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Police say they were forced to release a man they’d just arrested on felony assault charges after the county jail refused to take him on Monday.
“We demand that MDC cease unlawfully refusing to accept arrestees,” Albuquerque Police Chief Michael Geier wrote in a letter to Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca on Wednesday.
Witnesses reported that the man – Joseph Vasquez, 38 – had been yelling at them and ultimately “pulled out a large knife and started swinging it at them.”
Vasquez told police that he had been sick and coughing and thought he could have a fever. Because those symptoms are associated with COVID-19, the officer called an ambulance and Vasquez was taken to Lovelace Hospital. Geier said he was medically cleared to be booked, and also tested for coronavirus. Days later his test came back negative, police said.
MDC “refused to accept and process Mr. Vasquez into the facility” saying that “their COVID-19 area was currently full and would not take Mr. Vasquez,” according to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court on Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for Bernalillo County said Morgas Baca is preparing to send a formal response to the police chief on Friday.
“This is a complex matter with intricate legal and medical issues to be addressed,” Tia Bland said.
Geier wrote that MDC’s refusal to book Vasquez put the community at risk, and also put the arrestee in danger, because he was held by the police for longer than necessary without easy access to a medical provider.
Rejections like this are not a new problem, Geier wrote, and representatives from the city and county met late last month to discuss the issue. The letter suggests that disputes between MDC and local hospitals may be a factor in the rejections, and an APD spokesman said there have been ongoing efforts to “resolve issues with MDC rejecting offenders who were medically cleared by hospitals.”
Geier said in the letter that the disagreements “either based on poor communication or disagreements regarding diagnosis” should not leave his officers responsible for taking arrestees in for further assessments.
MDC’s refusal to accept the man left city police officers in prolonged contact with a person complaining of COVID-19 symptoms, Geier wrote, pointing out that APD facilities are not configured in a way that allows individuals to be isolated from officers, staff and other detainees.
“An officer was forced to spend 9 hours with the offender while APD officials tried but failed to convince MDC staff to accept him,” Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for APD, said in an email. “When MDC leaders failed to respond to APD, officers had no choice but to release the offender into the streets.”
The letter was sent to several state and local leaders, including the governor and secretary of health, because the man “was potentially rejected for exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.”
Gallegos said in an email that MDC had been rejecting people before the public health emergency, too.
Jessie Damazyn, a spokeswoman for the city, said in a statement Thursday that the city appreciates county leadership looking at the problem right away.
“It is critical for the jail to accept violent criminals. During this time, we need everyone to problem solve in short order to keep dangerous felons off the streets,” she wrote.
Geier cites in his letter state statute and attorney general opinions that say county jail administrators do not have the authority to refuse people who have been properly committed to their custody.
“APD will take all other action necessary to address further unlawful rejections of medically cleared arrestees,” Geier wrote.
Advocates have raised concerns in recent weeks about the potential for a COVID-19 outbreak in a detention center.
One MDC inmate has tested positive for the virus, and the facility says it has taken precautions to stem the spread of the virus in the facility, including releasing 126 nonviolent inmates, according to a spokesman. MDC announced Thursday that nearly 80 inmates and 17 staff members who were recently tested for COVID-19 were negative. MDC is planning to return those isolated and quarantined inmates to general population by Saturday.