressing shortcomings at APD through the DOJ settlement.

“Other agencies policing within the city, including Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and New Mexico State Police, are subject to their own policies and procedures,” spokeswoman Jessie Damazyn wrote in an email. “While the NMSP already has jurisdiction in the city, the additional officers are helping boost the number of uniformed law enforcement personnel on our streets while we continue to recruit and hire more officers. We hold our personnel to high standards and are working closely with NMSP to make sure they are working in ways that contribute to our ultimate goal: reducing violent crime in our community.”

‘An explosive situation’

Only a couple of days of planning led up to the Metro Surge Operation, which brought 50 State Police officers from around the state to patrol the city, mainly concentrated along Central.

APD Chief Michael Geier said the first meeting he attended about the initiative was held just two days before Gov. Lujan Grisham and Mayor Keller announced the plan on May 10.

And because State Police officers have statewide jurisdiction, there is no memorandum of understanding or written contract laying out what the officers are going to be doing while they’re here.

Geier said the initial plan was to keep them for about 45 days, through the Fourth of July.

“State Police is in our city all the time,” Geier said. “Most of their emphasis is in traffic enforcement, but they also are with the auto theft unit. … This is just a continuation of the assistance they give us at times. This one just happens to be a little greater magnitude.”

Simonson, however, said he was surprised to learn there was not more planning and preparation for what standards the officers will be held to.

He pointed out that State Police officers generally patrol in more rural parts of the state and the situation in Albuquerque is more crowded and chaotic than they are probably used to.

“APD officers have found that to be quite challenging, and using force appropriately obviously has been a focus over the past four years,” Simonson said. “To expect State Police officers to respond appropriately under those conditions – when they haven’t been given the kinds of training and aren’t held to all the policies APD is now held to – only sets them up to fail and only creates an explosive situation where we well could see many more police shootings in the future.”

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