Councilors look to block military transfers to APD

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque city councilors Lan Sena and Pat Davis

Amid nationwide protests against police brutality, two Albuquerque city councilors are pushing legislation to keep the city’s police force from accepting free military equipment to carry out its local duties.

It has been five years since the Albuquerque Police Department has received anything through the federal program that transfers U.S. Department of Defense surplus equipment to law enforcement agencies, according to the bill sponsored by Pat Davis and Lan Sena. However, the city remains eligible to accept it, and “we want to be sure if they offer us a free tank, we don’t take it,” Davis said.

The bill would prohibit APD from applying for or seeking the military giveaways.

“No equipment that has been used on the battlefield should be seen on our streets,” Sena said in a written statement.

Davis said he has considered such legislation for years, but did not deem it urgent because President Barack Obama had severely restricted the federal program in 2015 and because current Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller does not support taking the military castoffs.

However, Davis, a former police officer, said action became more pressing given widespread outcry about police treatment of civilians – sparked by the Minneapolis Police Department’s May killing of George Floyd – and President Donald Trump’s response to the protests.

Trump, who had in 2017 reversed Obama’s changes to the military surplus program, has supported using the military to quell the recent protests.

“It wasn’t an issue when they (the military) weren’t really giving anything away, but I think the narrative out of D.C. right now is very scary,” Davis said.

Davis’ bill includes a list of over $800,000 worth of military goods APD received over the course of 2014 and 2015. It ranges from firearm accessories to an armored personnel carrier, Davis said.

Nationally, the program has enrolled 8,000 law enforcement agencies and has transferred $7.2 billion in equipment, including $293 million worth last fiscal year, according to its website.

Though the agencies do not buy the equipment, they must use it within a year and pay for its upkeep, Davis noted.

Keller on Monday said he supports the Davis/Sena bill, saying in a statement that using military equipment is “out of step with our values around community safety.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico says more needs to be done to reform police, but that this bill’s passage would be a positive step for Albuquerque. Its leadership contends that local police departments’ use of military-grade equipment “exacerbates the culture of aggression” within law enforcement agencies.

“We also know that weapons of war are disproportionately used on people of color,” ACLU of New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson said in a statement.

But City Councilor Don Harris said he does not like the idea of precluding the city from ever accepting such equipment, saying the police chief should have that discretion.

“I certainly support the idea of demilitarizing the police … but there might be some things that are still needed (locally),” Harris said Monday.

The bill will be introduced Monday and likely be voted on June 29.

Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, said the police department needs certain equipment to keep officers safe, and it isn’t inherently problematic to get it from the military. However, he said, the union is indifferent to the proposed legislation since APD has not received any military equipment in years.

“This is a ceremonial piece of legislation,” he said. “We haven’t been involved in buying military equipment since 2015, so this will have no impact for APD.”

He pointed out that the police department is making headway on its yearslong reform effort that was mandated by the court after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found in 2014 that officers had a pattern and practice of excessive use of force.

“I think it’s really important as we deal with the public backlash that we don’t lose sight of what we’ve accomplished as a community, and what we have accomplished as a city police department, and how hard we have all worked to reform APD along with our community partners and the DOJ,” Willoughby said.

Davis disagrees that the legislation is merely symbolic, saying it could make an impact for years to come, adding that it could stop a future mayor from accepting military-grade goods, especially when they are offered at seemingly no cost. He noted that the Trump administration has already presented the city with millions of dollars to hire police, but only if the city agrees to buck its own sanctuary city policy by working with federal immigration authorities.

“They made millions available to us to hire officers if we get rid of our immigration policy, and that’s a hard thing to turn down,” Davis said. “Before they set up another one of those hard bargains, let’s just be sure that (taking military surplus equipment is) never on the table.”

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