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Aftermath of council meeting shutdown

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

It was all planned out, down to the number of people willing to go to jail.

David Correia – the university professor who led Monday’s takeover of the City Council meeting – said the protesters who tried to serve a “people’s arrest warrant” on Police Chief Gorden Eden had no intention of actually taking him into custody.

The goal, Correia said, was to hand Eden paperwork charging him with crimes against humanity in connection with recent police shootings, among other things.

Would it have been legal to make such a “citizen’s arrest”?

Correia insists such arrests are legal with a long history in New Mexico.

But Mayor Richard Berry’s top administrator said there is no such authority and a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office said he doubted the legality of citizens arresting the police chief.

Rob Perry, the top administrator under the mayor and a former city attorney, said the protesters could have faced charges of battery on a police officer if they’d actually put their hands on Eden or tried to arrest him.

“There’s no such thing as a citizen’s arrest in New Mexico,” Perry said.

The debate over citizen’s arrests is just one of the legal questions raised by the rowdy demonstration that shut down Monday’s council meeting as city employees fled the chambers.

The chief got up and left the meeting as Correia was at the podium addressing the council, and other protesters approached Eden with arrest papers. Protesters continued to jeer, wave signs and ignore any pleas for control. Disrupting a City Council meeting is illegal under a city ordinance, though no one was arrested Monday.

City Council President Ken Sanchez said it was up to police to make arrest decisions, although he said he believed police handled the situation the best they could.

Berry’s administration says under council rules, it was up to Sanchez to decide whether arrests should occur.

In any case, Correia said five of the roughly 40 protesters were willing to face arrest if authorities had ordered them out of the chambers. The remainder would have left as instructed, he said.

“This was organized as a peaceful, nonviolent protest that would include civil disobedience,” Correia said.

While it may have been nonviolent, it was loud and rowdy. At one point, a person threw a stack of papers into the air. When protesters ignored Sanchez’s attempts to restore order, he called a five-minute recess. When he tried to reconvene the meeting, protesters were still loud and jeering, and he ended the meeting.

That’s when protesters occupied the councilors’ chairs and called their own citizens’ council.

Linked to history

Correia, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico, insists citizen’s arrests are legal in some circumstances and have been used in past decades by land-grant and Chicano activists.

“We take that tactic purposefully as a way to connect this to a longer struggle against police violence,” Correia said in an interview Tuesday.

UNM issued a statement saying that Correia was not representing the university.

A spokesman for state Attorney General Gary King said citizen’s arrests are recognized under common law, but there are restrictions.

“The practice is generally discouraged because the arresting citizens expose themselves to civil lawsuits for unlawful detention, perhaps even kidnapping,” King spokesman Phil Sisneros said. “It seems likely that a citizen’s arrest of the chief would not have been legal anyway.”

A spokeswoman for District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said local prosecutors weren’t immediately able to find authority for citizen’s arrests in state statutes.

What is clear is that disrupting a City Council meeting is prohibited by ordinance. It’s illegal to “disturb any meeting of the City Council” or to “behave in a disorderly manner at such meeting,” according to the ordinance. Violators can face a fine of up to $500 and up to 90 days in jail.

Sanchez said police “probably made the right call” in not arresting anyone Monday because doing so might have inflamed the protesters and provoked a “riot.” He said some councilors want the police to cite people involved in Monday’s disturbance, but that decision is up to APD.

As to who could decide whether anyone should have been arrested Monday night, Perry said that would have been up to Council President Sanchez. He cited the council’s rules of procedure, which say the president: “Shall preserve order and decorum and have general direction of the” meeting chambers.

Sanchez “runs the meeting,” Perry said. “I don’t think it’s fair to try to put that (arrest) decision on the Albuquerque Police Department.”

Sanchez flatly disagreed. Police, he said, could have arrested someone if they felt it was necessary.

“I’m not a law-enforcement officer,” Sanchez said. “I’m not certified in law enforcement and do not have that authority. I think it’s totally disingenuous for (Perry) to throw it back on the council.”

Chris Melendrez, a senior policy adviser for the council and a lawyer, said “enforcing criminal ordinances is an executive function” and not up to the council.

As was the case Monday night, at least two police officers are typically present at City Council meetings to provide security. The police chief and other top brass are usually at the meetings, too, sitting in the audience, where they can be available if councilors have questions.

In recent weeks, other employees who provide basic security throughout City Hall have been on hand, as well sometimes just one, sometimes in greater numbers.

The council meeting has been rescheduled for Thursday. Sanchez said he expects extra security on Thursday, though the details haven’t been worked out.

Correia said he isn’t planning to seize the council chambers during Thursday’s council meeting, but he said he can’t dictate what others do or forecast what will happen in future meetings.

“We’re not interested in being predictable for them,” he said.

‘Respect those chambers’

Regardless, changes are in store for future meetings.

City Councilor Trudy Jones, a former council president, said she wants stricter enforcement of the rules that govern public comment.

“Cheering and jeering, waving signs, 20 people standing – absolutely none of that should ever have been allowed to happen,” she said.

Raucous public comment is a routine part of City Council meetings. Anyone who signs up typically gets two minutes to address the council on any subject.

It’s not unusual to hear conspiracy theories about other government agencies and harsh allegations of corruption at City Hall, mixed in with more measured comments on pending city legislation.

But the public comment period has grown more dramatic in recent months, as the number of people shot and killed by Albuquerque police – 25 since the beginning of 2010 and four since mid-March – has continued to grow.

The testimony intensified particularly after the release last month of a U.S. Department of Justice report that found APD has a pattern of violating people’s rights through the use of force.

Perry made it clear he’s not happy with how the council meetings are conducted.

“I think when you permit people to bring in coffins and bullhorns, allow them to get into the personal space and face of public officials, including police executives, you allow them to mount in groups of 20 or 30 – at that point, you can expect disorder,” Perry said.