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BCSO operation tackles crime in SE Albuquerque

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Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies Kathryn Harris and Robert Mason and Sgt. Chris Starr take a man into custody after they say he ran from them during an operation in southeast Albuquerque and was found to be wanted on a warrant. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

About 35 deputies with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office Gang Recognition and Intelligence Patrol saturated Southeast Albuquerque neighborhoods Wednesday looking for suspicious vehicles and people committing crimes.

It was an effort spurred by a coalition of small-business owners in the Highland area who had reached out to the sheriff’s office last month asking for help dealing with those they say are doing drug deals on the streets, defecating on the sidewalks, leaving behind trash and needles, and otherwise engaging in dangerous behavior along the East Central corridor.

“They want us here, and we’re going to do our best,” Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said in a morning press briefing. “We’re here to make sure that they’re safe. We want to make sure the children and families are safe.”

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Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales, flanked by members of the Highland United Businesses 66, speaks to the press before an operation in southeast Albuquerque Wednesday morning. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Gonzales called the operation an “extreme collaboration,” but city and Albuquerque Police Department officials were less enthusiastic.

Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, said the BCSO had not coordinated with the department or asked to collaborate with officers already in the area.

“BCSO let APD command staff know about the operation (Tuesday) night. They did not ask APD to participate,” Gallegos wrote in an email. “We do this work every day and it’s great when other agencies want to pitch in every once in a while to help.”

City Councilor Pat Davis said he hadn’t heard about the operation in his district – which covers Highland, Nob Hill and the International District – before the Journal asked him about it, but he said he was concerned that it wouldn’t be effective and could even be dangerous.

Davis said that there are more than 76,000 misdemeanor and felony warrants in the county and that it’s the BCSO’s responsibility to arrest those offenders.

“There are things he could actually do and we’ve asked him to do,” Davis said. “Like enforce the 70,000 open warrants in Bernalillo County. … That’s a better use of their time, and they’re supposed to be doing that, anyway.”

Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies Robert Mason, left, and Kathryn Harris take a man into custody during the operation they were conducting in Southeast Albuquerque.

He said he also worries that the deputies could come across undercover or plainclothes detectives conducting their own operations and that lack of coordination could lead to a dangerous situation.

“When you have another agency that comes in and who doesn’t know APD has undercover officers in the neighborhood buying and selling drugs to deal with a neighborhood issue for the day, that’s really dangerous for police officers who are putting themselves in that position,” Davis said.

Although APD is several years into a federally mandated reform effort and has to get all policies approved by the Department of Justice, the BCSO has no such restrictions and follows different procedures for using force, initiating pursuits and arresting people on petty misdemeanors.

Gonzales said he believes that makes his deputies better able to serve the community.

“I don’t understand everything they have to comply with; I know it’s a burden on them, but I don’t know all the details,” he said. “I can tell you our deputies are very proactive and people of this community appreciate them, support them and continue to ask for their services.”

Over the past several months, Gonzales has attended meetings in Davis’ district and pitched an idea for the neighborhood associations to ask the City Council to provide funding for sheriff’s deputies to patrol in APD’s jurisdiction.

Davis said Police Chief Michael Geier and others have brought up the sheriff’s resistance to lapel cameras – and other BCSO policies that differ from APD’s – in response.

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Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputy Kathryn Harris is normally stationed in the South Valley. On Wednesday afternoon she patrolled southeast Albuquerque as part of an operation by the office’s Gang Recognition and Intelligence Patrol. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“Chief Geier personally invited him there to come and cooperate as long as he was willing to wear cameras and follow APD, work with APD, and he refused,” Davis said.

In response to questions about whether the sheriff is willing to order his deputies to follow the policies implemented by the Department of Justice when they are patrolling in the city, Undersheriff Lawrence Koren wrote in a statement: “The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, just like the New Mexico State Police, follows independent Standard Operating Procedures when operating in the City of Albuquerque. While politicians are trying to grab headlines for reelection campaigns, Sheriff Gonzales is offering real solutions to combat the horrific crime crisis in the City of Albuquerque.”

Gonzales said that Wednesday’s operation is the “third of many” and that previous efforts have netted a combined 50 arrests – 39 of them for felonies – and resulted in the impounding of 17 rifles, several pistols, 40 to 50 pounds of methamphetamine and 3½ pounds of heroin.

Statistics for Wednesday’s operation weren’t immediately available, but business owners with HUB 66 (Highland Unified Businesses) said they hope they will see similar results in their area.

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Elizabeth Vencill with the Highland Unified Businesses (HUB 66) reached out to the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office asking for help with crime up and down the east Central corridor. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Elizabeth Vencill, a lawyer with a practice on Central near Quincy, said she and others in the area found that APD officers were not able to respond to their complaints in a timely manner.

She said people had been camping on her roof and jostling her door in a way that suggested they were casing her office, and she recently encountered a man who was holding a knife near her dumpster, and APD couldn’t get there in time.

Vencill said that after a New Mexico State Police metro surge operation in the area, she reached out to the Sheriff’s Office to see if it could help.

“They were super-receptive, and, of course, I’m interested in anybody who’s willing to help us,” Vencill said.

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