Commentary

ABQ police union president makes a compelling case for defunding the department

Even the standard-bearer for more police funding knows what’s not working

November 9, 2021 6:17 am

An APD prisoner transport vehicle sits in front of the Bernalillo County Public Safety Center in Downtown Albuquerque. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

Fall 2021 election season peaked, then dark-valleyed last week as pundits scurried to draw broader implications from local races. Much of that centered on initiatives spurred by the movement to defund police in favor of funding for public programs for preventing and repairing harms that feed the U.S. prison industry.

A lot of attention fell justifiably on large metro areas like Minneapolis, where 46 percent of voters in the city — site of George Floyd’s killing last summer by a Minneapolis police officer — opted for full-scale remaking of their police department. They were unsuccessful, and the measure didn’t pass. 

New Mexico’s local races got less-wide attention, but the incumbent executive of the state’s largest city, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, won re-election by a wide margin despite heavily pro-policing messaging by both right-wing opponents (one of them the county sheriff) and the Albuquerque police union.

Even if votes in favor of the two right-wing, thin-blue-lined mayoral candidates in this race were combined, they wouldn’t have surpassed Keller’s margin of victory. There’s little doubt in my mind that the lived effects of policing in Albuquerque helped form the basis for that outcome. While local police union President Shaun Willoughby falsely insists that New Mexico has been “weak on crime” for decades, residents are keenly aware the department he represents has long carried out some of the nation’s highest rates of police state violence against the very people who pay for their protection. It wasn’t long ago that Albuquerque far surpassed the per capita rate of fatal police shootings in much denser metro areas like New York City.

The issue is not that no one knows what to do. It is that the criminal punishment system does not know what to do, and it gets top reign over these cases. Yet it fails to produce the minimum levels of safety that everyone deserves. It reproduces violence. It rarely heals anyone.

– Amaya Alexander from the Detroit Justice Center and Danielle Sered, director of Common Justice

Willoughby has been nothing but vocal about how police need less oversight and more public funding. He appeared on a local right-wing talk radio episode last December, eight months before the host of that show Eddy Aragon announced his run for mayor on a hardline pro-cop, pro-incarceration platform. The exchange is eye-opening, in part because of Willoughby’s openness about the concerns of property owners being at the forefront of his priorities. Yet more fascinating was Willoughby’s airing of key points that align with the movement to defund the police. 

Members of the public are today grappling with layered difficulties (such as historical trauma, poverty and substance abuse) that lead to behavioral and “quality of life” harms like disorderly conduct, survival sex work, theft and violence. Defund activists want public resources diverted away from police responses they say harm more than help people, into more systemic prevention and support strategies. Willoughby himself on Aragons’s show said police responses to behavioral health emergencies are ineffective and wasteful. 

We have a serious drug problem in this community. Are we going to arrest our way out of that? No.

– Shaun Willoughby, Albuquerque police union president

“Where’s the money for rehabs? Most addicts in our community don’t have Presbyterian insurance. They don’t have access to rehab,” he told Aragon and his audience. “Even if they wanted to get rehabilitated, they don’t have the access to it.” 

People in Albuquerque with severe addiction problems are trapped, Willoughby said. They can maybe access Band-Aid fixes like methadone or suboxone prescriptions from local outpatient clinics, he added, but without meaningful, wraparound rehabilitation, these patients often turn around and sell prescribed drugs on the black market for access to harder ones. And so the problems cycle.

Providing direct access to social workers for people in crisis sounds good, Willoughby said, “but if you don’t solve the problem — which is aftercare that’s meaningful and enough beds to give people the care they need — you’re going to be responding to the same guy tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that.” 

That’s precisely why activists pushing to defund police are calling for systemic transformations. Willoughby on Aragon’s show sounded as frustrated as the rest of us: City streets, down to people’s personal belongings and physical selves, feel unsafe. Many people start to get hopeless because when it comes to fixing the underlying problems, there seem to be “no answers,” Willoughby said.

On that point Willoughby is also spot-on. But he’s notably overlooking that the movement to defund police has proposed answers to those exact concerns, including dedicating public resources to meaningful prevention and rehabilitation that could slice through layered public health crises.

“The issue is not that no one knows what to do,” wrote Amaya Alexander from the Detroit Justice Center and Danielle Sered, director of Brooklyn-based Common Justice, in a piece published in the Boston Review last week. “It is that the criminal punishment system does not know what to do, and it gets top reign over these cases. Yet it fails to produce the minimum levels of safety that everyone deserves. It reproduces violence. It rarely heals anyone.”

In a five-minute segment of nearly unadulterated copaganda aired by local KOB TV News in September, Willoughby said it hasn’t been since around 2011 that police were “actually allowed to do police work without the constant fear and tyranny of losing your job every day for just doing your job. That was a simpler time back then.” 

That year was, indeed, the end of an era. In 2012, the Department of Justice launched an investigation that concluded the Albuquerque Police Department was based upon a “culture of acceptance of the use of excessive force” so egregious the city was placed under federal consent decree in 2014. 

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When that 2012 event was pointed out to Willoughby, he responded by saying that “it’s far less about the Department of Justice. The DOJ’s not going anywhere. The consent decree is here, it’s going to stay. It’s much more about the city of Albuquerque and leadership. The city is a party [to the consent decree]. No one can dictate to them their policies … They’re allowed to tell the DOJ: Look, this isn’t working.” 

Some would argue that’s what the Mayor’s Office has done in establishing an entirely new social service-centered public safety department meant to prevent and address the kinds of personal crises that too often lead to high-pressure interactions with police. Keller’s administration is in the midst of that undertaking, as the city’s police budget continues ballooning.

Willoughby can sound disparaging, even contemptuous, when he talks about New Mexico and other people here who don’t toe the line of local law enforcement’s demands. Aragon, whose mayoral run was rejected last week by 82% of city voters, mentioned in the December interview that he knew Willoughby is due to retire within the next couple of years and “headed outbound from New Mexico.” 

Perhaps he’ll relocate to more pro-gun, pro-carceral states like Texas, which is what such notable Albuquerque Police figures as former APD Internal Affairs and Interim Chief Alan Banks and former Chief of Police Ray Schultz opted for. Willoughby following in those bootsteps would be another fitting endnote for that “simpler time” for local law enforcement.

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Margaret Wright
Margaret Wright

Margaret Wright is a freelance journalist whose previous work has appeared at the Santa Fe New Mexican, New Mexico Political Report, Santa Fe Reporter, KUNM News and Popula, among other local outlets now shuttered. Homesickness besets her if she’s outside of the high desert for too long.

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