All three Albuquerque mayoral candidates promise more police

After weeks of nightly protests calling for changes to policing in 2020, candidates look to boost the force

By: - October 27, 2021 6:00 am

Incumbent Mayor Tim Keller answers a question while candidate Eddy Aragon takes notes at the mayoral forum on Monday, Sept. 27. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

While the three candidates for Albuquerque mayor have tried their best to differentiate themselves, there are at least two things they agree on: they say police are doing a good job, and they seek to put more money toward policing.

Despite a historic protest movement last summer that called for the defunding of the Albuquerque Police Department, all three candidates appearing on the ballot in the city Nov. 2 are running on promises for more police funding.

With this in mind, Source New Mexico reached out on Monday morning to all three campaigns with the same set of questions about policing. As of Tuesday night, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales had not responded to requests for comment, but we will update this story if his campaign replies.

More funding and more officers

Little daylight could be seen between the candidates on policing at a mayoral forum hosted by KOB 4 on Oct. 18. All three of their opening statements mentioned crime, and the TV station’s moderators made crime their first question of the night.

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Gonzales said in his opening statement that under his leadership, the city will be a safer place to work, run a business and raise a family. He later said if elected, “There’ll be no more excuses. Criminals will be held accountable, and they will go to jail, and there will be no more accommodating or allowing criminals to run the streets of Albuquerque.”

Gonzales told the Albuquerque Journal last month that APD is “drastically shy” of filling officer vacancies.

Keller said in his initial remarks his administration has answers for “tackling the root causes of crime and other issues,” and pointed to the city’s alternative 911 response department.

“I’m committed to more officers,” Keller said. “We get 100 officers in every year. I’m graduating another 50 in just two days. We’re going to keep doing that. We’re also going to keep funding our police department.”

Aragon started the forum by saying if elected he would “reduce crime in every single category.” He later said he would move $50 million from other parts of the city budget (he didn’t specify which) and put it toward increasing officer salaries by at least $18,000. “We can’t grow if we can’t retain,” he said. “Plus, we’re still going to be doing overtime.”

Under the Keller administration, the Albuquerque Police Department’s annual budget went up to $226.8 million this fiscal year from $184.4 million in the previous fiscal year, according to city records. That includes an additional $31.8 million in money from the federal CARES Act.

Keller said in an interview that now is not the time to reduce the APD budget. He said his administration started with “a department that wasn’t adequately staffed for just basic public safety.” He said his administration added officers which resulted in a larger homicide unit, bike cops, domestic violence programs, a Violence Intervention Program and diversion programs.

“So it takes officers, even if you’re doing things that are more like on the social community policing, or just the social services side of the department,” Keller said. “Every single study that’s ever been done in our department shows that we’re anywhere from 100 to 600 officers short. And so one day, when we have 911 calls and response times and crime that is under control and fine, you know, then you can look at the budget. But until then, we’re digging out of a hole that was created 10 years ago.”

Aragon said in an interview he wants “at least 1,500 officers on the force.” APD has about 900 officers today.

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“So the political ideology has been installed into the dialogue about this,” he said. “It didn’t need to be, because safety is an every person thing, doesn’t matter left, right and middle, whatever it happens to be. We need to keep our citizens safe. That’s the focus.”

Some feel abandoned

After hearing the candidates’ comments at the debate, local abolitionist organizer Selinda Guerrero said some people in Democratic circles in the mostly blue city are feeling abandoned right now. She said in the 2017 mayoral election, Keller had to pivot to adopt more progressive talking points in order to beat opponents like Gus Pedrotty, but now Keller is tacking toward the center to try and pull votes away from Gonzales and Aragon.

“He gets to be the centrist-leaning Dem now, because there is nothing else, there is nobody else, and so he’s left the Democrats with kind of no choice in this race,” Guerrero said. “It’s a political tactic. I don’t know how effective it’ll be, but it’s definitely dangerous.”

Guerrero said she wished she’d had the capacity earlier in the year to help organize around a more progressive mayoral candidate.

She said Keller has shown his close alliance with police in his inability to hold them accountable. APD has complied with only 59% of the operational reforms mandated in its settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, according to the latest report from May 2021 by the independent, court-appointed monitor. “It continues to be apparent that APD has not had and currently does not have an appetite for taking serious approaches to control excessive or unwarranted uses of force during its police operations in the field,” the monitor wrote.

Still, of the three candidates, Guerrero said Keller is most likely to attempt compassion. 

“APD just has so much power,” she said. “I think he’s just not tough enough to be able to stand up to this police department, to do what’s really necessary.”

What the candidates should have learned from last summer’s protests, Guerrero said, was that they need to listen to the people.

If, as politicians, they believe that they live in a democracy, they must hear the constituency, and what the constituency is calling for. The masses have taken to the streets and have called out for the defunding of police departments and for these military tactics to be abolished.

– Selinda Guerrero, Millions for Prisoners New Mexico

All three candidates are making the argument that more cops equals less crime. But there is mounting evidence that policing does not significantly reduce crime.

Tracking misconduct while hiring

For years, some activists have called for better tracking of cops who are disciplined for misconduct but are still able to find work at other police departments.

Keller said his administration already eliminates officers from the hiring pool who have a history of misconduct, and has supported efforts to ensure officers accused of misconduct can’t jump from department to department. He said his administration supports local prosecutors’ efforts to formalize disclosure of information that may impact the reliability of an officer’s testimony in court, based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Aragon said if a particular officer has already served time for an alleged crime, “we’ll make sure that there’s a rehabilitative process which makes sure that we understand whether or not that particular officer — because it’s a case-by-case basis — should be out serving our public.”

“We are not interested in hiring liabilities,” Aragon said. “There is a way of bringing these police officers into the force without them creating the liability for the City of Albuquerque. There has been police abuse. There has been bad apples that are out there. But we can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater and just sort of paint with these broad strokes and say that every officer is bad because one of the officers did one of these things.”

Military tactics and weapons

Many activists, including reformists and abolitionists, have called for the end of U.S. police using hand-me-down weapons from the military or military tactics.

Keller said his administration already ended the use of military weaponry by APD by executive order, “and we did that before the protests.”

There is plenty of evidence that APD continued to use military-style equipment in summer 2020, including less-lethal munitions, armored cars and tear gas, which is banned in warfare

“We followed the list of military items, before the protests and events. Administratively, we banned what we could,” Keller said. “That’s something where we were ahead of the curve on that. What you’re talking about (tear gas), I mean, that to me is a specific issue about a specific tool, and you’d have to check with either APD or legal on that.”

Aragon said he believes police are “outgunned and outmanned,” and he doesn’t support any additional legislation, ordinances or policies to restrict APD’s ability to do its job, while pointing to an incident in August where someone wounded four APD officers who were responding to a call about an armed robbery, according to police.

Vigilante violence

Following the shooting at the monument depicting Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate at Tiguex Park in Albuquerque’s Old Town neighborhood, state prosecutors are asking the court to prohibit the New Mexico Civil Guard from continuing to organize and train as a private military unit.

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In September, a judge ruled that six members of the militia who were there could be held liable for impersonating police officers during the protest.

Keller said that the presence of vigilante groups like the Civil Guard jeopardizes the credibility of police.

“Yes, and we’ve been against them from the start,” he said. “And they’re also suing us all over the place for us trying to remove their firearms on (Civic) Plaza. So another example of where we walked the walk against militias.”

Aragon said the presence of vigilante groups has nothing to do with police credibility.

“That’s their right to assemble to go ahead and do that,” Aragon said. “If they break the law, they would be prosecuted like every other entity and person that’s out there.”

If a militia group were to be committing violent acts, Aragon said he does not believe in vigilante justice.

“I do believe in self-defense,” Aragon said. “I don’t think that people should take the law into their own hands. And I don’t think that that’s necessarily what the Civil Guard was doing.”

Aragon said Stephen Baca, who is shown on video assaulting multiple protesters that day and nearly fatally shooting someone, should be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

“I’m not interested in vigilante justice. I think people should pick up the phone and call 911, and the city of Albuquerque should be responsive to the needs of any person, resident, citizen. It doesn’t matter. They need to be responsive.”

The Albuquerque Police Officers Association has not endorsed any of the mayoral candidates this year, though they endorsed Keller in 2017. A review of campaign finance reports shows the association has not contributed any money to any of the three campaigns.

Association President Shaun Willoughby did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment on any differences he sees between the three candidates.

Guerrero said just because protesters aren’t taking over Central Avenue in the city right now doesn’t mean they won’t do that again. She encouraged people to not fall into despair and to get involved and organize.

“Direct action is just one tactic that we use as organizers,” she said. “We’re still back here, organizing policies for the upcoming legislative work. We’re still organizing on the ground. We’re still getting resources to our community. We haven’t gone anywhere, and our base is as strong now as it has ever been.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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