Can’t Spit, Can’t Sleep, Can’t Get Warm: the Everyday Cruelty of Police Harassment in Albuquerque

On January 25, 2020, shortly after noon, a woman named Nimbus* spat on a Central Avenue  sidewalk near the University of New Mexico. You may find that disgusting or disrespectful, but Albuquerque police found it criminal.

There is no law against spitting on the sidewalk. Albuquerque Police Department (APD) officer Nathan Bjork gave Nimbus a criminal summons for “conduct offensive to public [sic]” anyway, citing a 1978 state statute in his criminal complaint that had been repealed in 2018 by the New Mexico State Legislature. Bjork’s decision to criminalize Nimbus’s behavior was callous and petty, and it was also illegal; there is no law for Bjork to enforce.

The court record on Nimbus’s case reflects as much. No statute is named, and under “charge” it reads: “Misdemeanor Offense Not Identified.” These facts did not stop this case from dragging Nimbus through six weeks of court filings and warrants, and finally being jailed for two days before prosecutors dismissed the charges on March 10.

We’ll repeat that: Nimbus spent two days in a cage because APD picked her up on a warrant issued for missing a court date on charges that she violated a law that that doesn’t exist.

And this was only the beginning of 2020 for Nimbus. She would be jailed eight times before the year was over, all while COVID-19 swept through carceral facilities in the United States and thousands of people received de facto death sentences due to the lethal neglect wrought by overcrowding, filthy conditions, and lack of access to quality healthcare.

It’s likely that Bjork issued Nimbus a criminal summons (rather than simply arresting her) in part because of the 2017 McClendon Settlement Agreement, the result of a class action lawsuit filed in 1995 against the city of Albuquerque that “primarily involv[ed] allegations of poor jail conditions, including overcrowding, as well as issues related to arrests and arrest procedures [by APD].” As part of the settlement, APD was required to rewrite various Standard Operating Procedures. In the new SOPs, cops are instructed to issue citations “when appropriate in lieu of arrest on non-violent misdemeanor offenses (not to include DWIs) when there are no circumstances necessitating an arrest.” The idea was to reduce crowding at the county jail by lowering the number of arrests made by APD. Of course, law defers to the discretion of police so it’s up to the cops to determine which circumstances “require” making an arrest. And a new pattern is emerging, one in which Nimbus is caught up. Arrests have not been stopped, but merely delayed, for many people issued criminal summonses on misdemeanor charges by APD.

Like the Prophet, whose story of surviving grinding police harassment and state violence we shared last week, Nimbus does not appear to have a permanent residence. In various court documents and criminal complaints, she is referred to as “transient” and “homeless.” Sometimes her mail is sent to the Hopeworks Shelter on 3rd, sometimes to the Good Shepherd Center on Iron, sometimes to one of two different residential addresses that appear in the court records. And yet, just like for the Prophet, the mail never seems to find Nimbus.

Examining the court records, it appears that almost every piece of mail sent by the courts to Nimbus regarding her various legal cases in 2020 was returned. The records are littered with the line, “RETURNED MAIL.” It is not clear that even one notice, warrant, or dismissal found its way into Nimbus’s hands. This is how APD and the courts skirt the McClendon agreement: by giving criminal summonses for misdemeanors to people like Nimbus, whom they know will not receive notice of a court date. They also know a warrant will be issued when the court date is inevitably missed. Then the courts cage those people APD picks up for these outstanding warrants. Despite McClendon prohibiting it, APD still arrests people for misdemeanors, just on a different timeline than in the past. Which means people like Nimbus are still being thrown in cages for simply living life on Albuquerque streets.

On April 19, 2020, Nimbus set up a tent at an Albuquerque park. Cops quickly found her. In his criminal complaint, APD officer Brandon Weatherspoon–who has a history of chasing unsheltered people from this park–says that “I observed a yellow tent that was set up near the playground at the park. There was a female subject who was inside of the yellow tent.” Like other unsheltered people, Nimbus doesn’t often have the luxury of privacy. With their lives lived in the public view, activities that we take for granted–using the restroom, sleeping, having sex, using drugs–become pretexts for APD cops to issue criminal summonses when enacted by unsheltered folks.

In Albuquerque, camping has been criminalized under section 10-1-1-3 (A3) of the city charter. “No person in a park shall construct or erect any building or structure of whatever kind, whether permanent or temporary in character… except by written permission of the Mayor.” On this pretext, APD cops along with employees from the city’s Family and Community Services department regularly harass, chase off, and confiscate or destroy the belongings of people camped at parks and other land throughout Albuquerque.

Weatherspoon cited this law and a familiar pattern played out. The court sent Nimbus a notice of charges against her. It was returned on May 11, 2020. The court issued a bench warrant for failure to appear and mailed Nimbus a notice of the warrant on June 30. It was returned. Then on July 27, APD cops arrested Nimbus for the outstanding warrant and threw her in a cage for the crime of setting up a small refuge for herself at a public park.

APD and the courts criminalize people’s lives by enforcing these laws day after day in absurd and violent ways, obsessively delivering penalties for petty crimes like loitering, littering, jaywalking, and sleeping in a park (which cops also call criminal trespass). The thousands of people like Nimbus who live on Albuquerque streets live with the constant threat of police interfering with their survival.

In February 2020, APD threw Nimbus in a cage for ordering food at a diner and not having the money to pay for it. In May, APD threw Nimbus in a cage for lighting small fires and littering on a sidewalk. On a cold day in October, APD threw Nimbus in a cage for seeking shelter in a commercial building and lighting a fire.

We couldn’t find Nimbus, so we couldn’t ask her directly about this pattern of harassment. But the story told by criminal complaints and court records is echoed by other people we’ve spoken with in the past weeks, months, and years. One man was crossing the street to use a nearby restroom when he was accosted by APD cops for jaywalking. They wouldn’t let him leave, so eventually he was forced to defecate on the sidewalk. He was hit with a criminal summons for indecent exposure. Another man couldn’t sleep and sought shelter in an unlocked commercial building to use some WIFI. He was chased off by cops and issued a criminal summons. Almost every week, we hear from people living on the streets that they cannot find out when their court dates are, that they fear being jailed yet again for failure to appear.

Cops constitute the muscle of a system that relies on violence to maintain an order in service to privilege and property. They choose which laws to enforce and on whom. These choices, which courts refer to as “police discretion,” overwhelmingly target poor people, Black and Brown people, and unsheltered people. Cops claim their choices establish public safety and support community wellness. Nimbus has no permanent address, does not get the mail for her court date, gets bench warrants, gets picked up by cops and thrown in cages by judges and jailers, goes to jail despite not being convicted of a crime. Her life, and the lives of thousands of others, are constantly destabilized by APD and the courts. Police call all of this “order.”

How many days did you spend in a cage the last time you spat on the sidewalk?

*Nimbus’s name has been changed and some details have been omitted from this story to protect her privacy.