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City leaders blast APD reverse drug sting

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Mayor Richard Berry says he won’t order Albuquerque police to abandon reverse drug stings – the practice of selling drugs to people, then arresting them.

But he said he’s glad the department is moving on its own to re-evaluate how it carries out such operations.

“I’m not going to get after them for doing something they thought was right,” Berry said in a recent interview, “but I think it’s good that we’re moving in a different direction.”

Police spokeswoman Celina Espinoza defended APD’s use of reverse stings, but said the department would attempt to stay away from reverse stings involving homeless people.

In interviews last week, a broad cross-section of city councilors expressed serious reservations about reverse stings – especially a recent operation in which undercover officers sold small amounts of drugs to homeless people, then arrested them.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Councilor Klarissa Peña, a West Side Democrat. “It’s a shame – embarrassing, kind of.”

Republicans also voiced concern.

“Given the shortage of officers and the demands of the Department of Justice, aiding or enticing homeless people to buy $5 of crack is probably not worth our time or resources,” said City Council President Dan Lewis, a Republican from the West Side.

The debate over the reverse drug sting comes as Berry, a Republican, touts the success of several city programs launched under his administration to help homeless people and panhandlers. The city has won national recognition for offering day jobs to panhandlers and finding places to live for people the most at risk of dying on the streets.

Berry said his office had no part in the reverse drug sting.

“This wasn’t a (tactical) plan that came out of the mayor’s office,” he said. “We rely on our public safety professionals to go out and use their experience and judgment to keep our community safe. Somebody in the Police Department thought it was a good idea to do that.”

Reverse stings have happened for decades, he pointed out. But the May 9 sting, at Central and Pennsylvania, triggered criticism from prosecutors, defense attorneys and community leaders.

Bishop Michael Vono, head of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, said it was inappropriate to target “people on the margins of our society – especially people experiencing homelessness and/or mental illness.”

“This amounts,” he said, “to a criminalization of drug addiction, homelessness and mental illness. Reverse sting operations targeting the most vulnerable are especially alarming, considering that people experiencing homelessness have been disproportionately affected by APD’s excessive use of force in Albuquerque.”

Deputy Police Chief Eric Garcia suggested to city councilors in a meeting on May 16 that APD plans “to focus more on people who are not necessarily the homeless” when it carries out similar undercover operations.

His comments came after City Councilor Pat Davis, a Democrat from the Southeast Heights, urged the police administration to avoid targeting low-level offenders and homeless people in reverse drug stings.

In an interview, City Councilor Brad Winter, a Republican from the Northeast Heights, had a similar concern.

“To target transient people,” he said, “it just seems like there are better ways to use our police resources than that.”

APD officials say reverse stings like the May 9 operation can reduce crime. Taking enforcement action against drug-buyers in a particular area, if well known, will reduce the demand for drugs in the area, they said.

APD’s Espinoza said the May 9 reverse sting was conducted during the day, so overtime expenses will be minimal, if there are any. The department won’t reveal the number of officers involved for safety reasons, she said.

Most of APD’s drug work is focused on suppliers and dealers, Espinoza said, but targeting buyers is a valid law-enforcement strategy.

“We strive to provide alternate resources to marginalized people in our community and will do our utmost not to involve homeless residents in reverse operations,” Espinoza said.

Albuquerque police are carrying out a series of reforms required under a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which concluded in 2014 that APD had a pattern of violating people’s rights through the use of force.

The city is also working to boost the size of its police force, which has shrunk about 23 percent over the last six years.