Local leaders defend APD response to protest - Albuquerque Journal

Local leaders defend APD response to protest

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque police in riot gear shoot tear gas at protesters off Central and Mesilla early Friday morning. Demonstrations have been held across the country over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

Local government and law enforcement leaders came to the support of Albuquerque police on Friday, hours after an overnight confrontation on East Central in which officers in riot gear fired tear gas into a crowd of protesters.

The situation escalated from a Thursday evening protest over the killing in Minnesota of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis on Monday after an officer, who is white, restrained him by digging his knee into his neck. Similar protests were held across the country.

By nightfall, Albuquerque’s demonstration had devolved into acts of vandalism, property destruction and indiscriminate gunfire.

Harold Medina, a deputy chief with the Albuquerque Police Department, said no injuries were reported in the scuffle, but windows were broken out of several police vehicles and four people were detained for allegedly firing guns. All were later released “pending further investigation.”

Many of the questions leveled during the news conference revolved around APD’s actions: whether officers used excessive force; if they escalated the situation by wearing riot gear; and if they lawfully detained the four people accused of firing shots.

Abby Bay, left, 17, and Alyssa Romero, 20, second from right lead a march of more than 200 people on Friday evening in Santa Fe. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

But Mayor Tim Keller defended the actions taken by the department.

“Dozens of shots were fired and APD absolutely had to respond,” Keller said during a morning news conference. “They did it in a way that fortunately kept everyone safe and, while I know it was scary for many, it was also dangerous for many.”

As they praised the response of APD, Keller, APD staff and others also took the opportunity to denounce the actions of the Minneapolis police officers that led to Floyd’s death.

“My words can’t capture the depth of the pain that so many people, especially people of color, are experiencing right now,” Keller said. “As your mayor, I want to acknowledge that pain. Here in Albuquerque, we stand with those grieving these incidents around the nation. We stand with those calling for justice.”

Floyd was handcuffed and could be heard telling officers he could not breathe. Video of the incident, which was recorded by a bystander, has gone viral, sparking protests across the country.

“Those officers’ actions are inconsistent with the training and protocols of our department. APD has worked tirelessly to build trust between law enforcement and the community here,” APD Chief Mike Geier said. “What occurred in Minneapolis is an unfortunate reminder of how quickly bad policing can erode that trust.”

APD is no stranger to controversy and has suffered its own black eyes when it comes to unconstitutional policing.

The department is currently undergoing a yearslong review and reform process, spurred by a Department of Justice investigation following several high-profile killings by police officers – particularly the killing of James Boyd in 2014.

But, on Friday morning, Geier and Keller both emphasized how far the department has come since those days. They said restraint shown by APD officers during the incidents Thursday night illustrates that.

In a rundown of the incident, Geier said the 400 people involved in the initial Albuquerque protest, which started at Central and Wyoming around 6 p.m., dispersed after marching along Central as they waved signs and chanted through a loudspeaker.

Then, around 10 p.m., a second “more aggressive” group showed up at Central and Wyoming with “different intentions.”

He said the majority of officers stayed back to avoid a confrontation as undercover officers watched members of the group spray painting bus stations, vandalizing civilian vehicles and even surrounding a female officer’s vehicle before breaking the windows while she was inside.

Geier said the situation escalated as a group of people drove around the area and repeatedly fired off rounds.

That’s when APD intervened, stopping the suspected vehicle a few blocks away at Mesilla and Central, and taking four people, some of them juveniles, into custody.

He said a group of protesters surrounded police as they collected evidence from the vehicle, leading dozens of officers clad in riot gear who were staged nearby and an armored vehicle, to move in.

Within the hour, a large crowd of protesters had gathered on Mesilla, just north of Central, to face off against a line of officers clad in riot gear and wielding batons. The protesters waved signs and yelled “I can’t breathe” and “(expletive) the police” as they paced a few feet from the officers.

Some people recorded the confrontation with their phones from a distance, documenting the event over social media, as others blocked the end of the street with their vehicles.

The line of riot police began to load onto city buses as a helicopter shined its spotlight onto the gathering and told the crowd to disperse in between blasts of a siren.

Albuquerque police confront protesters off Central and Mesilla early Friday morning. The officers retreated in order to de-escalate the situation. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

At that point, at least three gas canisters were fired into the crowd by the retreating officers. A man began throwing the canisters back at the officers as the crowd ran back toward Central.

Protesters gathered around a woman who appeared to be injured, but it was unclear by what.

Although much of the crowd dispersed, Medina said it didn’t quite end there.

He said someone in the area drove away in the vehicle that police had initially stopped containing the four shooting suspects. Officers followed the vehicle, alongside a couple of car loads of protesters, to the university area, where it was abandoned.

Police tried to arrest the driver when he got into another vehicle, but a group of protesters came to his defense.

Officers let the man go to prevent another confrontation.

Albuquerque Police Chief Mike Geier praises the restraint shown by his officers during a confrontation with protesters. He addressed the incident at a news conference Friday.

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