Where Activists See Gray, Albuquerque Police See Black And White

Sep 30, 2014
Originally published on October 1, 2014 10:54 am

To understand the tension between the cops and some people in Albuquerque, you have to go back to a Tuesday in April.

It was after the Justice Department had accused the Albuquerque police of engaging in a pattern of excessive force. In March, a homeless camper named James Boyd was shot and killed. Then a 19-year-old woman was killed.

Music teacher Caro Acuna Olvera was eating dinner when a friend called her with the news.

"She was like, 'Caro, Facebook is blowing up, do you know what's happening? ... They killed Mary!' And I was like, 'Who? Who killed Mary?' 'The police killed Mary,' " Olvera recalls.

The victim was Mary Hawkes, a former student of Olvera's. She was a woman whose parents were drug addicts, who had grown up in foster homes, who wrote poetry, lived on the street, loved animals, sold drugs and did drugs, too.

The night Hawkes was killed, police say, an officer spotted a young woman driving a stolen truck. They later found the truck with a phone Hawkes used. They looked at her Facebook profile, matched her picture with a police database, then found her near an old address.

When they found her, she ran and an officer chased her. Police say when she waved a gun, the officer shot her three times — in the head, upper arm and shoulder.

On a video released by police, officers told rescue units that Hawkes was "heavily bleeding and not breathing."

The shooting outraged some people in Albuquerque. Olvera helped arrange vigils and protests.

Protesters wondered: The Justice Department scrutinizes the police for excessive force, and then cops go and kill a 19-year-old?

The officer who shot Hawkes has not spoken publicly. The case is still under investigation.

Many other cops say the reason some people in the community are mad about the Hawkes shooting, and all the other shootings, is that the public just doesn't get it.

Before the Justice Department released its findings, local criminal investigators found all previous Albuquerque police shootings to be justified, says Shaun Willoughby, vice president of Albuquerque's police union.

"There's a lot of shootings that people are really upset about that we would call good shoots," he says.

Shoots, he says, will never go away. No matter what the feds say.

"If you threaten a police officer, you point a gun at a police officer, they ... have the right to protect themselves and are trained to do so," Willoughby says. "And nothing the Department of Justice or any entity says is going to change that."

Some officers argue that in these situations, it's black and white. There is no gray. If someone has a weapon and points it at police, police are going to shoot. And they don't shoot to wound, police told NPR; they shoot to kill.

But the Justice Department says it is gray sometimes. In its report, the Justice Department said Albuquerque police sometimes use force when there is not an imminent threat to officers or others, and that they themselves sometimes escalate the situation until there is a reason to use force.

Sam Costales, a former Albuquerque cop for more than 20 years, says of course there is a gray area.

Back in 2001, Costales was chasing an armed robbery suspect who grabbed a piece of pipe from the back of his truck and came at him. Costales took out his gun.

"I could've shot him," he says. "I had every right to shoot him. But I didn't want to shoot him."

Instead, he put his gun back in the holster, maced the guy and arrested him.

Back at the station, Costales put the suspect in an interview room and went to get him something to drink. A couple of detectives walked by.

"And they go, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm getting the guy a Coke.' 'You're getting the guy a Coke? This guy that just came at you with a pipe? A guy that's gonna kill you, you're gonna buy him a Coke now?' I said, 'He didn't kill me, and he's thirsty,' and I left it at that," Costales says.

Costales says he tried to treat suspects with respect. But other cops yelled at people, beat people up, used their weapons against people and then covered it up, he says.

A lot of this bad behavior is the work of a good-old-boys network, where it's all about who you're related to, says Cassandra Morrison, another former Albuquerque cop of 20 years.

It's about "who you know, who you hang out with, who you smoke cigars with, who you go have a beer with," she says.

If you're in the club, she says, you don't get punished when you act like a cowboy, break the rules and use excessive force. It's a system that won't change until some of those cowboys get punished, she says.

Morrison says she's been told several Albuquerque police officers could be indicted in federal court for previous shootings.

"So I think once those indictments come down, it's gonna be like, 'Uh-oh,' " she says.

In other words, those who are part of the club aren't so invincible.

"It's kind of like taking down Teflon Don, the head of the mafia," Morrison says. "You take down one of them, everybody else kinda sits back and goes, 'Oh, we need to chill out for a while.' Well, you need to hit 'em so hard that they're gonna chill out forever."

The Albuquerque police chief recently told USA Today that there are some police who shouldn't be on the force. He says the rest of the police are working hard to regain the community's trust, mainly through new training.

The Justice Department has confirmed that at least one Albuquerque police shooting is now being investigated by its criminal division.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: To understand the tension between the cops in Albuquerque and some people in Albuquerque, let's go back to a Tuesday in April. It was after the Justice Department had accused the Albuquerque police of engaging in a pattern of excessive force. A music teacher named Caro Acuna Olvera was eating dinner and got a call from a friend.

CARO ACUNA OLVERA: And I picked up the phone and was like, hey what's going on? She's like, Caro, Facebook is blowing up. Do you know what's happening? I'm like, no, what's up? She's like Mary, they killed Mary. And I was like, who killed Mary? The police killed Mary.

MCEVERS: Mary Hawkes, 19 years old. A former student of Caro's, a girl who lived in the street, wrote poetry, sold drugs and did drugs too. The night Mary Hawkes was killed police say an officer spotted a girl driving a stolen truck. They later found the truck with a phone Mary Hawkes used. They looked at her Facebook profile, matched her picture with the police database, then found her near an old address. She ran, an officer chased her. Police say she waved a gun. The officer shot her, three times, in the head, upper arm and shoulder. On this video released by police, officers call for rescue units.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Heavily bleeding and not breathing.

MCEVERS: The shooting outraged some people in Albuquerque. Mary's teacher, Caro, helped arrange vigils and protests. The Justice Department says police have a pattern of using excessive force, the protesters said, and then cops go and kill 19-year-old girl? The officer who shot Mary Hawkes has not spoken publicly. The case is still under investigation. Many other cops we talked to say the reason some people in the community are so mad about the Mary Hawks shooting, and all the other shootings, is that they just don't get it. Shaun Willoughby is vice president of Albuquerque police union. He says it's important to remember that before the Justice Department released its findings, local criminal investigators found all previous Albuquerque police shootings to be justified.

SHAUN WILLOUGHBY: There's a lot of shootings that people are really upset about that were, what we would call, good shoots.

MCEVERS: Shoots, he says, will never go away, no matter what the Feds say.

WILLOUGHBY: If you threaten a police officer or you point a gun at a police officer, they are going, and have the right, to protect themselves and are trained to do so. And nothing the Department of Justice or any entity says is going to change that.

MCEVERS: It's a Friday night in Albuquerque and I'm riding along with Officer Tanner Tixier. About 20 minutes into the shift, he gets the call.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: A foot chase, one subject, possibly with a gun.

MCEVERS: A foot chase, one subject, possibly with a gun. Tanner speeds up. We pull into a parking lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCEVERS: Do you want me to - what do you want me to do? Stay in the car?

TANNER TIXIER: Yes, ma'am, please.

MCEVERS: OK. So we are at a Home Depot. This just happened.

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: One of you need to go to the (unintelligible).

MCEVERS: There's a guy with a gun.

Actually, two guys with guns who tried to rob the Walmart. One ran to the Home Depot, where Tanner arrests him and takes his gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIXIER: I believe it's a '38 auto. We've got a full magazine. One was in the chamber ready to fire.

MCEVERS: The other suspect pulled his gun out of his pocket, ran into the parking lot and tried to hide in a car. That's where another detective pulled out his own gun and chased the suspect.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DETECTIVE: I drew out, gave him commands. He kept running up and put his gun away.

MCEVERS: And so, the detective says, he put his gun away too. The detective eventually caught the suspect and arrested him. But that's not how it always goes. The detective, who wouldn't give me his name because he doesn't want it to come up later in an investigation, says it pretty plain before he walks away. If the suspect had not put away his gun, the detective was ready to shoot him.

He just said to me if he hadn't put that gun back, he'd be laying right over there.

Like he would be dead, shot and killed by the detective.

The truth needs to get out. That's what he just said to me.

In other words, people need to understand that in these situations, it's black and white. There is no gray. If someone has a weapon and points it at police, police are going to shoot. And they don't shoot to wound, the cops kept telling us, they shoot to kill. But the Justice Department says it is gray sometimes. In its report, Justice said Albuquerque police sometimes use force when there is not an imminent threat to officers or others. And that they themselves sometimes escalate the situation until there is a reason to use force. Sam Costales was an Albuquerque cop for more than 20 years. He says, of course, there is a gray area. Back in 2001, Costales was chasing an armed robbery suspect who grabbed a piece of pipe from the back of his truck and came at him. Costales took out his gun

SAM COSTALES: I could've shot him. I mean, I had every right to shoot him. But I didn't want to shoot him.

MCEVERS: Instead, he put his gun back in the holster, maced the guy and arrested him. Back at the station, Costales put the suspect in an interview room and went to get him something to drink, a couple of detectives walked by.

COSTALES: They go what are you doing? And I said I'm getting the guy a Coke. You're getting the guy a Coke? This guy that just came at you with a pipe, a guy that's going to kill you, you're going to go buy him a Coke now? I said he didn't kill me and he's thirsty. And I left it at that.

MCEVERS: Costales says he tried to treat suspects with respect. But other cops, he says, yelled at people, beat people up, used their weapons against people and then covered it up. Cassandra Morrison was an Albuquerque cop for 20 years too. She says a lot of this bad behavior is the work of a good-old-boys network, where it's all about who you're related to.

CASSANDRA MORRISON: And who you know. Who you hang out with, who you smoke cigars with or who you go have a beer with

MCEVERS: If you're in the club, she says, you don't get punished when you act like a cowboy, break the rules, use excessive force. She says it's a system that won't change until some of those cowboys get punished. Morrison says she's been told several Albuquerque police officers could be indicted in federal court for previous shootings.

MORRISON: So I think once those indictments come down, it's going to be like uh-oh.

MCEVERS: Even well-liked guy in the good-old-boys club can get hit?

MORRISON: Yes, exactly. It's kind of like taking down Teflon Don, the head of the Mafia. You take down one of them, everybody else kind of sits back and goes oh, we need to chill out for a while. Well, you need to hit them so hard that they're going to chill out forever.

MCEVERS: The Albuquerque police chief recently told USA Today there are some police who shouldn't be on the force. But he says the rest of the police are working hard to regain the community's trust, mainly through new training. The Justice Department has confirmed that at least one Albuquerque police shooting is now being investigated by its criminal division. Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.