Their job is dangerous, but necessary to all of us

Tactical officers head out Thursday to search for a suspect after a shootout in which four APD officers were injured, one critically. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

I recently viewed footage from body cameras worn by Albuquerque police officers in the heated aftermath of what had been a peaceful protest in May 2020.

It was three days after George Floyd had died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, his merciless death captured on cellphone video for all to watch in horror, and then take to the streets to protest police brutality and racial inequality.

About 400 people showed up May 28 at Wyoming and Central NE to march without incident from 6 p.m. to around 10 p.m.

But, later that night, the scene erupted into chaos when about 50 after-hours protesters confronted Albuquerque police who were detaining four teens suspected of firing off shots around the McDonald’s at Wyoming and Central.

Riot gear-clad members of the police Emergency Response Team arrived, standing away from the protesters to distract them while the other officers and the teens left. Their lapel camera footage, as well as video livestreamed from protesters’ cellphones, documented the confrontation.

For nearly 30 minutes, protesters relentlessly shouted rageful, obscenity-laden epithets. A sampling, with requisite f-bleeps:

You’re trying to kill our children! Shut the (bleep) up. You mother(bleepers) are on the wrong side! You going to hurt us with those (bleeping) batons? I can’t wait to see you shoot that thing – I’ll have your job, boy. (Bleep) the police. (Bleep) the police. (Bleep) the police.

Police were called racists, communists, child-haters, God-haters, Nazis. You get the bleeping idea.

As hate and anger rained down on them, the officers never flinched.

Once the other officers were safely away, the ERT officers left, too, tossing tear gas to deter protesters from chasing them to the buses, a tactic they were criticized for the next day.

Lapel video caught a few seconds on that bus, the officers gasping, catching their breath. I thought I saw stunned looks in their eyes, but maybe that was me.

I wondered what it was like to stand there and repeatedly be berated as scum. Those words weren’t meant for me, yet they stung.

Over the years, I’ve written my share of columns critical of law enforcement – the Mary Han, Kaitlyn Arquette, Mark Saiz, Ashley Browder and Brittany Wayne cases spring to mind. Police misconduct exists, and a badge should not be a shield against prosecution and punishment when necessary.

But, for every dirty cop, I’ve encountered dozens of good ones trying to do a good job and go home alive at the end of their shift.

On Thursday, four APD officers almost didn’t make it home alive after confronting an armed robbery suspect near the busy Dutch Bros coffee shop. One is still fighting for his life in the hospital as I write this.

It was the fourth time in the past few weeks that law enforcement had been shot at and a frustrated APD Chief Harold Medina tweeted: “If these criminals are brazen enough to shoot at our officers, they are a danger to the community.”

True enough. But, as bad as crime is in our city and across the country, most of us do not go to work each day thinking it might be their last. Police do.

Thursday’s shooting came a day after the 16th commemoration of what many consider Albuquerque’s worst day, when five people from one end of the city to the other were gunned down by a man struggling with mental illness.

Two of the dead were Albuquerque police officers Mike King and Richard Smith. I covered both funerals, stood along the cortege routes for both, along with other citizens there to pay their respects. They are – just as Officers Mario Verbeck, James Eichel Jr., Harry Gunderson and Sgt. Sean Kenny, the four officers wounded Thursday, now are – reminders that their job is dangerous, increasingly scorned and absolutely necessary.

They are also reminders that, behind the badge and bravado are humans, imperfect as we all are. They are not all racists, not all goons. Such indiscriminate trashing is as wrong as indiscriminately trashing every protester, every minority encountered by an officer as a “thug.”

In my line of work (I was a cop and courts reporter for years), I’ve seen that humanity behind the badge: The detective who investigated the mysterious disappearance of a young man staying at our house, and who repeatedly dropped everything, day or (mostly) night, to investigate a called-in tip.

The off-duty officer who plunged into the rushing waters of the Rio Grande to save the life of a drowning child, only to lose his own.

The detective who worked tirelessly to solve decades-old homicide cases, even when the perpetrator was dead, because that sense of closure mattered to the victims’ families.

The deputy chief who talked a young girl out of jumping off the Paseo del Norte bridge, his only training on how to deal with people in crisis coming from the advice of a veteran officer: Be a human and try to relate with people you contact.

The sergeant who could not hold back tears when she talked about how the job she loved was getting harder to do because of turmoil within the department and anger from the public.

We have a long way to go to ease that anger and fix that turmoil. But I can’t help but think that yelling bleeping epithets at each other isn’t helpful.

Instead, let what happened Thursday be a reminder that officers are humans doing a job with bad hours who often deal with bad people in bad situations to enforce laws they didn’t write, and getting heat from the public when something bad happens.

An officer shouldn’t have to die for us to see the good.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.


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