Albuquerque’s people are struggling with poverty, mental illness and drugs – and have had enough ofa force that has killed 25 in four years, reports Rory Carroll
The bloodstains have faded but bullet holes remain etched in the peach-coloured wall where Mary Hawkes, a troubled 19-year-old, died in a blast of gunfire. Two crosses, a teddy bear, some candles, plastic flowers and polystyrene cups – she liked her soda – formed an improvised shrine on the pavement this week.
A poster showed an image of her hugging a dog, and messages read: “RIP Mary. God bless U and your family”; “Never forgotten”; “She was never unloved”; and “Beautiful girl lost. Don’t shoot to kill.” Municipal workers have painted over other messages, which accused the Albuquerque police department of murder.
The killing happened at 5.50am on 21 April. The sun had yet to rise over the Sandia mountains – this city on the edge of the Chihuahuan desert was still in darkness. Hawkes was pounding down Zuni Street, pursued by officers who suspected her of earlier stealing a truck.
“I heard sirens. I thought it was an ambulance,” said Maria Gonzalez, 45, who lives in a trailer on the other side of the wall. “Then I heard shots. I told my husband to duck. We didn’t know what was happening.”
According to police, Hawkes stopped and pointed a handgun at an officer who was closing in on foot. He fired, killing her on the spot. Yellow tape sealed the scene, little yellow cones marked the bullet casings, a yellow sheet covered the corpse and Mary Hawkes officially became the 24th person shot dead by the APD since 2010. This week a swat team killed Armand Martin, a 50-year-old US Air Force veteran, after a standoff at his home. He became number 25.
For a city with a population of 555,000 it is a remarkable figure, one that is fanning fears that the police have become a militarised, out-of-control cross between Robocop and Dirty Harry. In a chaotic civic revolt last week, protesters briefly seized city hall and attempted a citizens’ arrest of the police chief.
“When are they going to quit killing people and start taking them into custody?” said one of the protesters, Ken Ellis, whose son, a 25-year-old Iraq war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, was gunned down in 2010. “They have to address this issue. They can’t sweep it under the rug anymore.”
The hit TV series Breaking Bad depicted Albuquerque, a usually sleepy city dwarfed by the vast New Mexico sky, as home to fictitious meth-fuelled drug wars. Lethal police violence, however, is real. No officer has been prosecuted for unlawful killing, yet the city has paid $24m in legal settlements to victims’ relatives.
Last month the US department of justice issued a 46-page report that detailed a pattern of excessive force, including a policy of shooting at moving vehicles to disable them, and officers being allowed to use personal weapons instead of standard-issue firearms. “Officers see the guns as status symbols,” it said. “APD personnel we interviewed indicated that this fondness for powerful weapons illustrates the aggressive culture.”
Concern about police heavy-handedness is spreading. Elsewhere in New Mexico this week state police killed Arcenio Lujan, 48, outside his home after he allegedly pointed a rifle. Dozens marched on police headquarters in the Texas town of Hearne after an officer shot dead a 93-year-old woman, Pearlie Golden, who allegedly brandished a gun. Las Vegas and Los Angeles have also been rocked by anger at police shootings.
Police and sheriff departments in towns and hamlets from Iowa to Connecticut have fuelled anxiety by snapping up the Pentagon’s offer of mine-resistant ambush-protected armoured personnel vehicles, behemoths known as MRAPs, back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Albuquerque was leading the backlash even before activists chased councillors from the city chamber in Monday’s fleeting “coup d’etat”, a simmering campaign centred in the aptly nicknamed War Zone. Only a few miles from the shiny offices, hotels and cafes of downtown, where tourists munch Breaking Bad-themed doughnuts with blue icing, is a landscape of trailer parks, fast-food joints, taco stands, pawn shops, gas stations, peeling paint and bleached facades. Stand at a bus stop long enough and you will be asked for cigarettes and change, or offered drugs and knock-off clothing. The broken teeth speak volumes about poverty. The nickname is a product of decades of domestic beatings, gang feuds and drunken brawls.
In a fit of Orwellian marketing in 2009, the city renamed this sprawl of Latinos, Asians and other ethnic minorities the “international district”. The name didn’t stick. A year later locals noticed that police, never gentle, were becoming increasingly lethal. Confrontations that in the past might have ended in handcuffs instead ended with municipal tableaux of death: yellow crime scene tape, cones and sheets.
“My son was unarmed. They were watching him. They didn’t give him a chance,” said Mike Gomez, whose son Alan, 22, was shot in the doorway of his brother’s home in May 2011. “When they take away a family member it leaves a hole in your heart. All you have left is the past.” Police said they thought he was armed and holding hostages. The city accepted no liability but paid the family about $900,000 in a settlement.
There are no official figures but, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, three-quarters of those shot by the APD had psychological problems. Many were homeless, or living on the margins.
“Every time I see them I get on the floor. I’m scared of them,” said Michael Clarke, 48, who lives at the Albuquerque Rescue Mission, a shelter. “They’re taking people out left, right and centre over stupid stuff. They see a shining pin, they shoot.”
The APD did not respond to an interview request. A policeman at a Family Dollar grocery store, which had just been robbed, shook his head when approached. “No way, bro. All this stuff you guys in the media are giving us – no way can I talk.”
Some locals praised the police for keeping a semblance of order in a fraught environment. “It’s a tough job. A lot of these people have mental and addiction problems. They’re very unpredictable,” said one shelter worker, who declined to be named.
New Mexico is the second-poorest state in the US, according to census figures, and hovers at or near the bottom for jobs, nutrition and healthcare. Fatalities from drug overdoses are twice the national average. Many officers have resigned from the police over low morale and pay cuts, and their replacements, critics say, are not vetted or trained properly. They also say police videos of shootings – taken from cameras on lapels or helmets – were often incomplete or absent.
In 2011, detective Byron “Trey” Economidy prompted an outcry after shooting Jacob Mitschelen in the back after stopping him for a traffic offence. Reporters discovered that he listed his occupation on Facebook as “human waste disposal”. He was suspended for four days. Mitschelen’s family accepted a settlement of $300,000.
On it went, a cycle of killing, protest and payout, with little response from the Police Oversight Commission, city council or mayor. “We had a breakdown in the checks and balances. The establishment turned its head away,” said Joe Monahan, an Albuquerque-based political blogger.
After the department of justice began investigating in 2012, however, that began to change. In February police chief Ray Schultz was replaced by a respected outsider, Gorden Eden. After the DOJ report, the APD banned the use of personal guns and the practice of shooting to disable moving cars. Other reforms are expected.
The changes have not placated activists, who stepped up their campaign since a video surfaced in March showing police pumping bullets into James Boyd, a mentally ill homeless man. And on Monday activists attempted the symbolic arrest of Eden and occupied councillors’ seats. “A symbolic coup d’etat”, Andres Valdes, a veteran activist, said with satisfaction.
At a tense but more orderly session on Thursday, activists took turns to speak from the podium, then turned their backs on the councillors and raised fists in silent protest. Security guards and police escorted them out as one broke into the civil rights song Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round. Leading the protest, Ellis displayed a photograph of his late son, Kenneth, who had held a gun to his own head during a standoff with police which came to an end when a detective shot him in the neck.
One councillor, Rey Garduño, issued something close to a mea culpa. “For four years they have been telling us to act and we have done nothing,” he told colleagues. Turning to Ellis, he added: “I’m sorry this has happened to you.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014