Question: When can an Albuquerque police officer eat a burrito while driving a police cruiser?
Answer: Not while trying to steer with no hands while traveling on an interstate highway and with two passengers.
There’s probably not a Q-and-A item like that in any Albuquerque Police Department manual. But maybe there should be. The Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association in May posted a video under the title “Burrito vs. Crime” that purported to tell the story of a busy “Officer Mike” who got into “BIG trouble” after running from call to call all day and consuming a burrito in his car.
“Office Mike CAN’T eat a burrito in his car!” the video says. “Now he faces 16 hours suspension for eating his burrito!” The video has been viewed more than 6,000 times, and the burrito-eating officer’s plight has been cited on the APOA’s Facebook page “as just one example of the out-of-control oversight of officers here in Albuquerque.”
It turns out the real “Officer Mike” was extremely busy, dealing with an aggressive prisoner and bouncing between the jail and the hospital. But he wasn’t suspended; he got a letter of reprimand for not following rules for transporting a restrained prisoner and for not operating his police vehicle “in a careful and prudent manner.”
Lapel camera footage from Oct. 6 shows officer Greg Toya using his knees, not hands, to steer the car while unwrapping and downing three carne adovada burritos from Golden Pride. A report from a subsequent inquiry says the burritos were consumed while Toya was doing the handless driving on Interstate 40 with another officer in the passenger seat and a restrained prisoner in back.
Just about everyone in New Mexico loves burritos, and most of us probably have chowed down on a few of the hand-held variety while behind the wheel. While not advisable, with a passenger to unwrap and hand ’em over that should leave a hand available for 10 or two.
So APOA needs to choose its battles more wisely. Going public to misrepresent the burrito incident undercuts the union’s arguments on the very real issues having to do with court-ordered Department of Justice oversight. Those include the staffing and officer hours required for review of even low-level uses of force while personnel respond to or patrol for crime are stretched thin.
The union president says Toya should have been referred to more training rather than given a reprimand. C’mon, keeping at least one hand on the wheel, even when taking in some really good carne adovada, is basic driver’s ed, particularly with passengers on a high-speed route like an interstate. The low-level discipline of a letter of reprimand was appropriate.
That said, this savory saga does show just how crazy the work lives of police officers can be. Toya and officer Robert Calabaza were tasked with taking a man found in a park to jail because he was wanted on a felony warrant.
The prisoner tried to kick out a police car door, was restrained with leg shackles and handcuffs tied together with nylon straps but then proceeded to bash his head on the Plexiglas between the front and rear seats. Officers had to stop and put him in headgear. When they got to the jail, an ambulance was called to take the prisoner to the hospital for treatment of a cut and bruising. The officers then took him back to the jail. It was on this final leg that Toya and Calabaza picked up a six-pack of Golden Pride burritos and Toya’s hands-free driving took place.
An internal investigation found the prisoner had indeed injured himself, and the officers were cited for taking two cruisers to the jail the first trip rather than having two officers in the car with the restrained prisoner. That violated an APD policy that a person in restraints must be monitored constantly to ensure an unobstructed airway for breathing. “Positional asphyxia” has been the cause of death in high-profile cases where people died in police custody.
Toya admitted “he did use his knee to operate his vehicle.” He said he wasn’t thinking clearly because of how long the call had taken and he hadn’t had food.
It’s a snapshot of what officers have to deal with on long days when we all – officers included – wish they were chasing down robbers, burglars and other bad guys or helping people in need. But wherever they go and whatever comes their way, even a tasty carne adovada burrito, police need to follow the rules. And that includes keeping a hand on the steering wheel.
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.