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Plan limited APD intervention in Oñate protest

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A protester holds a knife up to a bronze statue of Juan de Oñate during a protest for its removal in June. (Anthony Jackson/ Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Before the prayer vigil for the removal of the Juan de Oñate statue from the Albuquerque Museum grounds got underway earlier this summer, the Albuquerque Police Department made a plan detailing when officers would be allowed to intervene.

The Emergency Response Team – officers outfitted with riot gear – was directed to protect the museum or human life, but not the statue of the conquistador known for his brutal treatment of Native Americans. That directive is spelled out in an APD Event Action Plan released to the Journal in response to a request under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

“ERT will only engage if there is a threat to life or if major property damage occurs,” the plan says. “Damage to the statue will be considered minor property damage and will not elicit an ERT response. Any threat to the Albuquerque Museum will be considered major property damage due to there being high value historical items inside that cannot be replaced.”

The June 15 protest erupted in chaos and gunfire after a counterprotester, Steven Ray Baca, pushed demonstrators and violently threw one woman to the ground, according to bystander video. Investigators say other protesters tried to chase Baca away, he pepper-sprayed the group, and then ended up shooting and critically injuring a protester who was trying to knock a gun from his hand. Baca is charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, aggravated battery with great bodily harm, battery and unlawful carrying of a firearm without a concealed carry permit. Baca’s attorney contends his client fired in self defense.

Witnesses have said tensions rose as protesters tried to remove the statue of Oñate. The New Mexico Civil Guard, a self-described militia group, was also at the protest and had positioned its members around the statue, also adding to the tension.

APD has been criticized for not stepping in earlier to prevent the situation from escalating.

In the days immediately after the protest, City Councilors Isaac Benton and Pat Davis called for a public accounting of the events and decisions as they unfolded.

When reached by the Journal last week, Benton said that he had not seen any documents or review of the Oñate protest, but that he was not happy with APD’s decision to not protect the sculpture. He spoke with the Journal before the release of the Event Action Plan and could not be reached again Monday.

“They did not appear to be at all concerned about a crazy mob all over that public artwork,” Benton said. “Whether you like Oñate or agree that Oñate should not be represented is a different story, but that is a piece of public artwork on city property, and it should be protected by our Police Department.”

Davis also had not seen any documents, but said police officials had explained their decision-making and he feels like they answered his questions.

“Since then, we’ve seen APD take a different approach …,” Davis said. “That seemed to have eliminated the confrontations that we saw outside the museum. It looks like they have adjusted their tactics a little to prioritize de-escalation and that is what we are asking for.”

In news conferences after both the Oñate protest and an earlier incident Downtown in which people smashed business windows hours after a peaceful march, city and APD officials said the concern is that if officers step in and make arrests for minor property damage, the situation could escalate unnecessarily. Deputy Chief Harold Medina said during those news conferences that the statue is not worth damaging relations with the community for years to come.

Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, reiterated that protests are all different and dynamic, and decisions are made in real time while balancing many different factors.

“While we had the action plan for the ERT, Lt. (Joseph) Viers contacted Tactical Commander Art Sanchez to request a quick-response team be put on stand-by in case the Incident Command decided it needed a more appropriate response to an active shooter and/or a rescue situation,” Gallegos wrote in an email. “As you know, that is exactly what happened. The first Emergency Response Team deployed about the same time as the quick-response team and both arrived within a minute or two. The quick-response team had an EMT who immediately started providing life-saving aid as tactical members secured the scene and all guns.”

APD has also been criticized for its handling of the shooting investigation. Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez has pointed to a criminal complaint that did not lay out the events leading up to protesters turning on Baca, as well as ERT officers deploying smoke and dispersing witnesses.

The Event Action Plan lays out when officers should deploy gas, including in the case of a “lethal situation.”

“If gunfire or other life-threatening situations arise, ERT is authorized to deploy gas immediately to clear crowds and enable officers to withdraw to positions of cover,” the plan says. “All ERT members will be dressed with rifle plate armor and carriers.”

The shooting happened around 8:04 p.m., and about 25 minutes later, ERT officers deployed smoke into the crowd of protesters who remained at the scene. Gallegos said since the quick-response team was able to get there first and secure the scene, there was no need for smoke or gas to be deployed initially.

“However, as the situation evolved and the Emergency Response Team worked on crowd control, they were not able to effectively keep the immediate crowd from pushing toward the scene with the detained individuals and the guns,” Gallegos wrote. “Rather than using force, the team deployed smoke to create separation from the crowd and provide the needed space between the crowd and the secured scene.”

The plan, prepared by Lt. Viers, was signed by Police Chief Michael Geier 10 days after the protest. Gallegos said that he did not know when exactly the plan was formulated, but that it was approved and ERT officers were briefed before the event.

“I am not certain why it was not signed by the chief until later,” Gallegos wrote. “As you know, we have dealt with nearly 30 protests and demonstrations, requiring a lot of reports, reviews and approvals.”

APD also released an operation plan and after action review by the Special Investigations Division for the same event. The department initially released a version that had redacted almost everything other than the report’s template.

In response to questions from the Journal, APD released a slightly less redacted version, although it still did not provide the names of supervisors, the type of operation, the names of detectives involved, or what the Violence Intervention Division would be doing to support other units at APD, or many other details. One of the few lines that were not redacted cites – as an additional safety issue – reports that undercover officers were at the protest.

APD Emergency Response Team Event Action Plan by Albuquerque Journal on Scribd

APD Operation Plan by Albuquerque Journal on Scribd

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