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‘Unbelievable’: Verdict is a relief for NM rights advocates

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Barbara Jordan, right, joined dozens of demonstrators who marched on Central near the University of New Mexico on Tuesday to mark the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For Nikki Archuleta, an organizer with the local Black Lives Matter group, seeing Derek Chauvin convicted of the murder of George Floyd was emotional.

But, she said, she is grateful to have something to celebrate for once.

“We’re not coming together to express rage and anger and sadness and trauma; it was kind of unbelievable,” Archuleta said. “… With the consistency of what normally happens, we were ready for disappointment.”

Chauvin, a former Minneapolis Police Department officer, is one of few officers nationwide to be convicted of killing someone while on duty.

In Albuquerque, the 2016 trial of two police officers who were charged with murder ended in a hung jury when jurors could not decide whether they were guilty. Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez shot and killed James Boyd, who was camping in the Sandia foothills, in 2014. Boyd’s death sparked protests and calls for reform around the city.

Artist Natalee Hudson stopped by Albuquerque Civic Plaza on Tuesday to reflect on the guilty verdict of former police officer Derek Chauvin. The artist is holding a painting she made three days after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

On Tuesday, local leaders responded to Chauvin’s conviction by saying it brought some measure of justice to communities that have been working for change.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement that although no verdict will ever bring George Floyd back to his family, the conviction “does give us all hope that our system is capable of achieving some measure of accountability.”

Mayor Tim Keller said Floyd’s murder has weighed heavily on his mind since last May.

“Although this murder took place in Minneapolis, the impact of this verdict goes far beyond Minnesota,” Keller wrote in a statement. “Anti-Blackness and racism have a long history in every city across our country. There are no exceptions. While we can hope that this verdict offers some semblance of justice, we still have a long way to go before we have fully addressed the ongoing racial injustice in this country that is embedded in every institution around us.”

The Albuquerque Police Department is in the midst of a yearslong reform process after a federal investigation found that officers had a pattern and practice of using excessive force. And in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Keller said his administration intends to create a department to respond to some calls involving poverty, addiction and mental health challenges.

Police Chief Harold Medina said that in Albuquerque, “we often come short when it comes to practicing what we preach” with racial justice.

“When you take the time to listen to our Black neighbors and community leaders, you will hear about the very real experiences of injustice at the hands of police,” Medina said. “… I am fully committed to ensuring that we build the proper culture that respects diversity and the equal treatment of all residents. It’s not an easy process.

“And it’s not as simple as rewriting policies and training officers. We have to get everyone in the department to buy into this culture. We have to be open-minded and willing to have uncomfortable conversations.”

Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, said the criminal justice system worked, even when the accused was a police officer.

“This trial proves conclusively that officers can be, and in fact are held to the same standards of justice as all other citizens, as they should be,” he said in a statement. “The public should view this case as proof that due process rights, do not prevent the investigation, trial or conviction of a police officer, and neither does qualified immunity. We should never let the bad acts by one, cast a shadow across all that serve this country with valor, honesty and integrity.”

Raúl Torrez, the 2nd Judicial District Attorney, said he was not surprised the jury found Chauvin guilty of murder in a case that “shocked the conscience of the country.”

Torrez said he hopes the case further encourages police departments to review their use-of-force policies and update their training to those joining law enforcement.

“My hope is that we don’t look at this moment and have a verdict and go back to just the normal way of doing business — because it’s not going to suffice — there are too many people that have been hurt and killed,” Torrez said.

For New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur, the Chauvin trial was a rare case in which he welcomed a conviction.

“As public defenders, we know there is rarely real justice or healing that comes from the criminal courts,” Baur said. “… Still, I do feel a little hope with this verdict. I hope it is some vindication of and relief to the communities and people who have been the victims of systemically racist policing practices for generations.”

Professor Finnie Coleman, who teaches English and Africana Studies at the University of New Mexico, said we should not be giving the criminal justice system a “pat on the back” for doing what it should have done in “hundreds of cases in the past.”

“Should people be relieved that this is the verdict they came to? I think so. Because we’ve averted what looked like to be a powder keg in America,” he said, adding that the optimism shouldn’t “go overboard.”

“There’s a lot more work to get done, and it’s very complex work,” Coleman said.

He said people also need to be careful not to “paint every law enforcement agent as a Derek Chauvin.”

“It’s tempting to do that … (but) to do that is to miss an opportunity to reach out to the forces that are supposed to guard our communities and for them to have an even hand with all citizens in our community,” he said.

BLM can celebrate a win today, but tomorrow the work begins again, Archuleta said, pointing to the recent police shooting deaths of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, a Black man, and 13-year-old Adam Toledo, a Latino boy.

“It’s a victory, but it also means we need to work harder and demand (more) than crumbs, because this is like the very least they could have given us,” she said.

“We’ll see how Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo’s (case) goes. … I hope this gives us a little push and energy and hope.”


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