Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The two-month New Mexico State Police “Metro Surge Operation” cost almost $1 million, resulted in 14,674 traffic stops and netted 738 arrests – the majority of which were for felony or misdemeanor warrants, according to documents released to the Journal in response to an Inspection of Public Records Act request.
The total cost – $975,765 – included $407,889 for 14,674 regular patrol hours and $407,306 for 9,850 overtime hours, as well as $93,143 for lodging and $67,428 for meals. Fifty officers were stationed mainly in Southeast Albuquerque, then off West Central and in an area in the Northeast from May 10 to June 5. Twenty-five officers remained in town through July 7.
New Mexico State Police Chief Tim Johnson said that during the first six weeks of the operation his department spent $288,000 more than it did during the same period last year.
“So it’s a lot,” he said. “I realize it’s taxpayer money, but the taxpayers were the ones that were reaching out to the Governor’s Office and our department because of the crime that was going on in portions of Albuquerque. The money is one thing, but as far as my stance on the operation and whether it was a success, without a doubt.”
Shooting at club
Four days after a 23-year-old University of New Mexico student was shot and killed outside a Nob Hill nightclub, Johnson said, he and other law enforcement officials in the Albuquerque area were called to a meeting at the Governor’s Office to discuss ways to fight violent crime in the state’s largest city.
That’s when they decided to send 50 State Police officers to patrol certain areas.
The officers who were deployed from around the state were given 24 hours’ notice.
“I think where this all started was when the UNM baseball player was killed in Nob Hill,” Johnson said. “It’s my understanding the Governor’s Office received a lot of messages or whatever from constituents about something needing to be done in the International District.”
He said the quick turnaround was a challenge, and he hopes for more time to plan similar operations in the future.
“We were a little bit behind, but I understand why we had to do it as quickly as we did,” Johnson said. “And we did the best we could. Obviously, any long-term, large-scale operations need planning, and we had just a little bit of time to plan that.”
He said one of the other challenges was that State Police radios are incapable of communicating with radios from other agencies, including the Albuquerque Police Department.
“That needs to be lined up moving forward,” Johnson said. “Whether that means giving the agencies we are assisting some of our radios or them giving us some of theirs, just figuring out how to fix that communication gap.”
Tripp Stelnicki, director of communications for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the governor had been asking for strategies on how to curb crime since her first day in office and the May 4 shooting, along with feedback from business owners, community leaders and local politicians, accelerated the response.
“Not any one incident more than any other sparked the thought process of trying to put something like this together,” Stelnicki said. “Obviously, that one incident was really upsetting … but it wasn’t that one day there was no interest in this, something happens and all of a sudden we have to do something.”
Although the Governor’s Office and State Police describe a deluge of requests for more enforcement in Southeast Albuquerque, Paul Haidle, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said he also heard from community members who were not ready to welcome additional law enforcement, given the local Police Department’s history of excessive use of force.
“Some people that we’ve been talking to were really happy that there were more police, and a lot of people were really not happy that there were more police and were wondering how that decision had been made and wished they had been included in the process,” Haidle said.
After two shootings by State Police officers less than a week into the operation, advocates questioned why the officers weren’t required to follow the same procedures and policies that a court-approved settlement agreement required of APD officers.
For instance, although APD’s revised use-of-force policies prohibit officers from shooting at or pursuing a motor vehicle except in specific circumstances, other agencies don’t have the same restrictions.
“There were some pretty heinous situations that developed around high-speed pursuits and shooting at motor vehicles,” Haidle said. “This was part of a negotiated process where the use-of force polices were all updated to try to limit these heinous things from ever happening again. When another police department comes in and starts doing the exact same things we have worked so hard to try to limit here in Albuquerque, that goes to undermining the whole reason why we even have a consent decree.”
APD Deputy Chief Harold Medina said it would be challenging to train officers on Justice Department-approved policies for temporary operations. Furthermore, he said, a policy that is appropriate in a congested city might not work in rural areas of the state.
Medina said it was great to have State Police officers in the city rounding up people who are wanted on warrants and assisting with proactive policing and patrolling, but ultimately the goal is for APD to have enough staff to have the same impact.
“While we see a lot of work out there in the police world where people are focused on enforcement and taking people to jail, it’s not our philosophy that that’s the best thing in the long run for the community,” he said. “It has to be a balanced approach to building that trust with the community and at the same time not leaving a big footprint where we have been in the community.”
More than three months after State Police officers left the city, a Journal review of 20% of the officers’ felony arrests found that 47% had been dismissed. The reasons included an officer not turning in discovery, not attending hearings, the case needing more investigation, a lack of reasonable suspicion or search and seizure issues.
Weekly statistics provided to the Journal by an APD spokesman showed that in the Southeast Area Command, where most of the State Police officers were stationed, the number of shootings continue to rise and fall from week to week. In the first week of the operation, there were three – two without injury and one with property damage. The peak was nine – one fatality, one shooting with injury, five shootings without injury, and two shootings with property damage – in the last weeks of the operation.
Other crime categories also have continued to rise and fall weekly.
Crime had been decreasing across all categories except non-fatal shootings in the first quarter of the year, and even that category dipped slightly in the second quarter.
However, in September, shootings left 14 dead, including five teenagers, and many others injured. There have been 13 more homicides this year to date than last year, according to Journal records.
Asked whether another operation is in the works to address the violence, both Chief Johnson and the governor’s staff said there were no concrete plans.
“It’s premature to say yes or no,” Stelnicki said. “It’s always a conversation; (crime) is one of the governor’s top priorities. She’s never satisfied. We always want to be building on what’s happened, responding to what’s happened, working in a proactive framework where we don’t see these upticks.”
Elizabeth Vencill with the Highland Unified Businesses (HUB 66) is a lawyer with a practice on Central east of Nob Hill. She said when she and other business owners discussed the State Police presence over the summer they were confused about how the operation began and whose idea it was.
Vencill said she appreciated the officers’ presence and felt they did a lot to keep people from loitering, trespassing and committing crimes in the area. The operation inspired her business group to ask the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office to conduct operations in the area.
“We completely support and feel every effort helps,” Vencill said. “Everything helps, but when it’s sporadic like this, it doesn’t make it go away for a long time, just makes it go away for a little while, like a couple of days or a couple of weeks and then it comes back.”