A 2016 federal sting operation in Albuquerque that targeted largely communities of color is raising more questions about the tactics officers used and how effective they were.
Jeff Proctor broke the ATF sting story for New Mexico In Depth and the Santa Fe Reporter. He spoke with KUNM’s Elaine Baumgartel about what he learned when he followed up with Jennifer Padilla, one of the women who was arrested in the sting.
She had served time in prison, but she was off drugs when she met and got romantically involved with a man. Unbeknownst to her, he was working as a confidential informant for the ATF - the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He told her he was in trouble and needed money, and he pressed her to put him in contact with people she knew who sold drugs.
PROCTOR: She made two phone calls. She was not present for either of the two drug transactions. But she was arrested about two weeks after the second one, nonetheless, and charged with conspiracy to distribute meth.
KUNM: Why has her particular case raised questions about the ATF strategy in this sting? What are the legal ramifications for her as well?
PROCTOR: Those are two separate questions. As far as the tactics are concerned, there’s a question of how far is the government allowed to go in offering people opportunities to commit crime and then charging them with those crimes. There’s a fine line there in terms of legality. And then of course there’s the moral question in all of this, too. The way she talked about it – and her family talked about it – they felt like it was a predatory, manipulative kind of situation. Legally what that means, from her lawyer’s perspective, is that number one, this constitutes entrapment, which is a word we hear tossed around all the time, but it’s actually a really high bar legally. Number two, that it is what’s called outrageous government conduct. If they are able to meet that bar in court then her case will be dismissed.
KUNM: Albuquerque City Councilor Patrick Davis is calling for a congressional investigation into this sting. He’s calling for a couple of other things. Lay out what he has expressed about his concerns.
PROCTOR: The area of town that was targeted in the ATF sting, that is actually Councilor Davis’ district. And a couple of days after this story about Jennifer Padilla’s case was published, he introduced a resolution at the city council that would do a number of things. Obviously, the council would have to vote on this.
But it would be, number one, to have the congressional delegation push for hearings on Capitol Hill into how all this took place in the city of Albuquerque; number two, to ask the ATF to not come here and do operations like this in the future. From Councilor Davis’ perspective, this didn’t work. We have a big crime problem in the city. This didn’t do anything to solve that. Instead, it victimized people who could use help rather than intervention from the criminal justice system.
He also wants to see a big public meeting where family members of people who were swept up could come in and speak their piece. And then he would also like to have the role of the Albuquerque Police Department in this operation clarified.
KUNM: You reported originally that the Albuquerque Police Department helped identify neighborhoods for the ATF to target in this sting. In the interim, the chief of the Albuquerque Police Department, what is Chief Gorden Eden saying, and how does that jibe with what the ATF is saying?
PROCTOR: The chief hasn’t had anything to say publicly. They have consistently denied my requests to ask them whether and how they were involved. In fact, they have said they can’t talk to me because the ATF asked them not to.
But there was an email exchange between Chief Eden and Councilor Davis, and what we are seeing in those emails and in this meeting that Chief Eden had with Councilor Davis, the chief sort of distancing APD from the operation, basically saying, ‘Yes, we knew that this was happening here, we offered them resources, they turned us down.’
Now, that contradicts sworn court testimony from one of the lead ATF agents on the operation, who said in court that APD had been extremely involved. Officers were assigned to his team. They were pointing out people to arrest, so, which one of them is telling the truth, I think, is a question that is still on the table.