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Mayor Richard Berry and Police Chief Gorden Eden said police acted with great restraint after a peaceful protest over police shootings turned angry Sunday, ending with at least four arrests and police in riot gear unleashing tear gas on crowds at two sites in Albuquerque.
In interviews and back-to-back news conferences Monday afternoon, Berry and Eden said police performed professionally even as some protesters sought out confrontations with officers, including spitting on them and preventing an officer from leaving his car. Police said two protesters carried assault rifles.
Eden said what started out as a peaceful protest by an estimated 350 people at Civic Plaza and Albuquerque Police Department headquarters devolved into “lawless acts by a very angry mob” that required police intervention to protect the protesters and the public.
An organizer with one activist group said it was APD that escalated tensions by deploying police in riot gear.
Berry said police decided to use tear gas and to make arrests after the behavior of the protesters changed to “engaging in illegal activity.” He drew a distinction between the “original protesters” who expressed their opinions through legal protest and “some people who joined in for the wrong reasons.”
“I think it’s important to talk about those individuals who went from a law-abiding protest to illegal activities,” Berry said. “The original protesters may not have been the ones engaging in illegal activity.”
Marchers took over much of Downtown and Central Avenue near the University of New Mexico on Sunday in response to the March 16 fatal shooting by police officers of James M. Boyd, a homeless and mentally ill man, in the Sandia Foothills. Protesters said they were calling for justice for Boyd and accountability for Albuquerque police.
The rally began about noon. After 9 p.m., police used tear gas on crowds on Central Avenue near UNM, and later near APD headquarters at Fifth and Roma NW.
The mayor said that he wasn’t aware of any serious injuries among police or protesters but that one officer suffered a minor knee injury.
Eden, who has been on the job for about a month, said he was at a loss to explain why a peaceful crowd became what he called a “mob.”
“They protested peacefully at Civic Plaza and in front of the Albuquerque Police Department headquarters,” Eden said. “The crowd began to disperse and, for some unknown reason, after they left here, they went to the area around Central Avenue.”
The chief showed videos and still photos of unruly protesters blocking traffic on Central, preventing a police officer from getting out of his cruiser and stopping traffic on Interstate 25. Protesters interfered with paramedics who were responding to a traffic crash on Central beneath the I-25 overpass, he said.
“The mob did in fact obstruct emergency response into that area,” Eden said. “They also blocked the emergency room access to Presbyterian Hospital and took over Central Avenue.”
Examples of illegal behavior cited by Berry and Eden included a man who lay down on Interstate 25, another who lay on the hood of a car and those who sprayed graffiti on public buildings.
Little damage was evident along Central Avenue on Monday morning, other than graffiti denouncing APD sprayed in red paint on the department’s substation at Monte Vista and Central – which was painted over by city crews before 10 a.m.
A coordinator with the Albuquerque chapter of the ANSWER coalition said he believed police escalated the situation by showing up in riot gear.
“When the marchers did the same thing that marchers everywhere do, which is march in the streets, the police responded by deploying their riot officers, which really escalated the situation,” coordinator Chris Banks said. “It’s a continuation of the police’s violence, in our view. We think eventually when they deployed tear gas, that was really a product of their escalation.”
Banks said that when protesters did get out of control – such as when the man showed up with an assault-style rifle and the when the police substation was vandalized – fellow protesters de-escalated the situation and kept the peace.
Berry and Eden said protesters tried to goad officers into responding, in one case by spitting in an officer’s face. Another officer thought he was struck in the back by a rock, he said.
Gilbert Montaño, the mayor’s chief of staff, said two protesters carried “automatic rifles” during the protest, and one was outfitted with gear and “fully loaded,” he said. Police have opened an investigation into the latter protester.
Officers were able to mitigate tensions between officers and protesters for much of the day, Berry said.
“The fact that they were able to de-escalate those situations speaks highly for their professionalism,” he said of the officers.
Eden showed a video of one protester – clad in body armor – armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. The man loaded the weapon and urged onlookers to “use force against the police officers,” Eden said.
Police know the assault rifle was real because officers had seen it and a review of video of the man – who put the rifle back into a van after the crowd disapproved of his actions – confirmed it.
The man disappeared into the crowd, Eden said, and was not arrested.
There were arrests, however.
“I’d like to clarify some information: There were only four people arrested by Albuquerque Police Department as a result of this mob,” Eden said, and all four were charged with disorderly conduct.
News reports earlier Monday cited Metropolitan Detention Center records, which show six people arrested for disorderly conduct around the same time along Central Avenue.
Berry also said the city experienced a “robust cyberattack” on Sunday that shut down portions of the city’s and APD’s websites. City officials are repairing the damage, he said.
Berry said the protests are unlikely to have a direct impact on investigations underway in Boyd’s shooting death.
“Getting to the bottom of the Foothills shooting is a top priority, and it will not change, regardless of circumstances,” he said.
Berry said that besides the standard multiagency investigation, the city asked the U.S. Department of Justice to review the case. The Justice Department has confirmed that it is investigating. The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office also reviews fatal police shootings.
“We will get to the bottom of it,” he said. “We will find out what happened and why.”
City Councilor Rey Garduño, who said he was watching the protest march about 4:30 p.m. Sunday near the university, said he eventually stepped into the fray in an effort to de-escalate tensions.
“By 5:15 p.m., it was obvious that the tensions were quite high and that there was not going to be any resolution quickly and, if there was one, it was not going to be a healthy one because it was very confrontational,” Garduño said Monday.
“One of the organizers of the protest asked me if I could speak to the group, and I did. It was not a message; it was a plea for the people to move to the sidewalks.”
He said the police and most of the protesters showed a good deal of restraint throughout the day.
“There was a concerted effort to make sure no one got hurt. For that, I am grateful,” he said.
Journal staff writer Nicole Perez contributed to this report.