Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
A “White Lives Matter” rally never materialized at Civic Plaza on Sunday, but an armed man’s presence and officer response has reverberated through the Albuquerque Police Department all week.
In fact, “about 17 officers” in the department’s Emergency Response Team – which staffs protests and unrest – resigned from the unit as a result, according to an APD spokesman. More than 50 officers remain in the unit, he said. Although the officers resigned from the ERT they are still with APD.
“I think this really comes down to not only a breakdown of communication between the command post and the officers on the ground, but fundamentally I believe there was an unrealistic expectation placed on the eight-man ERT team that was dispatched in the first place,” said Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association.
The to-do started Sunday as hundreds of counterprotesters filled Civic Plaza in response to rumors that the white supremacist group Proud Boys planned to hold a rally. The Proud Boys never showed up.
But Deyontae Williams did – armed with a rifle and a handgun and accompanied by a woman and two young children, according to a criminal complaint. He was holding a sign that says “all guns matter.”
Officers approached 26-year-old Williams. Williams said he was not planning to enter the plaza – where firearms are banned.
“Soon his open-carrying of a rifle and handgun drew the attention of protesters,” an officer wrote in the complaint. “The protesters surrounded him and were about 100 in number. They confronted him.”
Officers determined “that imminent danger was present” for Williams and the woman “but moreover for the two minors” and they “removed him safely from the contentious crowd,” according to the complaint.
Williams could not be reached for comment. He has been charged with misdemeanor abandonment or cruelty to a child.
Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, said an incident commander had ordered Williams to be detained at the scene and a detective was coming to interview him, but the officers released him without citing him. Gallegos said a summons was issued Sunday evening and will take time to “move through the court system and be delivered to him.”
Meanwhile, APD launched an internal investigation into the decision to “release the armed individual prior to investigation and without identifying the individual,” Gallegos said. A sergeant – who Gallegos did not identify – was put on leave.
Willoughby, calling it “a knee jerk reaction,” said the sergeant’s gun and badge were immediately taken.
But Gallegos said the command staff had been concerned that Williams – an armed individual – had been given preferential treatment when he was released.
“After an initial review (less than 24 hours), there was no indication of preferential treatment, so the sergeant returned to duty,” Gallegos wrote in a statement. “The internal investigation into whether policies were violated is still ongoing.”
But, Willoughby said, the damage was done. More than a dozen officers decided they didn’t want to staff protests any more.
“Why would you want to be at the tip of the spear of one of the most highly volatile political footballs ever, to volunteer for this extracurricular duty called ERT and then to be second-guessed about decisions that were made on the ground …,” Willoughby said. “It just doesn’t make you feel supported as a police officer.”
Gallegos said Chief Harold Medina met with the officers after he learned they were resigning from the unit and “after learning the union was providing incomplete information about the incident.” He did not clarify what incomplete information the union was providing.
City Councilor Pat Davis said the officers defused the situation appropriately but noted that they have an obligation to follow orders and should have done as the command staff said and detained and identified the man.
“Part of our APD problem has been that supervisors have, sometimes deliberately, ignored directives involving accountability and have allowed officers to appear to be too close to these groups,” Davis said. “In that kind of situation officers don’t have the kind of discretion they do everyday.”
Gallegos said the ERT unit still has 51 officers, seven sergeants and two lieutenants, and cadets in the academy are getting the same training that the ERT officers receive, so they can also staff protests.
“The number of Emergency Response Teams and officers grew during last year’s protests,” Gallegos said. “As some officers and supervisors have left the teams, including those who left this week, the number is back to about where it was prior to last year’s protests. The department has contingency plans to meet the needs for future protests.”