The Albuquerque Police Department is taking the unusual step of using its official Facebook page to criticize local judges and the news media because, officials said, the police are too often blamed for crime in the city.
The department in recent months has started to use its online page, which is operated by the department’s public information officers, as the primary means of communicating with the public and local media.
But some posts target specific actions by judges and the media, criticizing them and attracting hundreds of harsh comments from the public. In some cases, those comments have called for violence against judges or accused reporters of crimes.
APD says that unless a comment contains profanity, the department has no plans to delete it. In one post that has remained since February, a department Facebook follower wrote: “I would most definitely punch this judge in the face.” Another follower from earlier this month crowed: “I hope the next victim is a member of the judge’s family.”
APD spokeswoman Celina Espinoza said, “We have to tell the whole story of what’s happening in our community. There are a lot of fingers pointed at APD, APD, APD, crime rates, crime rates, statistics, statistics, data. What is the entire encompassing story behind all of those things?”
Last week, Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden seemed to echo that sentiment in a luncheon speech to the Greater Albuquerque Innkeepers Association. He said the department will try to raise awareness about the judges it thinks are soft on criminals.
“I know it sounds like I’m blaming it all on the judges,” he said about crime in the city, “because I am.”
The talk covered security at the coming Gathering of Nations Powwow, but the chief digressed into other topics, including frustration with some judges and the media.
He said media coverage of police that is critical of officers is preventing him from fully staffing the department.
The Journal reviewed Facebook pages for other law enforcement agencies in the state – including the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Farmington, Santa Fe and Las Cruces – and couldn’t find a post that was critical of a judge or a news media outlet.
One of APD’s posts that took aim at the media came after last week’s tragic collision involving a cruiser driven by an officer responding to a report of a violent crime in progress and a vehicle containing a mother and two children.
The department in a Facebook post accused KOB-TV of refusing to give investigators video of the crash it had obtained from a nearby business. KOB alerted police to the existence of the video, and the station’s news director said she would have provided police with the video if they had asked her for it. APD has since taken the post down.
In another Facebook post, followers are offered a link to an APD news release that says police were frustrated with a local judge’s decision to release, without bond, a woman accused of a violent felony. Neither entry mentioned the judge’s seven-page explanation for doing so, which included that she was following the recommendation of Pretrial Services, the alleged victim and the Children, Youth and Families Department.
Espinoza acknowledged that the posts don’t always include all the facts. But she said the media can dig further into the cases.
“That’s the role of the media,” Espinoza said. “That’s why we put these things out there. You’ll see that the public will research, that people will look into these cases, reporters at your outlet look into these cases and are able to determine more information and look into it further.”
Espinoza said that because APD gets so much criticism for criminal justice issues in Albuquerque, the department will continue to highlight other parts of the system, such as judges.
After the Journal called City Hall late Friday afternoon to ask for Mayor Richard Berry’s opinion of the department’s Facebook posts, APD spokesman Fred Duran provided the Journal with a statement that said, “In the midst of a tragic event this past week, our staff used social media in an editorial manner. This is not the highest and best use of social media and we understand that.”
Court officials also declined to comment last week.
Early on the evening of April 17, an Albuquerque police officer driving north on Eubank in response to a 911 call collided with an SUV as it was turning east from Eubank onto Indian School.
Joel Anthony Suina, 6, later died, and his 9-year-old sister, Ariana, and mother, Antoinette, were injured. The officer suffered injuries to his leg and remained in the hospital late last week, according to police.
Jen French, an investigative reporter with KOB, obtained a video recording of the crash from a local business. She dropped it off at the news station and went to the hospital to work the story from there, said Michelle Donaldson, the news director.
Albuquerque police posted on Facebook later that night that KOB “refused” to provide Albuquerque police a copy of the video and that the station was “irresponsible.”
That post was then followed with more than a hundred comments, many of which said KOB and other local media were “vermin” and called for reporters to be charged with crimes.
Donaldson said her office received several threatening phone calls and messages after the Facebook post.
“We live in this time right now where there is so much us vs. them when it comes to the media,” she said. “It’s unfortunate people are at that point.”
Donaldson said the station would have made law enforcement a copy of the video had officials asked for one. She said APD never asked the station for a copy of the surveillance video.
Espinoza said investigators approached Caleb James, another KOB reporter, at the scene of the accident and asked him for the video. But Donaldson said James didn’t have it.
Police were able to get a copy, and they provided it to all the local media outlets.
Espinoza said police officials met with KOB last week and the department decided to take down the post. But she said the department stands by the message.
“When we have an investigation that is of this standard, you have a family that is in dire condition, we have an officer that is in critical condition and we have an investigation that needs to be thoroughly put together,” Espinoza said. “There was a key piece of evidence that it seemed was more important to get out on TV as opposed to allowing investigators to view it and gather evidence from it. What is the role there?”
Heath Haussamen, a board member of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said APD’s comments about KOB were another example of an Albuquerque police trend of criticizing the media.
“KOB obtained the video legitimately and had every right to use it,” he said in a statement. “The police department has a lot of gall to ask for what amounts to a favor from the media after consistently showing so much disrespect for our critical role in society and for the people we’re working to inform and educate. The video showed a crash involving a public employee that led to serious injuries. Broadcasting such a video is in the public interest.”
He also said the SPJ chapter opposes the Police Department’s use of social media as its main medium for distributing information and its practice of often refusing to answer reporters’ follow-up questions.
“The APD is free to tweet and post whatever they like, but resorting to social media and bypassing journalists is a practice our chapter opposes because it cuts out the role of journalists – who are stand-ins for the public – to ask questions of powerful officials about policies, news etc.,” he said. “(APD’s use of Facebook is) propaganda, not transparency.”
Another recent APD Facebook post that generated public outcry involved an attempted murder charge against Violet Andrews, 43.
The post contained a link to the city’s website that included details about the case and the judge’s decision. Court filings show the police left vital information about the charge out of their Facebook post and the online news release.
Andrews shot her husband, Robert Salinas, in the stomach at a Central Avenue motel in July last year. Both Andrews and Salinas said the shooting was unintentional, and she wasn’t charged with a crime at the time.
But a detective last month interviewed the couple’s 6- and 9-year-old children. He reported the children said their parents were fighting and heard Andrews say, “I hope this gun is loaded” before they heard a gunshot, according to a criminal complaint.
Andrews was arrested earlier this month, and prosecutors moved to have her held without bail. A judge denied the request.
“We have also learned she is trying to get her children back from CYFD custody,” the Police Department’s online news release said about the judge’s decision. “This is not the person that we want on the streets of Albuquerque or to be around children. Detectives did an outstanding job with this investigation and show frustration when violent offenders like this are released from custody.”
But Salinas, the victim, had filed an affidavit saying the shooting was an accident. He said he and Andrews have been in a relationship for 19 years and Andrews has been his primary caretaker since he was shot.
“I depend on Violet for a large number of medical and daily life tasks,” Salinas said in the affidavit. “… Violet Andrews is not a danger to me and I am not afraid of her.”
And Pretrial Services had recommended that Andrews be released on her own recognizance because she scored a zero when she was analyzed using a pretrial risk assessment instrument, which ranks defendants on a scale of zero to 15, with zero being the lowest risk.
CYFD records also show that the agency is planning to reunite the family. Andrews has been complying with CYFD’s treatment plan, which includes weekly drug tests, according to District Judge Cindy Leos’ order denying detention for Andrews.
Max Pines, Andrews’ attorney, said Andrews clearly was a good candidate for conditions of release, as she has been living with and caring for the alleged victim for the past nine months.
“I think (the case) is an abuse of power,” he said.
Espinoza said Albuquerque police made the post about Andrews so that people will learn more about the case against her. She said the department is not trying to put political pressure on judges.
“That’s a woman that shot her husband in front of their children,” Espinoza said. The post is “simply there so people can look further into these cases and find that information and make their decisions.”
After the post, the department’s Facebook followers misidentified the judge who made the decision and then started rallying for the wrong judge to be voted off the bench.
APD did not correct the misinformation.
In previous cases in which police have questioned judges’ decisions, APD’s Facebook followers have made veiled threats against the judges.
Espinoza said the department will take down comments if people use profanity.
“Because it’s a public page, if we start picking and choosing what goes up and what comes down and what is said and what isn’t said – that’s not the role of this page,” Espinoza said. “It’s a public forum.”
Journal business reporter Taylor Hood contributed to this report.