At Albuquerque meeting on police shootings, silence speaks volumes

Some activists who had signed up to speak turned their backs rather than address civic leaders

After months of protests against deadly police shootings, the Albuquerque City Council heard from outraged activists and a few police supporters Thursday night as it considered alternate ways to select the police chief.

But it heard nothing but silence from at least seven activists who had signed up to speak -- some of whom turned their backs rather than address the civic leaders. They were ejected from the council chambers, cited for criminal trespass and banned from council meetings for 90 days. That penalty seemed to surprise at least some of the council members, however, and may be altered.

“Silence is speech,” some audience members shouted, pumping their fists in the air as security ushered out the mute activists.

The backdrop for the meeting was the Albuquerque Police Department’s 25 deadly shootings since 2010, and a U.S. Justice Department report, released last month, that found many of the shootings unjustified. The report criticized police for a culture of “aggression,” saying officers often used lethal force when there was no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to themselves or others.

The most recent killing came Saturday, when Armand Martin, 50, threatened his wife and children with a gun and was shot after a five-hour  standoff with police. That shooting might appear justified in many places – Martin’s wife had called police begging for help, and he reportedly was shot while wielding two handguns. But in Albuquerque, it merely reopened old wounds -- especially since police released less than a minute of police camera footage, none of which showed the shooting.

The council had tried to meet Monday, but adjourned early when rowdy protesters took over the meeting — sitting in council members’ chairs and even eating their Girl Scout cookies.

As Thursday’s meeting began, Council President Ken Sanchez warned audience members they would be evicted if they misbehaved. “If we don't have order tonight, I will clear the room,” he said. “Please be respectful.”

Rules of decorum would be strictly enforced, he said. No disruptive public outbursts, props or signs would be allowed, except signs that could be displayed on an overhead projector during presentations.

Protesters wore red to symbolize the blood of those killed by police. They sat in seats where Albuquerque police brass and city staff usually sit. Security officers kept a close watch on the group.

Currently, the police chief is chosen by the mayor. Chief Gorden Eden Jr. was appointed by Mayor Richard J. Berry in February.

One proposal before the council would amend the city charter to require council approval of the mayor’s choice for the police and fire chiefs. A competing proposal would make the police chief an elective office. The measures require a second reading before the council can vote, but the modified appointment proposal seemed to have more support. Action was deferred until May 19.

Residents who spoke seemed divided over the options. Some said appointing a chief approved by the mayor and council was a better idea than holding an election because that way the governing body could be held accountable for the chief’s actions.

Steven Robert Allen, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, was among those who addressed the council. “I think most of us can agree that the residents have lost the trust of the city it serves,” Allen said. “What we learned from the Department of Justice is that we have deep systemic problems in this department and we need deep systemic solutions to the problem.”

Allen said tackling the issue of how Albuquerque’s police chief should be selected is a small step, but a step in the right direction.

Earlier in the meeting, the first member of the public at the lectern had signed up to speak on a minimum wage ordinance. Wearing a red shirt, Silvio Dell’Angela stood silently for more than a minute as, on an overhead projector, he displayed a statement saying he was “outraged” that the council’s new rules curtailed the public’s right to “protest peacefully.”

One of his neighbors was fatally shot by Albuquerque police in 2010.

As a security officer came to escort him out of the council chamber, Dell’Angela said, “I still have 36 seconds.”

Several speakers followed his example when the police issue came up for public comment. Most turned their backs on the council and raised their fists until security took them away.

Councilor Rey Garduño asked Sanchez why speakers could not remain silent during their allotted two minutes.  Because it violates the rules of decorum, Sanchez said.

Mike Gomez, whose son Alan was killed by police, put his son’s picture on the overhead projector and said, “I love you. I miss you a lot.” Then he turned his back on the dais.

When asked to address the council, he said, “You’re not worth addressing.” He added, “Blood is on your hands. ... [Born] April 25, 1989, and died May 10, 2011.” Then he raised his fists in the air, and security escorted him out.

The Justice Department cited the killing of Gomez’s son as an example of officers violating police policy that permits deadly force only where there is an immediate threat of death or serious physical injury to officers or members of the public. Gomez was not a threat because he was unarmed, the Justice Department said.

Most of Thursday’s speakers criticized the police department, but two supported the agency.

“The protesters keep beating a dead horse but they don’t give solutions,” Jennifer Otte told the council.

Otte said in an interview before the meeting that Albuquerque is safer because of the police, and credited the department with saving her from “alcohol issues.”

“I’m living proof that Albuquerque police [are] doing their job,” she said.

Another speaker, Kenneth Ellis, told the council that officers had killed his son. Kenneth Ellis III, a 25-year-old Iraq war veteran with post traumatic stress disorder, was shot to death in 2010. His case also was cited in the Justice Department report, which said officers had acted unreasonably because Ellis posed a danger only to himself when he held a gun to his head.

Councilor Garduño apologized to Ellis for his son's death. 

“I hope you know how much in solidarity I am with all of you,” Garduño said.

Then he said, “Sorry,” and Ellis seemed to tear up.

“You are the first official to say that to me formally,” he said. “Thank you very much.”

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