Editorial: Armed militia can’t play cop

When the heavily armed New Mexico Civil Guard stationed themselves in front of the La Jornada monument outside the Albuquerque Museum on June 15, they made their intent clear.

Their presence was meant to deter protesters from tearing down or damaging the controversial Juan de Oñate statue, which is part of a 100-foot-long public artwork. They saw their role as a quasi-law enforcement unit to protect the monument.

It didn’t work. Protesters went ahead with assaulting the statue with a pickaxe and wrapping chains around its middle amid heated verbal exchanges with members of the guard.

During the protest, there was shoving, shouting, people thrown to the ground – and one protester was shot and critically injured.

It was a textbook example of why the authorities entrusted – and paid – to keep the community safe should have stepped up and taken charge. And it exemplified the danger of allowing unauthorized civilian wanna-be military to take the role of law enforcement – in this case, their presence heightened the tension and charged emotions.

Mayor Tim Keller and the Albuquerque Police Department have said they are looking into the actions and decisions made by APD that evening but have acknowledged officers were ordered to hang back in the nearby museum and police substation as the Civil Guard took on APD’s role and protesters were allowed to openly damage public property.

It was not until the protester was shot that police intervened. By that time, members of the Civil Guard surrounded the alleged shooter, saying they were covering him until police showed up.

Now it is up to New Mexico’s legal system to determine whether allowing civilians to swoop in to play cop or soldier, as the New Mexico Civil Guard did, is unconstitutional.

Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez insists it is. Last week, he filed a civil complaint asking that the Civil Guard be prohibited from showing up at protests as a military unit and assuming law enforcement functions.

At the same time, Torrez acknowledges the fine line that cannot be crossed – protecting the First Amendment Rights of protesters and counter-protesters and the Second Amendment rights of all New Mexicans, as we live in an open-carry state.

Which means an individual can still show up at a protest with an unconcealed weapon.

What Torrez and Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy are asking a judge to do is prohibit the Civil Guard from “assuming law enforcement functions by using or projecting the ability to use organized force in response to perceived threats at protests, demonstrations, or public gatherings.”

The DA says “there is a very clear and undeniable reason for that. We need to maintain legitimate forms of accountability and legitimate forms of oversight for those individuals who have the responsibility and the power to exercise this kind of force in society.”

Members of this group were wearing law enforcement knock-offs and wielding semiautomatic rifles, at least one with a 75-round drum magazine.

The complaint names 14 members of the militia, most of whom live in Bernalillo County and some who are “associated with white supremacist and neo-Confederate organizations.” It says they are operating as a military unit in violation of the New Mexico Constitution, and adds the fatigues worn by Civil Guard members were “virtually indistinguishable” from those worn by the city’s riot police, down to the inked names on the pockets of their uniforms.

But while they may take on some of the accoutrements of local law enforcement, they have not been willing to put in the hard work and training needed to achieve that role. And, more importantly, be willing to answer to a publicly accountable chain of command.

And that piece is the crux of Torrez’s argument, because “New Mexico law forbids unregulated private security forces and unregulated paramilitary organizations because they are not accountable to the people, they pose a threat to public safety, and they encourage rather than deter or quell violence.”

Bingo! If these militia groups are allowed to attempt to quell violence, whose methods would they use, and who would discipline them for abuses? What’s to stop them – or an antifa group – from paying a visit to your workplace or home next week? And how free will your speech be when facing an arsenal of ammo?

Torrez emphasizes that folks who want to carry a sidearm out in public can.

And that while the New Mexico Civil Guard is free to organize, train and operate, the unregulated militia group has no authority to attempt to exercise control of citizens or property as it did June 15.

Torrez says his complaint is the first time a district attorney has taken such action in the United States. A similar case unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, after the “Unite the Right” protest in August 2017 at which a counter-protester was struck by a car and killed. The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy won a major victory in that case – the defendant militia group was prohibited from participating in protests and rallies as an unauthorized armed group.

“We have to nip this in the bud before it turns into something else,” Torrez told the Journal Editorial Board.

Following the June 15 protest, City Attorney Esteban Aguilar Jr. insisted that Albuquerque police could not intervene with the Civil Patrol because members had not committed any crimes. Torrez disagrees, which is why he is pursuing the suit.

Bryce Provance, the Civil Guard’s chaplain and founder, told the Journal’s Matthew Reisen in early July that the militia group wanted nothing to do with the controversial statute of Oñate and showed up to give protesters “something to think about.”

“You know what the police are going to do, you don’t know what we’re going to do,” Provance said. “Our goal was to be that question mark in their minds that made them think maybe this isn’t the greatest idea to go burning through Old Town.”

New Mexico doesn’t need a question mark with an arsenal. Provance’s words should seal the case against the Civil Guard. Those members who truly want to play enforcer can apply for the law enforcement academy or military – and leave policing and protecting to those trained, entrusted and accountable.

And that means those sworn officers have got to be allowed to step up.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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