An Albuquerque City Council committee earlier this month voted unanimously to accept $50,000 in federal money to pay Albuquerque Police officers working overtime on a task force with the bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF), passing the final question on to the full council next Monday.
The federal money — and another $5,725 in matching city dollars — would fund a working relationship between the two law enforcement agencies that dates to at least 2012. That’s when then-Police Chief Ray Schultz signed a memorandum of agreement with the ATF that allowed his officers to investigate violent crimes with federal agents.
In the weeks before Webster’s death last October, undercover ATF agents allegedly purchased $6,500 worth of heroin and a firearm from Davon Lymon, the man who, according to police, fatally shot Webster during a traffic stop on Oct. 21. The agents did not arrest Lymon, a previously convicted killer who had been in and out of jail and prison since 2000. The ATF has refused to say why.
The Albuquerque Police Department (APD) knew prior to Webster’s death about the ongoing ATF undercover operation that targeted Lymon, although officials did not publicly disclose the information in the weeks following Webster’s death. The department has refused to say whether it played a role in the investigation, either through the task force now being considered for funding or otherwise, or how much Webster knew about Lymon at the time he stopped him on a suspected stolen motorcycle.
City and federal officials have been tight-lipped in the face of questions about information sharing among law enforcement agencies, why Lymon wasn’t arrested and whether the task force is functioning in the interest of the city’s public safety mission.
U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-Albuquerque, sent a letter to the ATF on March 3 asking about the bureau’s policies and the Lymon case. Her office has not heard back.
Mayor Richard Berry’s administration renewed the ATF-APD agreement with a Jan. 21 memo signed by the mayor’s top executive, Rob Perry, City Attorney Jessica Hernandez and Police Chief Gorden Eden. The joint task force, according to the memo, investigates “carjackings, commercial robberies, shootings, narcotics trafficking and previously convicted felons in pos-session of firearms.”
The City Council controls the purse strings. That means the Berry administration needs the Council to approve the federal money and matching dollars from the city’s coffers that fund the task force.
City Councilors weigh in
Councilor Brad Winter sponsored the resolution to accept the federal money that keeps the partnership working, and it passed the Finance and Government Operations Committee on March 14. The full council is expected to vote Monday on whether to accept the money.
In an interview, Winter, a Republican who also is serving as New Mexico’s interim secretary of state, said he sponsored the measure on a request from the Berry administration.
“They ask us to carry these things, and we usually do,” Winter said. “You assume these are good things: federal money to fight crime.”
He said he was not aware of the undercover ATF operation that targeted Lymon in the weeks before Webster’s death. Informed of the details by a reporter and asked whether he thought the ATF-APD task force was meeting the city’s public safety mission, Winter said: “That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know the procedures, or anything about how the Lymon thing happened. Those would be good questions to ask when this goes to the Council.”
Councilor Pat Davis*, a Democrat and former police officer, said the task force is a necessary tool for APD.
“Having been a cop and having been frustrated with the inability to go after some of these really bad guys through the state system, I think it’s valuable to work with the feds because they have always provided the best avenue to go after the worst of the worst,” Davis said. “That doesn’t mean the task force might not need to be reworked, or have some of the rules revisited.”
He said the Lymon case demonstrated some holes in information sharing both within APD and between the department and other agencies.
Davis pointed to one of several run-ins Lymon had with law enforcement in the weeks before he allegedly shot Webster. In September, an APD officer stopped Lymon on a suspected stolen motor scooter. Lymon fled on foot and dropped a loaded firearm magazine as he ran. The officer sent body camera video of Lymon to the APD Gang Unit sergeant, who immediately identified Lymon.
The stop took place eight days after the ATF’s first alleged undercover heroin purchase from Lymon and 13 days before the second. But it is unclear whether the gang sergeant took any action, such as issuing a department-wide officer safety bulletin or communicating with other agencies.
“That’s frankly my larger concern,” Davis said. “I want to see us be able to insert flags on dangerous individuals that officers on the street will have access to when they really need it. Those are the kinds of questions I want to see the police chief answer. As for the task force, I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
The Berry administration, APD and the ATF did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
*Pat Davis is the executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico. ProgressNow New Mexico helps find funding for NM Political Report but has no editorial control, including story selection, over this or any other story.