Don’t call it a nickel ride, like they do in Philly. And it’s not exactly a rough ride, like the kind the cops give in Baltimore. It’s called a Nine Mile Ride in Albuquerque because that’s where the ride ends.
It begins in downtown Albuquerque, often near Steelbridge, the current name of what used to be known as the Albuquerque Rescue Mission. Or sometimes Albuquerque cops grab someone from the International District near the Albuquerque Indian Center, a place they call the “War Zone.” That’s where the ride starts.
If you want to know what happens along the way, head out onto the street. Bring water and Covid-19 masks with you because everyone living on the streets needs both desperately. “In the last three months,” one man told us “they cut every one of our water supplies. Cops carry water but they won’t give them out… They have it, they just don’t give it to you.”
Don’t just start asking questions. First give out water. Distribute masks. Then ask if the cops harass them. We went out into the streets late in the afternoon last month, just as the rain arrived to cut the heat. We met a man at a bus stop in the International District and offered him water and a mask. He thanked us, and then we asked about the cops. Before we could even finish the question he interrupted to say, “hell yeah, they harass me. It’s everyday. They sit there around the corner, watching us, watching me, and roll up on me.” He’s was sitting at a bus stop telling us that cops roll up on him at bus stops, often the only place he can find shade, and tell him to keep moving. “I’m at a bus stop,” he’ll tell them. No matter. Just keep moving.
So he keeps moving. Everyone tells us this. To be policed on the street is to be constantly on the move. It is to be constantly told by a cop you don’t belong. If you’re Native they’ll say, “Go back to the Rez.” Just keep moving.
Policing is many things and all of them are about mobility. Police arrest mobility through traffic stops and checkpoints, interrupt mobility with borders and curfews, monitor mobility by helicopter or camera, force mobility by firing tear gas or sending in police dogs.
There’s this famous essay from 1982 that most cops have probably never read even though it perfectly describes everything they do. It’s called “Broken Windows” and in it two criminologists explain the importance of mobility. They start by admitting something cops never admit. Police patrol has zero “impact on crime rates.” It doesn’t matter how many cops you send out on patrol. More patrol does not result in less crime. And yet despite this, they emphasize patrol as the fundamental police practice. And this is so because social order, they claim, is a product of police patrol. People are afraid, they write, but they’re not afraid of crime. They’re afraid of something else, something called disorder. And you find disorder, they write, wherever you find people who don’t belong.
And so cops are always on the move, out on patrol, on the beat, in pursuit, on the hunt, confronting those they decide don’t belong. People are afraid of “being bothered by disorderly people,” the Criminologists claim. And so the job of the cop is to be on the move, patrolling, in order to “elevate… the level of public order.” That sounds vague but they have something specific in mind. The job of police is to confront the “panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed” and tell them to get lost. This, they write, is the job of police. While “citizens can do a great deal, the police are plainly the key to order maintenance.” And so it is the job of police to put you in your place. If you’re out of place, however police define it, it is the job of police to keep you moving. The property owner, of course, always belongs. The “businessman was assumed to be right” in all interactions, they remind us in the essay. But the man with no good reason to be there? He must be “sent on his way.” Just keep moving.
The US Department of Justice sued the City of Albuquerque in 2014 after a lengthy investigation in which it found that the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) engaged in a widespread “pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing.” The DOJ wanted reforms to APD’s use of force policies, revamped training standards, stronger accountability mechanisms, and more crisis intervention training. The City reluctantly agreed to all of this and APD has been operating under a court-ordered, federally monitored reform process since. But nothing’s changed on the street and so we’re working as members of a group called AbolishAPD trying to find out why.
It’s mid-week in the dead of summer and we’re under a bridge talking to a man about APD. “Last time they arrested me they took me to the substation in Louisiana and Central. They took me in and roughed me up. They threw me out in the streets in my underwear. They took my shoes, my clothes, everything. Most of the time they take our IDs. I haven’t had an ID in three years. They throw you in a cell, freezing cold, no food, no water. I have to have medication. Heart medicine, cancer medication, methadone. You can’t die from withdrawal [they say]. If you take away the methadone, it takes a little bitty health problem and makes it big. . .”
Everyone we talk to has some version of this story. Few people on the streets have IDs because police roll up on them, search them, and take their ID. A young Native man sitting under a tree in the shade tells us that cops frequently search him for no reason. “[They] searched in my bag . . . searched under my bag. I didn’t give them permission.”
It’s tough to collect stories on the street. Most people are exhausted and dehydrated. They don’t want to talk to strangers about cops. But sometimes people catch their breath, they open up, and a more detailed story emerges about the Nine Mile Ride.
Years ago, in 2014, we heard a story from a young Native man in the International District about a night that cops rolled up on him, cuffed him and threw him in the back of a police cruiser without a seatbelt. He’d been drinking, so he couldn’t remember the details, but he does remember ricocheting around the back of the cruiser as the cops drove erratically. They raced over speed bumps, which launched him into the ceiling of the cruiser. They travelled at high speed then slammed on the brakes, sending him flying face first into the divider separating him from his tormentors. Finally, they stopped somewhere miles away from the International District, pulled him out of the cruiser, threw him to the dirt, and beat him with fists, then uncuffed and abandoned him.
In 2005, police in Baltimore, where this is called a “rough ride,” severed the spine of a man named Dondi Johnson, Sr. after they caught him urinating in public. They killed Freddie Gray this way in 2015. Philadelphia cops paralyzed Gino Thompson in 1994 in a nickel ride. It is routine street punishment by police. Every police department has its own version of the rough ride.
In 2015, the mother of a former APD cop told us a story of her son’s first day on the job after graduating from police academy. His training officer was behind the wheel and they were dispatched to the Nob Hill area after a report of a Native man drunk on the street. They grabbed a Native man, threw him in the back of their squad car and gave him a rough ride. The rookie was horrified, didn’t know what to do, couldn’t stop any of it. He complained about all of this to his supervisor after his shift. In response, APD made his life hell. He quit, she said. It’s routine and happens all the time, she told us.
We hear the story again last month. We’re giving out water south of downtown and a man mentions to us being taken for a ride. We ask if it was a rough ride. He knows exactly what we’re asking. “It’s been a while since I was taken,” he says. But yes, it happens. “I’ll be sitting on a curb, waiting for a meal, and they start searching your stuff, asking your name.” We ask what kind of cops. Bike cops, in cruisers? Sometimes, he says. “Bicycle cops travel in groups of 4 to 12, just like a gang. They come up and do what they’re gonna do and you don’t got shit to say about it. I’ve seen them beat people.”
But no, it’s the cops in the cruisers who give the rough ride, he explains. “They’ve taken me out to the westside, Nine Mile Hill, handcuffed and beat my ass. Happened six months ago. Drove me out there in the dirt, handcuffed, beat me, and left me out there.”
Do they drive erratically? “Yeah,” he says. “The hit the speed bumps at high speed.” Are you wearing a seatbelt? “No, never.” How does it happen? It’s usually in the evening,” he says. Did you catch the number on the side of the cruiser that identifies the cop? No, he says, “They put shit on the squad car to cover up the number. Masking tape, black or silver tape. They cover license plate numbers, badge numbers.”
The last time it happened, five cops in two cruisers snatched him off the street. “When they take me out to Nine Mile Hill they go past the hill and hit the potholes in the dirt with the brakes really hard. I come back all fucked up. . . Officer Hernandez is one of the biggest who harasses people . . . They make a game out of it. A power trip. ‘I got a badge; I can do whatever I want.’”
How many times has this happened? “The last five years I’ve had it done at least twenty times. It’s the rookies who do it now.” We have lots of questions. Is it only male cops? Are they white cops? Are you always in a cruiser or a van? He patiently answers, matter-of-factly. It’s usually “two cruisers,” he explains, “with tinted windows… All male cops.” Last time “all of them except for two were Hispanic. One was Black and one was white.”
What happened this last time when you got to Nine Mile Hill? “They beat me with my cuffs on,” he explains. “All of them took part in the beating. They tased me, they maced me. One [taser] in the nuts, one in the throat, one in the back—all at the same time.”
Does the Nine Mile Ride always start downtown? No, he explains, it’s the International District too. “They fuck with you [there] too, but it’s worse [downtown].” It starts in both places, but you always end at Nine Mile Hill, he tells us.
How could five years of intensive, court-supervised, federally mandated police reform make things worse? The Albuquerque Police Department is notoriously among the most lethal police departments in the United States. How could a department with so much heat on it, with so many critics breathing down its neck, and with so many years of reform imposed it, continue to stalk and harass people, stop and frisk people for no legal reason, routinely beat people, and get away with it? The Albuquerque Police Department has been forced to undergo every single reform measure that every police reform advocate has ever wanted to impose on a police department. If police reform doesn’t work in Albuquerque, arguably the most “reformed” police department in the United States, how could it work anywhere?
Some people predicted this outcome from the beginning. In 2014 and 2015, an attorney representing a group of complainants known as the McClendon Subclass, which had sued years earlier over jail conditions related to people suffering from mental illness or who were arrested during a mental health crisis, petitioned the court to prohibit police from engaging in crisis intervention entirely. The DOJ Settlement Agreement, according to the petition, failed to address APD’s de facto policy of “sweeping the streets,” as the petition put it. The agreement and all the reform would do nothing. In fact it would most likely “increase the number of encounters” between cops and those living on the streets. It would likely mean an intensification of “broken windows” policing. More searches, more arrests, more police violence.
According to the petition, “APD officers routinely stop and question people who appear homeless and order them to move when they are standing or sitting in public places.” They arrest homeless people for littering. They order a person to put out their cigarette and then arrest them when they throw it on the ground. In January, APD arrested a homeless woman for “spitting on the street.” When they tell people to move, people move because they know what comes next. “Force is commonly used to compel compliance.” APD officers routinely “confiscate or destroy their identification,” according to the petition. This is routine. Spelled out, in fact, in that famous essay from 1982.
The court ignored the petition and made no changes to the agreement. Five years later, Albuquerque’s current mayor, Tim Keller, claims, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the Albuquerque Police Department is an agency now almost completely reformed. “We created a dedicated compliance Bureau that we did not have before,” he said at a June 2020 press conference. “This matters because of accountability.” Keller argued we didn’t need to defund police because “we now have mechanisms in place for accountability for actions in our city.” He claimed the reforms are working. “We are in a much, much, different place, literally, than we were three years ago when it comes to our use of force policy.” The City Attorney agreed, saying that Albuquerque police “officers are investigated for every use of force now and that was not done before. So this is a very thorough process.”
But standing under the bridge south of downtown Albuquerque, listening to a man describe the Nine Mile Ride, we hear a different story. APD is different all right, he tells us, they’re worse.
“[Cops harass us] every day—here, down there, everywhere, all over. All you gotta do is just stop. They run your name, put you up against the car, search your bags. There is no such thing as civil rights anymore.” He’d been on the streets off and on for years, he said, and things have “gone from bad to worse in the past four years…It’s gotten a lot worse real fast.”
Five years of intense police reform and things are worse. If you don’t believe the people on the street, on the receiving end of all of this violence, listen to the man appointed by the court to supervise the effort to fix it. The lawsuit by the DOJ resulted in a court approved settlement agreement (CASA), which installed a federal monitor to supervise reform. Since 2015 the monitor and his team have submitted eleven progress reports.
In the sixth report, filed November 2017, he noted improvement but only “around the edges.” APD writes new policies, but nothing changes on the street. Every new policy change came with “stiffened resistance,” by cops at every rank. Albuquerque police use neck holds and what they call “distraction” strikes (chokeholds and punches to the head) but don’t report this as force. This extends to the use of tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and other chemical munitions, which he noted APD considers “non-use of force events.”
So when the Mayor and the City Attorney claim things are different, it’s only the policies they’re talking about. There are new accountability mechanisms and it’s all written down on paper. And the court-appointed Monitor agrees that APD has better policies today than five years ago. There are new use-of-violence policies, accountability, training, and crisis intervention policies. On paper, APD is reformed, but this is merely cosmetic. There’s a different story unfolding on the streets.
The monitor’s eighth report, filed in November 2018, explained why. APD supervisors, he concluded, hide all this violence and actively undermine accountability through the use of a form called the Additional Concern Memo (ACM).
The monitor spent a year cajoling APD to abandon the use of ACMs to no avail. In May 2019, he finally explained why it mattered so much. The ACMs, it turns out, constitute APD’s primary anti-accountability tool. “ACMs are simply the mechanism by which [Internal Affairs] referrals have historically been avoided.” The ACM is literally the blue wall of silence in paper form. It “constitutes an ‘off the books’ management of improper officer behavior.” APD uses ACMs as a kind of “a ‘backdoor’ in order to divert serious infractions away from Internal Affairs and instead into a ‘black hole’ where, without serious management oversight and control, things can go to ‘get lost.’”
APD claimed that it abolished the use of ACMs in April 2019 after the monitor criticized APD’s use of ACMs as nothing more than a means of “obfuscation of what actually occurs on the street.” The ACMs, however, continue. There remains at APD a cadre of “Counter-CASA” cops, as the Monitor put it, who not only oppose reform but actively undermine efforts at accountability. Even the most recent monitor’s report, released in May 2020, which came more than a year after APD claimed to have abolished the ACM, noted the “lingering issue of ACMs.”
Current police leadership rejects the notion that reform is a failure. The current City administration celebrates its successes to reform APD and wants to hire more cops. APD, Mayor Keller said in June 2020, “has been in a shortage situation for almost a decade to the tune of at least 400 [cops]. So that exists regardless and is still important to fix.” There is no evidence of improvement, aside from some policies nobody follows, supporting anything the Mayor claims to be true.
There is plenty of evidence, however, and all of it points to one unavoidable fact. Policing cannot be redeemed, and the Albuquerque Police Department cannot be reformed. This is not the imaginary evidence of the kind Mayor Keller touts. Rather it’s evidence we’ve collected and analyzed from police arrest and incident reports, interviews on the streets, federal investigations of APD, Department of justice investigation reports, court testimony, legal briefs, and the many updates by the federal monitor. All of this is evidence that demonstrates reform does not work.
Nine Mile Hill gets its name from the nine miles that mark the distance between downtown Albuquerque and the remote, arid mesa top west of Albuquerque where police dump their Nine Mile Ride victims. It also measures the gulf between the promises of police reform in City Hall and the violent reality of policing on the streets. The trip between the two is a lesson in the logic of police reform. Police reform works exactly as intended. By pretending to fix policing, reform restores legitimacy to a police department perpetually in crisis. By pretending to confront police violence, reform upends efforts to confront the Albuquerque Police Department’s history of racialized policing.
We need alternatives to police and policing because more cops does not mean less crime. More reform does not end police violence. And adding 400 more cops to APD will only mean more Broken Windows policing on the streets. And if you live on the street, it means more terrifying rough rides out to Nine Mile Hill.