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Albuquerque Police, Mayor Ignore CDC Advice, Aggressively Police Unsheltered People During Pandemic

Photograph Source: Trick on – Own work – CC BY-SA 4.0

Albuquerque Police Department (APD) and Albuquerque’s Department of Family and Community Services (FCS) engage in a pattern and practice of harassing, criminalizing, and displacing unsheltered people living on city streets, parks, or private property, according to sources on the street, a review of 32 criminal complaints filed with the courts in early 2020, and survey data collected by a group of unaffiliated advocates for the homeless.

In addition, APD officers, in collaboration with the City’s departments of Solid Waste and Parks and Recreation, routinely clear encampments and dispose of tents and belongings, which have included prescription medications, important documents, sentimental items, and, allegedly on at least two occasions, the ashes of loved ones. Together, these practices contravene explicit guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which advises against clearing encampments during the COVID-19 crisis to preserve individual and community health.

We gathered many of these stories out near downtown Albuquerque, late summer heat pushing 95, as we distributed masks, water, and food to people living on the street. One woman monitored a shopping cart for her friend, away on an errand, while she described how at least one employee with city Family and Community Services assists APD in locating and removing or destroying the temporary homes and belongings of unsheltered people. When we asked about experiences with APD, we heard stories about police harassment, even assault, and what people call theft by police.

As a result of being targeted by APD and FCS, a whole community of people is chronically cited, arrested, and disconnected from services during a lethal pandemic, and their possessions are frequently stolen and thrown away by city employees, all because they neither rent nor own a building in which to live.

In a criminal complaint from February 4, 2020, APD officer Brandon Weatherspoon described finding a woman camped at Albuquerque’s Phil Chacon park. She “had set up camp underneath a tree and had used sticks and tarps to make a structure,” presumably for some shelter during one of the coldest months of the year. Weatherspoon did not offer aid, resources, or support of any kind, according to the written complaint. Instead, he informed the woman that “she needed to leave the area, or she would be issued a citation.” He did a warrant search and had her information run through the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database (NCIC), which includes an enormous amount of criminal legal information. Then he chased her from the park, twice. When the woman ran from police a second time, Weatherspoon and a fellow officer dismantled the shelter she had built and “notified [Albuquerque’s Department of] Parks and Recreation of the trash left behind.”

The high temperature on February 4 was 32 degrees. There are any number of actions these officers could have taken to render assistance to this woman, particularly given the frigid conditions. Or they could have left her alone. Instead, they gave her a criminal citation for building her own shelter in the freezing temperatures, forced her to abandon her belongings and leave a public space, and called the City’s parks department to throw away her possessions. This criminal complaint illustrates a shocking pattern of violent practices against unsheltered people in Albuquerque in which APD and other city agencies regularly engage.

In our review of criminal complaints, APD officers routinely call the possessions of unsheltered people “trash,” in addition to other dismissive language, demonstrating the disdain and disregard with which police view and treat unsheltered folks. People sleeping next to “No Trespassing” signs are referred to as “subjects” or “transients,” dehumanizing language that establishes criminality as a condition of living on the street. “They degrade us,” a source we spoke to said of her treatment by APD and FCS, as she waited for her partner to return from the store. Another source, who painted dowels for an art project while speaking to us, said that “[They] act like they don’t understand, but that’s our home.”

Though the city maintains a 450-bed emergency housing center on Albuquerque’s west side, many unsheltered people do not feel safe there. Speaking with the local public radio station, KUNM, earlier this summer, one man described how shelters, including the City’s, treat him like a “liability” because he is visually-impaired. He reported having cash stolen at the westside shelter and being harassed by city staff. FCS Deputy Director Lisa Huval, who oversees housing and homelessness for the city, maintained in an April press conference that “our westside emergency housing center does have capacity, and if there are folks sleeping outside who want to come into the shelter that is always an option for people.” But the people we spoke to disagreed. One source told us that the only fellow unsheltered people he knew who had contracted COVID-19 had stayed at the westside shelter. “I’m not sure I want that COVID blessing,” he explained.

In many of the criminal complaints, people are simply sitting down or sleeping before being approached by APD, whose officers regularly displace people by citing or arresting them for criminal trespass and/or erecting “structures” on city and private property. On February 8, a day with a high temperature of 39 degrees in Albuquerque, APD officers issued a criminal summons to three people for setting up and occupying a tent at Phil Chacon park. Like in the previous complaint, an APD officer ran each person through local and federal databases to check for arrest warrants and criminal records; this, too, is standard practice.

It is hard to imagine a population of people not already imprisoned who are subject to a harsher level of criminalization and surveillance than people living on the street. Some officers and FCS employees “know everyone’s first name,” reported one source. Upon making contact with a person who is sitting, sleeping, camping, or otherwise occupying space on city or private property, APD officers check for warrants and search federal criminal databases. This happened in nearly every criminal complaint we reviewed. In effect, APD is checking whether the person they are detaining can be immediately arrested, not just issued a criminal summons for trespassing or building a structure on city or private property. This contradicts then APD Deputy Chief Medina’s claim in April that “we’re issuing citations in lieu of arrest.”

Not only do these complaints demonstrate an institutional disregard for people living on the street, they also indicate the great lengths APD officers go to harass and criminalize people for being unsheltered. A criminal complaint dated February 7, 2020, describes multiple officers arriving after being contacted by Family and Community Services Public Outreach Program Manager Sebastian Adamczyck, who “had located several people who were camping on [New Mexico Department of Transportation] property.” One man took off running after officers approached to arrest him for two misdemeanor warrants. These officers proceeded to “set up a perimeter” and call in “air support… to locate” the man, to no avail. APD blocked off streets and deployed multiple officers and a helicopter, all to chase an unsheltered man who had set up a camp on state property.

One source summed up this constant displacement by APD: there is “no place to sleep.” APD or FCS “get[s] you up at 7:30am, get[s] you moving, even if there’s no ‘no trespassing’ signs.” Very often, the result of being forced to move is having to leave behind possessions that are then confiscated by APD or thrown away by the Solid Waste or Parks and Recreation departments.

After being forced to abandon their belongings, two sources reported having “clothes, shoes, [a] walker” and multiple medications thrown away. Essential items, like government documents, IDs, and prescription medications, are frequently discarded by APD and the city. In the survey performed by unaffiliated advocates for the homeless, more than one third of unsheltered respondents reported having their personal ID, Social Security card, or birth certificate confiscated or disposed of after a forced displacement by APD, New Mexico State Police, or FCS. “Everyone out here has had stuff thrown away,” said a source. More than a quarter of respondents, many of whom have “ongoing” medical issues, reported having medical records or medications taken.

Multiple survey respondents also reported that among things taken after being evicted by APD or FCS were “meaningful personal items that cannot be replaced.” These include pictures, jewelry, letters, contact information, and more. On at least two occasions, according to different sources, APD or FCS confiscated the ashes of loved ones and disposed of them after destroying their camp, in one case, and confiscating their shopping cart, in the other. One source described it like watching APD or FCS “emptying out someone’s house.”

Local media have reported on multiple occasions that the City’s policy requires police or FCS staff to provide 24-hour notice before removing people from public property. In the survey asking people about their experiences with forced displacement by APD, only two out of twenty-two people surveyed reported receiving twenty-four-hour notice. People we spoke to on the street confirmed this pattern. APD or FCS often gives as little as 30 minutes notice, sometimes less. “We are never given [the full 24-hour] notice to move our stuff,” one source explained. Another noted, “if they do give 24-hour warning, they make sure it’s quiet.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, APD’s evictions of unsheltered people are not only disruptive and harmful to those whose camps APD destroys, but also create potentially dangerous conditions to the greater community. The CDC’s guidance on this is explicit. A March document explains that “if individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”

In Albuquerque, the consequences of city employees ignoring this recommendation fall on the people they claim to serve. Nearly half of survey respondents reported that their displacement by APD or FCS negatively impacted their ability to stay in contact with service providers that support with case management, information and more. Multiple advocates for the homeless that we spoke to explained that as a result of the forced displacements by APD or FCS, they lose contact with people they work with and struggle to get them the services they need.

In an April interview with KUNM reporters, then APD Deputy Chief Harold Medina claimed that police officers were making strides developing trust with Albuquerque’s unsheltered population. “One of the things that we did do early on [in the pandemic] is we really recommended to our officers… to educate and work with the community.” He also claimed that APD officers try to help people “get the services they need.” But our reporting shows this isn’t true. More than two-thirds of survey respondents reported that neither APD nor FCS connected them with resources for “food, clothing, housing, mental health or recovery services, [or] medical services” during or after being forcibly displaced. And as we previously reported, APD works with federal agents and local and national retailers to gather intelligence and information that it uses to surveil people, including those living on city streets, parks, and private land. These police interactions do not connect people to services, but instead regularly result in displacement, the confiscation or disposal of possessions, citation, and arrest.

APD and FCS “make it harder for us to be places or to travel,” said one source, commenting on the daily struggle to avoid having to pack up camp, catch a citation or arrest, or get possessions thrown away. Despite years of “reform,” the actions of the Albuquerque Police Department make clear its disregard for people living on the street. With a potential eviction crisis in coming months, Albuquerque’s unsheltered population is likely to increase, making more people targets for harassment and criminalization. And so the pattern continues: APD cops will roll up on people camping for survival, check for warrants, chase them away, and throw away their belongings. And repeat.

Keegan James Sarmiento Kloer, David Correia, and Justin Bendell work with AbolishAPD, a research collective investigating the Albuquerque Police Department. They can be reached at AbolishAPD@protonmail.com and you can find all of their research at abolishapd.org

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