Tensions high at NM council meeting on police shootings
Security officials escorted some people from an Albuquerque City Council meeting amid new rules
By Russell Contreras
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Security officials escorted some people from an Albuquerque City Council meeting amid new rules designed to avoid the sort of angry confrontation that broke out earlier this week over a spate of deadly police shootings.
The special meeting started quietly Thursday with the council president spelling out the rules for the night. Those included no signs, props or any other campaign material.
The Albuquerque Police Department has been under scrutiny over 39 police shootings in the city since 2010, prompting a harsh report earlier this year from the U.S. Justice Department that highlighted excessive use of force. Protests this week followed a weekend shooting that killed an armed man after a SWAT standoff.
Public comment was also limited to the legislation the council was prepared to consider, including measures near the bottom of the agenda that would affect the hiring of the police chief.
"If we don't have order tonight, I will clear the room. Please be respectful," Council President Ken Sanchez said.
Several people decided to take a stand by turning their backs to the council members and refusing to speak during their turns at the podium. Before being escorted out of the chambers by security, they raised their fists, prompting supporters in the crowd to do the same.
Some citations were issued Thursday night for criminal trespassing but it was immediately clear how many. Those who received the citations will not be allowed to return to City Council for 90 days.
Sanchez and Councilor Rey Garduno said that was not an intention of the rules and they would look into the matter.
On Monday, demonstrators took over the regularly scheduled council meeting, chanting for the ouster of the police chief, shouting at council members and causing so much disruption that the panel's president adjourned the meeting.
Protesters also tried to serve a "people's arrest warrant" on Police Chief Gorden Eden.
Activist Andres Valdez called Monday's protest a "coup d'etat" that was needed because councilors had refused to listen to citizen complaints about the police.
The latest protest also highlighted the dilemma facing Albuquerque police. Eden was hired just three months ago to bring reform to the troubled department, which recently implemented changes such as lapel-mounted cameras on officers to lead to more transparency about police actions.
But video of recent shootings, especially one in March involving a knife-wielding homeless camper, only inflamed tensions once the footage went viral. And police insist that the suspect in the weekend shooting was a threat because he was armed and putting his family and others in danger.
Deputy Chief Eric Garcia stressed that officers patiently negotiated with suspect Armand Martin and attempted to de-escalate the situation but had no other choice when he exited his home with handguns.
On Monday, protesters called for a citizen's arrest of Eden, charging him with "harboring fugitives from justice at the Albuquerque Police Department" and for "crimes against humanity" in connection with recent police shootings. The police chief quickly left the meeting after the citizens' arrest was announced, and no protesters tried to apprehend him. Had anyone touched him, authorities said they could have faced charges of battery on a police officer.
A state attorney general's office spokesman said it was likely illegal for citizens to arrest a police chief.
The debate over whether the police chief should be elected or approved by the council is expected to stretch over the coming months. The council did not take any final action Thursday, but Sanchez said some version of the proposal will likely come before voters this fall.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press
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