When you think of a drug sting operation, you might think of busting drug dealers. Last week the chief of the Albuquerque Police Department defended a reverse drug sting operation in which undercover officers posed as dealers in early May and arrested mainly homeless people and people with mental health issues who tried to buy drugs.
KUNM’s Elaine Baumgartel spoke with Jeff Proctor who reports on the criminal justice system for New Mexico In Depth. He says a judge gave APD officers the OK to use the reverse sting tactic.
PROCTOR: They went out and made eight arrests in a gas station parking lot and six of the people they arrested were homeless people of color and at least three of the people they arrested were folks living with mental illness.
KUNM: There was some criticism of this operation, we’re going to get to that. Chief Gorden Eden, what does he say about this operation?
PROCTOR: The chief didn’t have much to say publicly. But last week I was able to get ahold of a letter that he sent to one of the city councilors. The chief wrote, and basically said, we’re not going to stop these operations, they’re legitimate law enforcement tactics, they are coming in response to concerns from the community, and furthermore these actually present people who are arrested for these kinds of things access to services for mental health issues, services for substance abuse. His letter also said, we don’t target homeless people with these operations.
KUNM: Let’s go to the criticism now. Who is criticizing this operation and why? What are the concerns about how this was implemented?
PROCTOR: Basically, anyone who has been asked to speak about this on the record has had one problem or another with this. You’ve had city councilors of both parties speaking out against it. I spoke to a number of advocates and experts from around the country about these types of operations…
KUNM: But what do they say? I mean, what’s wrong with busting somebody for trying to purchase illegal drugs?
PROCTOR: The biggest concern people had, was that it sort of flies in the face or runs contrary to this national shift in which issues of mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness are being moved away from the criminal justice context and into the public health context. In this case, every one of these people who was arrested was charged with a felony crime. Once you’ve got a felony on your record, now, it becomes more difficult to get public housing, more difficult to get a job, more difficult to get access to those services that you need and it sort of keeps people stuck in this cycle of homelessness and drug addiction.
KUNM: Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg has said that her office did not coordinate with APD on the affidavit for this type of sting…
PROCTOR: One thing that’s important to remember about that, is that the affidavit actually says that APD worked with the district attorney’s office to come up with this operation. The DA is saying, ‘that’s not true,’ that there was no conversation on the front end about any of this. Beyond that, she’s been asked a couple of times now whether she plans to pursue indictments against these eight people that were arrested, so far she has not answered that question. Although she has also said that she has problems with the way this operation was conducted, that this doesn’t really make sense in the context of 21st century law enforcement.
KUNM: What’s next now?
PROCTOR: Well, there’s a motion filed in court by the public defender’s office to quash the order that allows for this to take place, and we’ll see how that plays out sometime in the next couple of weeks. And if any of these folks is indicted, I think that you’ll probably see an entrapment defense from their public defenders.
KUNM: Are we going to see additional stings like this?
PROCTOR: Yes, based on what we’ve seen from what the chief says in his letter, they are going to continue to use this particular tactic in their prosecution of the drug war. They’ve said, ‘we will try not to target homeless people.’ Well, it’s pretty clear that in this one operation that we know of, that they very much were targeting homeless people.