Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
When speaking of his time as an elected official, Sheriff Manuel Gonzales returns repeatedly to the personal feedback he receives. Input from community members who approach him. The frustrations and complaints about crime that he hears from business leaders and residents.
“I had a conversation last night with a couple that I met while they were having dinner, and they said, ‘thank you for restoring the South Valley, we feel like it’s a crown jewel of the community now,’ ” he said in an interview last month. “They go ‘our property has increased, our property value, my quality of life has increased, I feel safe. I have never seen more deputies in this area than I’ve ever seen in the history that I’ve been alive.’ And so, for me, Albuquerque deserves the same thing. It’s just not being provided to them.”
What Gonzales — who is running on a “tough on crime” platform — mentions less is data. Gonzales, a Democrat, is running against incumbent and fellow Democrat Tim Keller, and Republican Eddy Aragon.
The Sheriff’s Office has not held regular media briefings on crime statistics. Data from 2018 and 2019 has not been included in the FBI’s annual Crime in the United States report.
Because so much has been in flux, it’s hard to get an accurate, up-to-date picture of crime trends in BCSO’s jurisdiction. Gonzales said his agency does use data internally to plan operations.
Overall, it appears that crimes reported to BCSO increased between 2019 and 2020, but may be on a downward trend in 2021. By contrast, over the past few years, APD’s property crime — particularly auto theft — has been on a steady decline as violent crime has continued to rise slightly. Homicides in the city have skyrocketed, but have stayed basically steady in the unincorporated area of the county.
If he is elected mayor, Gonzales said he would absolutely expect his police chief to provide regular crime data briefings.
“I’m not here to manipulate numbers,” he said. “And I’m not here to toy with people’s public safety. People need to be told the truth about what’s going on. And any time you have a problem, you have to address the problem, right? You have to be candid.”
He said the best measure of success in fighting crime is whether people feel safer, that they’re getting adequate service, and that law enforcement is showing up when called.
‘Whatever it takes’
Gonzales’s strategy to combat violent crime in Albuquerque seems to rely on reforming the criminal justice system, empowering law enforcement to decide whether to arrest someone on a petty misdemeanor, and supporting officers “so they can do their jobs.”
For instance, he tells an anecdote about a conversation with a task force officer who took a felon in possession of a firearm to federal court after state prosecutors didn’t take the case. The 2nd Judicial District Attorney has also supported turning cases over to the federal authorities where applicable since convictions in federal court typically lead to harsher sentences and defendants are more likely to be held pending trial.
“We have to be willing to exhaust our resources and find a solution for the people because that person would again be out there terrorizing the citizens of Albuquerque instead, now that person’s going away for 20 years,” Gonzales said. “That is probably the best thing we could do for the citizens in terms of keeping them safe.”
Of course, a mayor cannot change who gets held pending trial — rules that were determined by the New Mexico Supreme Court after voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment in 2016. Gonzales said he could effect change based on his strong reputation.
“I have the trust of this community, the law enforcement community, whether it be locally or state or even federally,” he said. “So, for me, (it’s) through brokering those relationships to ensure that we’re doing a good job.”
Although Gonzales stresses the importance of collaboration, he said he didn’t want his deputies to work with Albuquerque police officers because the department operates under different policies as a result of the court-ordered reform effort that followed the Department of Justice investigation. BCSO works instead with federal agents.
“The analogy I can give you is that we were on the field playing, and they were in the stands, and sometimes in the parking lot watching the game,” Gonzales said, referring to the Albuquerque Police Department. “I really feel that, based on the compliance piece of APD, they felt they were not as supported to do their jobs. And so, for us, I didn’t want to put our deputies in the position that they were there to help them and that we were going to support each other, because that’s not the way it was working out.”
At one point, Gonzales had proposed consolidation of APD and BCSO as “one strategy possibly to get up and underneath the DOJ.”
“In order to maybe reduce and alleviate the Albuquerque Police Department from all the things that they had to comply with, it may be easier to contract out to us,” he said. “We can start training more deputies, they could start servicing people in the Albuquerque police areas, and then that would give them the opportunity to alleviate them from those and focus on compliance.”
He said he never got a response. If elected, Gonzales said he would consider consolidation because he wants “to do whatever it takes.”
For his part, Keller told the Journal, “The issue is that Albuquerque is under a DOJ consent decree and you’d have to go through the courts to actually do that. So, it’s not up to a mayor. It’s not up to a sheriff and I can’t imagine BCSO would actually voluntarily come under the DOJ. And that’s what they’d have to do.”
Instead, BCSO has undertaken dozens of saturation patrols within city limits. In response to an Inspection of Public Records Act request, the Journal received tactical orders for 35 operations undertaken between July 2020 and June 2021 within city limits. The patrols involve deputies flooding an area in order “to seek out and intercept criminal activity,” and reflect Gonzales’s strategy of listening to residents.
“Community and Business Representatives will be invited to the briefing in order to share any concerns or potential high-crime areas that they would like to be addressed during the operation,” the plans state. “Community involvement is a key factor in obtaining intelligence on criminal activity in the area.”
BCSO does not let the police department — which is mainly responsible for fighting crime in the city — know when the operations will occur, according to an APD spokesman.
In response to questions about why these operations — held between one and five times a month for the past year — haven’t moved the needle on crime within the city limits, Gonzales said it’s because they’re only doing it periodically.
“I can’t do it on a daily basis,” he said. “And there is no obligation for us to do it. And, I mean, we have a $50 million budget, but if they would have turned that $250 million budget, I would gladly answer your question then I would be fully responsible for the crime situation in the city.”
Gonzales, who calls himself and his agency “people-centric” and “victim-centric,” said he loves when his deputies go out to talk to business owners about the issues they’re seeing.
“It might be something that might be more of a social issue. It might be homelessness, it might be something other than crime,” he said. “Then, we’re just trying to figure out, how do we bridge that gap for the person that’s having that issue, and that resource to get them help? So, it’s not all about policing.”
He said that, as mayor, he would address such underlying issues as poverty and addiction that often lead to crime by creating more opportunities through community centers, working with local technology hubs, such as Sandia Labs, and bringing new businesses.
‘Executing a plan for the city’
Last year, the county settled two high-dollar settlements as a result of shootings by BCSO deputies.
In March, the county settled a suit filed by the family of Elisha Lucero for $4 million. Lucero, 28, was experiencing mental health issues and reportedly armed with a kitchen knife when she ran out at deputies in front of her home in 2018. She was shot by deputies at least 21 times, according to an autopsy report. Her sister has become a vocal critic of the Sheriff’s Office and an advocate for police reform.
The county also settled state and federal lawsuits involving a 2017 incident when a deputy fired into a truck, killing the driver and a passenger following a cross-town chase. The families of Martin Jim and Isaac Padilla, as well as two passengers, received a total of $3.3 million.
At the time of the settlement in the Lucero case, a BCSO spokesman said the agency was “sickened by the amount of the settlement agreement.”
Gonzales, at the time, said BCSO had a commitment to protecting children and families, and, “as such, we responded legally and appropriately while in communication with the family to protect the welfare of all involved.”
Gonzales’ terms as sheriff have been marked by his resistance to body cameras. For years, he has said they are not necessary and he would rather invest funding in other ways.
That changed last summer when the state Legislature passed a law requiring all law enforcement officers to wear cameras.
In contrast to APD, BCSO has not routinely informed the media and the public when a homicide investigation is launched. Instead, it has waited until an arrest has been made.
At one point, the agency responded to a Journal reporter’s questions by posting his email on Facebook as an example of “how hostile the media is toward Law Enforcement.”
The Journal published articles about the issue in June.
Gonzales said he was not aware that his spokespeople were not regularly releasing information on critical incidents. He promised that, if he is elected mayor, he would expect the police department to do so.
“I have no issue with that. If there’s filtering, and you’re telling me, then I’m aware of it now,” he said. “I didn’t realize that was going on.”
If elected, Gonzales said he would take more of a back seat when it comes to crime and instead let whomever he chooses as chief of police manage APD.
He said he would not automatically toss out the crime-fighting initiatives his predecessor started.
“It’s really (about) surrounding yourself with the right people, professionals, competent people, people who understand and know subject matter areas in different parts of the city so that you can support them to be successful,” Gonzales said. “So, that’s what my role would be. It’s really being a good listener, asking the right questions, and then having a vision and executing a plan for the city.”