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APD defends response to Oñate protest, shooting

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Albuquerque Police Department Deputy Chief Harold Medina, right, and Lt. Joe Viers discuss the department’s response to a protest and shooting in front of the Albuquerque Museum in Old Town last week. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In the minutes after a 39-year-old protester was shot and critically injured at a demonstration to remove the statue of Juan de Oñate from the Albuquerque Museum grounds last week, officers wearing riot uniforms and tactical gear flooded the scene.

Short clips of video released by the Albuquerque Police Department show a line of officers, armed with batons, marching toward the protesters while another group wearing tactical gear spilled out from an armored vehicle to take several members of a civilian militia group into custody. They also arrested Steven Ray Baca, 31, who was suspected of shooting Scott Williams during an altercation.

What the videos don’t show is any attempts at investigating the shooting, whether by interviewing witnesses or combing the streets for evidence.

Last week, District Attorney Raúl Torrez leveled harsh criticism of APD’s handling of the investigation, calling it a fundamentally incomplete police investigation and saying the original complaint omitted the fact that Baca was seen on video assaulting a woman in the crowd, which would negate his claims of self-defense. Torrez dropped the most serious charge against Baca and instead charged him with felony aggravated battery and two petty misdemeanor charges, in attacks on other protesters. He is also charged with carrying a gun without a concealed carry permit.

Baca was released pending trial after a hearing on Monday.

Deputy Chief Harold Medina said the District Attorney’s Office “is well aware of the fact that we were dealing with a riot.” Munitions had been released and the crowd was angry, making it very difficult to process the scene like they normally would for a serious crime, he said. And he said instead of interviewing the witnesses who remained on scene, many of whom were present immediately before and during the shooting, they asked the media to get the word out that anyone with information should contact investigators.

“We knew a lot of individuals when shots were fired … had left the area,” Medina said in a news conference Monday. “There were others there that had gotten caught up in a clash with law enforcement so we knew that we weren’t going to have the witnesses that we typically do right away, and we knew that we didn’t have the luxury of securing the scene as usual.”

In a news conference last Wednesday, Torrez said, among other things, he was concerned that the investigation had been “adversely affected” by APD’s response of riot police and smoke munitions.

“Frankly, we have been put in a situation too many times in this community where investigations are rushed, investigations are incomplete and there is an expectation that quick decisions are made,” Torrez said last week. “As … prosecutors who have to uphold an oath to be objective and impartial, we can’t do that. We have to get it right.”

 

Allegations probed

Medina said they are also investigating allegations that some of the officers did not treat Williams’ family with respect and empathy following the shooting. Williams’ father was among those who reached Williams’ side after he was shot.

“We are reviewing body camera audio and we will continue to work to make sure our officers are always being professional,” Medina said. “We will make sure they are held accountable if there was anything done that shouldn’t have been done.”

APD has also faced scrutiny over the decision not to send officers into the fray earlier.

Medina said in preparing for the protests, and watching similar events unfold all across the country, APD has been mindful that the way officers respond will affect the department’s relationship with the community for years to come.

“The Albuquerque Police Department recognizes that our past approach to use of force caused the community to distrust and fear the police,” Medina said. “Throughout this time of dealing with protests we have been cautious to hold the use of force to a minimum and use only for significant property damage or when life is threatened. We simply will not allow simple property crime damage to be the tipping point of when we decide to use force on a crowd that has a lot of individuals who are still peacefully demonstrating their constitutional rights.”

Lt. Joe Viers laid out the timeline of events, starting with the incident command learning there would be a peaceful prayer gathering calling for the removal of the Oñate statue.

“There was no indication they would try to remove or tear down the statue and there was no indication of any anti-protesters or militia members trying to show up to instigate any events,” he said.

He said around 5:20 p.m. the first call came into 911 about armed men at the protest. In one 911 call, a woman reports that armed men were there but not pointing weapons at anyone and she was told by dispatch that it is legal in New Mexico to carry a gun openly.

“I did contact the tactical commander to form a quick response team,” Viers said. “Basically their goal is to not be part of the demonstration or crowd control or anything like that. Basically since there was an armed individual introduced at this protest, at that time, we just needed to have a response team for medical care, as well as if there was a rescue that needed to take place.”

A mobile camera trailer across the street also kept watch and officers compared the 911 calls coming in to what they could see from the feed. Out of the 23 calls about the incident, eight occurred before the shooting and four of those referenced the armed men, Viers said. One of those calls mentioned the men pointing guns at teenagers in the crowd, but Viers said they didn’t have any evidence of that occurring.

He said two Emergency Response Teams were staged at the Albuquerque Museum and the Old Town substation nearby. As the protests unfolded undercover detectives kept their distance as they observed the events.

“The undercover officers who were monitoring the crowd from a distance obviously did not convey any information that there was any threats of violence at that time,” Viers said. “… There were no immediate threats of life and ERT was basically on standby if things were to escalate.”

He said the undercover officers were standing outside the protest and therefore, didn’t have a good visual on what was happening “inside the crowd.”

Furthermore, Medina said, it appeared as though the temperature of the group would rise and then fall.

“When the civil guard surrendered the statue you can clearly see through the photos and video it was a sense of victory for the protesters,” he said. “It kind of diffused the situation there. From them surrendering the statute and pulling away to the moment that shots were fired was literally minutes.”

At 8:04 p.m., shots were fired and the Emergency Response Teams were deployed a minute later, arriving at 8:07 p.m., police said. APD medics rendered aid and Williams was taken from the scene in an ambulance eight minutes later.

Viers said they still had the members of the New Mexico Civil Guard detained at the scene while they waited for marked units to arrive and transport them.

“We had the individuals who were being detained between those two vehicles to deal with and then we also had a crime scene to try to preserve as best we could until the investigators were able to come on scene and continue that investigation,” Viers said. “At 20:28 hours (8:28 p.m.), a small group of protesters refused to move to a safe distance from where the group of individuals were being detained so smoke was used to help disperse the crowd.”

Viers said some protesters kicked the smoke canisters back and officers deployed seven “sponge rounds” as well.

A couple dozen protesters remained in the area, finally dispersing around 9:30 p.m. In the hours that followed, crime scene investigators arrived to begin looking for evidence, continuing into the next morning, Medina said.

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