It’s time to disarm, defund, and fully dismantle police and policing as we know it in Albuquerque. And here’s why.
Just as Albuquerque residents began sheltering-in-place in late March, Albuquerque police killed Valente Acosta-Bustillos. Friends and family of Acosta-Bustillos hadn’t heard from him in a few days and were worried about his welfare. They called 911. Albuquerque police showed up at his house on Edith SE and killed him in his own home.
On June 4, 2020, just as Albuquerque began emerging from sheltering-in place, police shot Max Mitnik, a young man suffering from a mental health crisis at the time. His behavior that day had been erratic and unpredictable, and his parents were frightened for his and their safety. They called 911 for help. Albuquerque police and crisis intervention officers showed up at his house in the wealthy Tanoan neighborhood and shot him. He remains in critical condition as we write this.
Before anyone calls for reforming the Albuquerque Police Department (APD), remember that all of this comes after nearly six years of court-mandated, federally supervised police reform in Albuquerque. Every police policy has been revised; every police practice has been reviewed. There’s not another police department in the United States that can claim to have gone through more reform than APD. None of it matters. APD continues to use violence against people of color and people suffering from mental health crises.
More reform will not fix APD. The only way to fix APD is to disarm police, defund police, and finally dismantle police as we know it. Let’s redirect the millions of dollars now wasted on weapons and prisons and jails and spend that money instead on social programs. Imagine an Albuquerque in which you can call 911 for help in checking on the welfare of a neighbor or a co-worker who you’re worried about, and instead of police arriving in armed tactical units, a team of unarmed, trained, crisis responders respond. Defunding police will not threaten public safety. It will enhance it. As Minneapolis organizer Kandace Montgomery put it, “We’re safer without armed, unaccountable patrols supported by the state hunting Black people.” Imagine an Albuquerque in which the nearly 20 percent of the city budget currently devoted to police is instead rerouted to housing for those without it, education and job training for those who need it, and universal, accessible health care for all.
But this is not the city we have. Instead we live in a city plagued by police violence. Between 1987 and 1991, Albuquerque police killed 15 people. Nearly all were people of color. A majority suffered from mental illness or were experiencing a mental health crisis when police killed them. People were outraged. The City Council promised to fix the problem though reform.
APD continued to kill people of color, Indigenous people, and people suffering from mental illness.
In 1996, the City Council investigated APD and found that between 1987 and 1997, police killed 31 people. The City Council once again promised to fix the problem through reform. It redesigned police training, raised hiring standards, and created a new police oversight commission— all the measures reformists promised would fix APD and finally hold it accountable.
APD continued to kill people of color, Indigenous people, and people suffering from mental illness
In the seven years following this period of reform, between 1998 and 2004, APD killed 23 people, an actual increase in the rate at which APD killed people. In 2004 the City responded, again, to demands by the families of people killed by police to fix APD. Again, they promised they would fix the problem through reform.
But reform never ends police violence, it sustains it. Every police reform effort in Albuquerque has resulted in more police patrolling the city, more weapons in their hands, and more money in the police budget. And also more police violence. Police violence isn’t an aberration, it’s precisely how policing is designed to work.
APD continued to kill people of color, Indigenous people, and people suffering mental illness.
In 2004, for example, APD used lethal or non-lethal violence 551 times. Its officers tackled peopled to the ground hundreds of times, pepper sprayed hundreds of people, Tasered scores of people, and kicked dozens of people. APD officers used their batons and sicced its attack dogs on more than 30 people. These are just the numbers we know about. APD’s officers report their own use of violence, and we know from investigations of APD that their use of force is vastly underreported.
Between 2006 and 2010, APD killed 18 people, and shot and injured 19 others. Between 2010 and 2014, APD killed more than 30 people and shot dozens more. In 2014 Albuquerque police committed nearly 21 percent of all homicides during the year. Its officers beat, kicked, punched, batoned, Tasered, and sicced dogs on hundreds and hundreds more. Police set a man on fire with the use of their Tasers. Police killed an elderly man at a bus stop who walked with a cane.
Police violence, public protest, promised reform, repeat.
If reform could fix APD, it would have happened already. In 2014, the federal government investigated APD. The US Department of Justice sued the City and APD, forcing it into federally monitored reforms. From 2014 to today, under federal scrutiny, APD rewrote all of its policies on the use of force. It now operates under policies that dramatically limit its officers’ ability to use violence. But out on the street, according to the federal monitor who supervised those reforms, nothing has changed. Police use chokeholds and punch people in the face and report this as “distraction” strikes, not violence. They turn off their lapel cameras and beat people with their fists and batons. They use pepper spray and flash-bang grenades and list these on their reports as “non-use of force events.” They shoot and kill people of color and people in mental health crises whose families call 911 for help. These are long-standing and ongoing patterns, not opinions, and they’re documented by irrefutable evidence.
Enough already. There is no evidence police reform fixes police. Nothing has ever changed no matter what reform gets proposed, and we have decades of evidence to prove it. Police and reformers always promise it will work this time, and it never does. Police reform just gives us more cops and more weapons and more money diverted to police from social programs.
Reform never works because the problem is not a lack of reform, the problem is police. There are no bad apples we can fire that will fix police. They tried that. The problem is not bad training that can be improved or low hiring standards that can be raised. They tried that. The problem is not a lack of community oversight that can be tightened, or cop-community relations that can be strengthened. They tried that.
Reform doesn’t fix police because the thing we find wrong with police—the use of violence against poor and working-class people of color and Indigenous people—is not an aberration. There is no reform to fix the central mandate of police and policing, which is to impose order. Policing is not about law enforcement. It is not about guaranteeing everyone’s safety and security equally, no matter what police may say. US courts have consistently ruled that individual officers are not legally required to protect individuals—not their lives and not their property. The courts have made clear that police are mandated to protect the order as police define it. We have decades of evidence before us that demonstrate all of this is true. Police are violence workers and police use violence to impose order. It is an order that considers the poor, the working class, people of color, and Indigenous people as threats to that order. Again, this is not an opinion, it is a pattern. We may wish this were not true, or we may wish we could somehow reform the police we have so that it would not be true in the future.
But to pretend it is not true is to deny the evidence.
There is also a correlation between police violence and vigilante violence. Many of the militias operating in New Mexico at the moment are comprised of ex-cops, plainclothes prison guards, and/or ex-military. These vigilante groups, stocked to the gills with the latest military weaponry, perpetuate the illogic of police violence. The New Mexico Civil Guard, in fact, issued a statement on June 8, 2020 stating that they intend to “defend” New Mexicans as a citizen police force if the mayor defunds the APD.
If you, like these vigilante groups, fear a world without police, it is because you know that police defend an order that benefits you at the expense of others.
The future will always include police violence if the future includes police. Police overwhelmingly use violence to kill, injure, and maim people of color, Indigenous people, and poor people. This is not a debate, it’s a conclusion based on decades of evidence and experience. If you are fine with this it is because this violence increases your safety and security, which comes at the expense of communities of color.
It is time to draw unflinching conclusions based on irrefutable evidence. Policing is the looting of Black, Brown and Indigenous life.
To defend the promise of police reform is to be complicit in all of the police violence that will follow because it always does. It always does. The only thing police reform does today is guarantee there will be more police violence tomorrow.
If you think this is an exaggeration, read James Wilson’s and George Kelling’s famous 1982 “Broken Windows” essay in Atlantic Monthly. In it they argue that police should defend homeowners and business owners above all else. Police should intervene on the street, moving homeless people out of “good” neighborhoods, confronting the “ill-smelling” drunk, harassing the teenagers, “prostitutes” and “petty-thieves.” Make the world insecure for those already insecure, in other words. In the essay, a white cop patrols a predominately Black neighborhood, and uses violence and the threat of violence to do it. It is the job of the cop to determine who belongs in that neighborhood and who does not belong. If you look different than the cop, you’re a threat. If you don’t have a job, you’re a threat. If you’re homeless or suffer from mental illness, you’re a threat.
Police don’t enhance public safety. With police we have racialized violence, inequality, and insecurity. Police may not be responsible for producing all of that inequality and insecurity, but make no mistake, the mandate of police is to use violence to impose and maintain an order that guarantees violence, inequality, and insecurity remain.
If reform won’t fix police, what about law? The law won’t fix police. Law extends to police unlimited discretion to identify threats and respond, in the moment, however police see fit. A judge or jury may, every now and then, convict a cop of murder, but their verdicts will never bring anyone’s son or father or sister back to life. Police comes first, and the law follows.
If reform won’t fix police, what about at the ballot box. Can’t we just elect more progressive candidates? Albuquerque’s current Mayor, Tim Keller, a Democrat, promised to fix APD. Instead he has increased the numbers of cops on the streets and the size of APD’s budget.
If reform won’t fix police, what about our police oversight agencies? They may investigate police, but sheriffs and police chiefs are free to ignore oversight investigations or recommendations or demands. They always do. All of the scores of people APD has killed since 1997 have been killed after the city created community oversight. Reform doesn’t end police violence. It never has. Every police chief in Albuquerque has rejected every oversight recommendation regarding officer discipline.
If reform is a failure, what’s left to do?
There is much that we can do, and it will save lives. It isn’t rocket science. We know now, after decades of failed reforms, we have no other option. There are policies and proposals already available for us to follow. Some very smart, thoughtful scholars and organizers, such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Andrea Ritchie, Rachel Herzing, and Mariame Kaba, among so many others, and some very committed organizations, such as Black Lives Matter, Critical Resistance, and others, offer non-reformists suggestions to disarm, defund, and dismantle police in ways that would not only, finally, end police violence, but more importantly, improve the lives of those most insecure in our community. These ideas include:
1. Holding individual police officers accountable for their violence, by banning officers from being rehired by other departments if fired by another, withholding pensions from fired officers, and removing the qualified immunity that shields police from legal liability.
2. Reducing the size of your community’s police department.
3. Eliminating the arsenal of your community’s police department, particularly eliminating access to and use of military weaponry.
4. Reducing the budget of your police department, which should include policies the end the practice of paying police placed on administrative leave after using violence, withholding pensions from police fired for using violence, reducing the size of the force, reducing the salaries of the officers. Money saved through police budget reductions must be redirected to support non-police programs in your community that address and rectify housing insecurity and food insecurity, and improve access to health care and education.
5. Ending the practice of police officers moonlighting as private, in-uniform security sold to the highest bidder, and treat private police (privately funded security services) as the same as public police.
These suggestions are just the beginning of policies designed to defund and dismantle the police we currently have while at the same building our capacity to end racial inequalities in health, education, work, criminal convictions, and more.
Don’t believe the people who will reject these proposals because crime and lawlessness will follow. Police don’t fight crime, don’t solve crime, don’t deter crime. When NYPD went out on strike, crime fell. The myth that society will devolve into anomie and chaos without police is already proven false by the proliferation of voluntary mutual aid networks and care economies that sprung up organically in response to community need during COVID-19. This all happened in the absence and shadows of the state. Care economies are an important part of an abolitionist politic calling for defunding the police and reinvestment in our communities.
Police impose an order that requires violence and police violence destroys lives, destroys families, and makes entire communities insecure and unsafe. We have decades of evidence that demonstrate this.
If you were horrified by the police murder of George Floyd, demand that Albuquerque immediately defund police. Reject the reforms that police will offer instead. We’ve given them too many chances to reform. Reform doesn’t work. Abolish police instead.