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MDC, mayor spar over refusal to process arrestee

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The refusal of the county jail to take at least one arrestee from Albuquerque police earlier this month due to COVID-19 concerns caused a dust up that led to a strongly worded letter from the police chief and eventually pulled Mayor Tim Keller into the fray.

“We cannot have a jail in Bernalillo County that doesn’t accept hard criminals,” Keller said during a Friday press briefing. “That’s just the way the system works, we’ve all got to do our part and they’ve got to do theirs.”

The Metropolitan Detention Center on April 6 refused to process Joseph Vasquez – who was “medically cleared” by Lovelace hospital after telling officers he had COVID-19 symptoms – due to MDC’s isolation area being full. Officers eventually released Vasquez, 38, and he was arrested by Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office deputies and booked into the jail days later.

Following the refusal, Police Chief Michael Geier sent a letter to county and state officials calling MDC’s denial “unlawful” and saying it put the community and officers at risk.

In an April 16 response letter to Geier, County Manager Julie Morgas-Baca cited a 2018 inter-governmental agreement between MDC and the Albuquerque Police Department that gives the jail the final say on who is medically cleared and admitted, and called his assertions on their refusal “incorrect.”

“You present no legal authority which would entitle the city to unilaterally disregard the IGA,” Baca wrote.

In the letter, Morgas Baca states that Vasquez was awaiting COVID-19 test results from Lovelace and still showing symptoms when he was brought to the jail, where all designated isolation and quarantine areas “were occupied.” Morgas Baca has also said that MDC believed APD would follow the IGA and take Vasquez to a local hospital rather than release him.

Morgas Baca states that MDC has since increased the number of isolation rooms from four to six.

In his Friday briefing, Keller called Morgas Baca’s response letter a “misnomer” and claimed the letter said APD has to “basically just take everyone to (the University of New Mexico Hospital)” – something he called “extremely dangerous.”

“So we’re going to push back, first just by letting them know and trying to see if we can work that out,” Keller said.

He said otherwise they will consult with the city’s legal team and possibly ask for assistance from the attorney general.

“There is a higher calling during this pandemic that makes the issue more urgent and we need all of our partners to step up with solutions. State law already governs the IGA, whether there is a pandemic or not,” Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair said Tuesday.

Geier said the issue has still not been resolved.

“The bottom line is the county is refusing to accept many inmates,” he said in a statement. “This is dangerous and creates an unacceptable risk to the public. I urge the county to find a solution and accept all inmates, rather than search for legal loopholes.”

Morgas Baca said she has invited Nair, Geier, Sheriff Manuel Gonzales and MDC leaders to a meeting Thursday to discuss better coordination in the future.

“As county manager, I am interested in working cooperatively with the city and APD to protect Bernalillo County citizens, inside and outside the jail, following best health practices, as advised by the DOH and the county contract medical provider,” she said.

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