By Tom O’Connell
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., May 20, 2016 – Soon after Burque Media broke the story of the Albuquerque Police Department’s documented plan to use and make real drugs for reverse buy-bust stings, we obtained eight arrest reports from that operation from a single day in May.
A leaked affidavit we obtained on May 13 contained APD’s official request to take two pounds of drugs—8 ounces each of heroin, meth, crack and cocaine—out of evidence to use in low-level reverse drug sales. In the document, dated February 25, 2016, APD also sought permission to manufacture crack from powdered cocaine.
The details of the eight arrest reports show that on May 9, APD fought the nation’s drug scourge by going after pretty low-hanging fruit: dirt-poor street people with drug problems who hang around the Circle K gas station at Central and Pennsylvania streets, the very visible heart of one of the city’s high-crime districts.
One woman offered some colic medication to an undercover police officer in exchange for a tiny amount of hard drugs.
“[Redacted] handed me a medication for colic and stated that I could cut crack or meth with it,” states an arrest report dated May 9, 2016.
‘Pussy for dope’
That defendant sweetened the deal by offering $3 in addition to the colic medication. As she and her male friend walked with the undercover agent to the car containing the cop’s stash, the male friend offered the agent her body as well.
“[Redacted] told me that [redacted] would trade ‘pussy’ for dope,” states the report. “I asked [redacted] if he could arrange that. [Redacted] said yes.”
Of course, the fraudulent transaction would not be completed. The end of that report details the last moments of a reverse buy-bust sting, when buyers of tiny amounts of a drug suddenly realize they’ve been had, and are going to jail.
“I produced a quantity of methamphetamine, which was field tested prior to this operation. Both [redacted] and [redacted] saw the methamphetamine and accepted the drug. I handed the methamphetamine to [redacted]. [Redacted] took out his meth pipe. I gave a predetermined arrest signal. As the arrest team moved in to arrest the two, [redacted] through [sic] the meth pipe and dropped the bag of methamphetamine. I recover [sic] the items. They were tagged into evidence.”
‘His jacket and the five dollars for the crack cocaine’
One defendant who was tempted with $20 worth of crack offered the undercover all the pocket change he had on him, which ended up totaling $5.10, plus the jacket off his back.
“I asked [redacted] if he was willing to trade his jacket and the five dollars for the Crack Cocaine [sic],” wrote the arresting officer. “[Redacted] agreed to my offer at this time…. [Redacted] handed me the blue jacket with the five dollars in coins still in the jacket. I then handed [redacted] the Crack Cocaine. I gave a predetermined bust signal….”
Another defendant handed over his last $10 in exchange for crack.
“He handed me two separate denominations (5 one dollar bills & 1 five dollar bill),” the arresting officer wrote. “I handed [redacted] the crack cocaine. I immediately gave the predetermined signal.”
This defendant was charged not just for possession, but also for tampering, because he attempted to swallow the baggie of crack the officer had just given him, according to the report.
Narc with a heart of gold
One of the eight arrest reports reveals a fuzzy underbelly of the buy-bust stings. A would-be drug buyer offered an undercover agent $6 and his jacket in exchange for “hard,” or crack cocaine, according to the report.
“I told [redacted] that I did not want to take his jacket from him because it was getting cold,” wrote the arresting officer.
While that’s commendable, the warm fuzzies came to an abrupt end when the cop led the man to the parking lot of Pussycat Video, where they did a $5 deal for crack before the officer gave the arrest signal.
He got to keep his jacket, but not his freedom.
No questions asked as APD’s Tixier justifies stings
APD spokesman Tanner Tixier told ABQ Free Press that after the eight arrests on May 9, criminal calls fell significantly in the area. The Free Press printed Tixier’s justification for APD’s apparent targeting of Albuquerque’s most vulnerable without fact-checking or challenging it. Burque Media is preparing public records requests to determine whether or not crime in the area did in fact drop after the eight arrests.
Tixier also told Free Press that the stings are common, and that the affidavit detailing those stings was redundant.
“Without pulling records for exact numbers, our narcotics team tries to do a reversal operation about once a month if possible,” Tixier told the paper. “Also, just for more background, we aren’t required to get an affidavit signed by a judge. We do so as an extra step to make a more robust case.”
But, as Pete Dinelli recently told Burque Media and KOAT, such stings can lead to legal problems for municipalities.
“The city could…be exposed to liability for using tainted drugs that they lose track of,” Albuquerque’s former chief public safety officer told Burque Media. “This is a very poor law enforcement practice.”
APD vs. the homeless
APD’s apparent targeting of the bedraggled denizens of the Southeast Heights seems to bely the city’s attempts to protect its most vulnerable. The city supports the efforts of the organization Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless. They are both involved with a program called “homeless court,” run by St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, which seeks to keep homeless people out of the revolving door of justice.
Albuquerque Journal columnist Joline Gutierrez Krueger recently offered this elegant condensed description of homeless court: “Albuquerque Metro Court’s special court for homeless people is full of kumbaya moments. Here, tears, albeit happy ones, flow and onlookers smile. The judge hugs defendants, shakes their hands, trades jokes. Defense attorneys and prosecutors alike appear gleefully conciliatory.”
Health Care for the Homeless says its efforts provide a respite from an uncaring, unblinking criminal justice system.
“The homeless are often targeted for the crimes of homelessness, and that’s nothing new,” Anita Cordova, a director of Health Care for the Homeless, tells Burque Media. “People experiencing homelessness are often affected by low-level misdemeanors, like sleeping rough and panhandling, and now you can add low-level drug busts.”
Homeless court is but one piece of the multifaceted approach the organization takes to the homeless problem. Cordova says her organization’s advocacy, with the support of the city, helps ease some of the hardships of the homeless lifestyle, and makes more sense than continually putting destitute street people, many of them with mental and/or substance problems, behind bars.
“An arrest for a low-level crime can result in a no-show for court, which can result in another arrest and a cycle that’s very hard to get out of,” says Cordova. “We’re lucky to have homeless court, which makes it easier for low-level offenders to get out of the cycle.”
“Any effective alternatives that can help rather than make matters worse for people who might be struggling with a substance use disorder or living with mental illness is what we need to be looking for and investing in,” says Jennifer Metzler, executive director of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless.
Santa Fe has a more humane approach
The Albuquerque Police Department seems to be taking the exact opposite approach to the drug problem as Santa Fe, which recently adopted a new way of dealing with opioid abuse.
Emily Kaltenbach of the New Mexico chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance offered up the mantra of drug reform stalwarts: We can’t arrest our way out of the drug problem.
Kaltenbach and DPA were instrumental in pushing Santa Fe to become the second city in the nation, after Seattle, to adopt Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which diverts addicts from the criminal justice system to social services, which its supporters say can save taxpayers a lot of money while treating human beings like, well, human beings.
“These kinds of low-level drug busts are destined to fail because, as long as there is a demand for drugs, there will be a supply,” says Kaltenbach. “It would be better to focus resources on treatment and harm reduction, like Santa Fe is doing with its LEAD program, which gets people help instead of arresting them.”
Santa Fe and other cities might soon start seeing results showing that treating drugs as a healthcare issue rather than a criminal justice issue might be a better way of doing things. But that truth might have to hit Albuquerque like a ton of bricks.
If APD spokesman Tanner Tixier’s response to a question I asked him last year is any indication, there’s no end in sight to APD’s costly, old-school lock-’em-up approach to drugs.
I’d asked Tanner to comment on Santa Fe’s LEAD, if he foresaw such a progressive program ever being instituted in the Duke City. It might be telling that he’d never even heard of it—even more telling, perhaps, that he said, frustratedly: “If it’s so progressive, why isn’t it everywhere?”
Change has to start somewhere. APD just needs to figure out if it wants to keep up with changing attitudes toward drug abuse.