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New Mexico governor warns federal agents against ‘unaccountable military-style’ tactics

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales and Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith
Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales, left, and Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith wait for an event to begin July 22 in the White House.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Trump’s decision to send federal agents to Albuquerque prompted immediate concern among New Mexico’s Democratic officials over federal overreach and the potential for civil rights abuses in a city that has wrestled with issues of police brutality and reforms under a consent decree with the Department of Justice.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Atty. Gen. Hector Balderas, both Democrats, said they would actively monitor federal law-enforcement operations for any civil rights violations, while Albuquerque-based Dist. Atty. Raul Torrez said federal agents must stay within their traditional crime-fighting roles.

“If the Trump administration wishes to antagonize New Mexicans and Americans with authoritarian, unnecessary and unaccountable military-style ‘crackdowns,’ they have no business whatsoever in New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

The Trump administration is facing a growing backlash — in the courts and on the streets — to sending federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security to Portland, Ore., where protests have spiraled into chaos, and vowing to do the same in other Democratic-led cities.

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At the White House on Wednesday, Trump and U.S. Atty. Gen. William Barr focused on an open wound in the law-enforcement community — the unsolved shooting death of the mother of two New Mexico state police officers — in announcing that federal agents would surge into Albuquerque and other U.S. cities.

Barr said 35 agents are being assigned to New Mexico’s most populous city. Then Barr and Trump turned the microphone over to Sam Vigil, who recounted how, last November, he found that his wife, Jackie, had been shot and died in their Albuquerque driveway as she left to exercise at a gym.

“My wife didn’t deserve to be killed that way,” Vigil said. “We desperately need some help at going after crime rates.”

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Barr drew a distinction between the federal response in Portland and the agents being dispatched to cities such as Albuquerque in coordination with local law enforcement.

“This is a different kind of operation, obviously, than the tactical teams we use to defend against riots and mob violence,” Barr said. “The operations we’re discussing today are very different. They are classic crime-fighting.”

Trump said crime is spiraling out of control in American cities — including Democrat-led Albuquerque and Chicago. Compared with other years, crime in 2020 is down overall.

A former New Mexico police officer has been charged with second-degree murder after a detainee he had placed in a chokehold died.

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The Democratic sheriff of New Mexico’s most populous county, Bernalillo, which includes Albuquerque, traveled to the White House for discussion of the initiative — prompting a string of rebukes from fellow Democrats.

Sheriff Manny Gonzales — who has been at odds on issues of policing, gun control and police body cameras with Lujan Grisham and Albuquerque’s Democratic mayor — defended the visit as an effort to secure federal assistance for a community contending with persistent crime, the COVID-19 pandemic and bursts of late-night rioting in downtown Albuquerque in June.

“For us, it’s much needed and we need to further our partnership. ... This administration listened,” Gonzales said by telephone Wednesday from Washington.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, called on Gonzales to resign amid uncertainty over the consequences of the sheriff’s White House visit.

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An iconic image has emerged on Twitter since early Saturday morning in Portland, when a woman wearing nothing but a mask and cap strode toward federal agents as they fired tear gas at protesters — a surreal image of human vulnerability in the face of an overpowering force.

“Instead of collaborating with the Albuquerque Police Department, the sheriff is inviting the president’s storm troopers into Albuquerque,” Heinrich said in a statement.

Gonzales said he would not resign and called Heinrich’s comments “political guerrilla tactics.”

New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said the federal response is appropriate given local crime rates, evidence of human trafficking in a border state and the need for adequate security surrounding national defense installations in Albuquerque and at Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia National Laboratories.

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“Calling these federal agents storm troopers, there is nothing further from the truth,” Pearce said. “That’s the problem with the deep partisanship that’s dividing the country right now. It’s asinine, to tell you the truth.”

Amid a wave of national protests over policing practices, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller has announced a proposal to create a city agency focusing on community safety by deploying social workers and other civilian professionals with a focus on violence prevention, mental health and homelessness.

Albuquerque authorities have struggled for years to contain both violent crime and police brutality.

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The Albuquerque Police Department began implementing policing reforms years ago under a prior administration as part of a consent decree with the Justice Department. Federal authorities in 2014 issued a scathing report in response to a series of deadly police shootings in the city that pointed to patterns of excessive force, constitutional violations and a lack of training and oversight of its officers.


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