June 1, 2016

Were APD stings aimed at drug users worth it?

Photo Credit: eviloars cc

To some, it was a waste of scarce and precious police resources.

Photo Credit: eviloars cc

Photo Credit: eviloars cc

In what could be a metaphor for the plight of Albuquerque, the May 9 reverse sting drug operation by Albuquerque police officers resulted in the arrest of eight low-level drug users and homeless people, $23.10 in cash, a computer tablet, cell phone, police radio, jacket and colic medicine.

For that, police deployed around 15 to 20 officers and support staff for the operation near Central and Pennsylvania Northeast. And considering all the other support services connected with the operation, the reverse sting probably cost taxpayers between $5,000 and $10,000, experts said.

This piece originally appeared in the ABQ Free Press.

That’s because reverse stings – where cops sell drugs to buyers – are complex operations that require a lot of people to pull off, according to a source familiar with APD drug operations.

A sting generally needs three to four detectives to actively flag customers to sell drugs to. Each detective requires a surveillance and security team. Then there are two take-down, or arrest teams, of five to six officers each. After the buyers are arrested, they have to be transported to a police substation and then, eventually to the Metropolitan Detention Center on the far West Side, and that takes transportation personnel.

“It’s takes a minimum of 20 people and is a very labor-intensive process that, I think, is a waste of manpower that address the symptoms rather than the problems,” a law enforcement source told ABQ Free Press.

Cost vs. benefit

Figuring that most APD officers make $28 an hour and that 20 officers were needed for an eight-hour operation, the sting itself could have cost up to $4,500. Then there’s the cost of the personnel who book the suspects into the jail, the cost of keeping the suspects in jail, and the cost of APD lab personnel to test the drugs that were purchased and to testify before a grand jury that they were indeed illegal drugs.

And, considering that the District Attorney’s Office probably won’t prosecute the people who were arrested, a fair question is whether the operation was a waste of time and money.

“Given the critical needs of our community at this time, we would discourage the practice of reverse operations,” Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg told this newspaper. “In the meantime, we have people waiting for calls for service on residential burglaries. The resources need to be expended in different ways.”

Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis* agreed. “At the end of the day, the neighborhood was no better off than when they [police] showed up,” Davis said. “They might have made an impact for a couple of hours, but when the police left, the users came back.”

Davis recently asked APD Chief Gorden Eden to stop the reverse stings and use department resources to go after higher level drug dealers.

In a letter to the chief, Davis wrote, “I believe that the process undertaken in this operation  [May 9] is misguided and targets the symptom of a larger problem without bringing any long-term benefit to the community.”

APD’s stance

APD didn’t comment for this article, but department spokespeople have told other news organizations that the department has been doing reverse stings for more than 20 years and that they are effective, at least temporarily, in reducing drug trafficking and the problems it causes for neighborhood residents and businesses.

An APD spokesperson said that after the May 9 sting, calls for service in the area near Pennsylvania and Central decreased substantially.

City Councilor Diane Gibson doesn’t think that cops should be arresting low-level users and addicts, but she sympathizes with the police and with residents and business owners whose neighborhoods are plagued by street-level drug deals.

“I get calls from residents and business owners every week, and typically they’re saying that they see some mangy looking guy on their street looking for drugs, so do something,” Gibson said. She added that Eden wrote her recently to say that being arrested for drug possession can be the event that triggers an addict to get help.


“They [officers] want to make arrests so they can get them [addicts] in front of a judge who will require them to complete some substance abuse or mental health program,” Gibson said. “That might be the only way these people [addicts] get to see a professional, and it might be the only way that they get a nudge in the right direction. So maybe this isn’t so bad.”

Richard Pugh, the head public defender for the Second Judicial District, said Albuquerque needs something like the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion [LEAD] program that has been in place in Seattle since 2011. Under LEAD, instead of arresting and booking low-level drug users and sellers, police divert them into housing and treatment programs.

Assistant Public Defender Alan Wagman also believes that APD’s reverse sting was a waste of time and money.

“They’ve been doing this type of sting for 20 years, and it hasn’t stopped it [drug usage],” Wagman said. He added that instead of sending at least 20 officers to arrest low-level users, APD could have pursued a more effective course to get drug users off the streets.

“They should have put up a big sign saying, ‘Warning! Police are going to be selling drugs in this area,’” Wagman said. “That would have been more effective.”

Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

Pat Davis is the executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico. ProgressNow New Mexico helps find funding for NM Political Report. Neither Davis or anyone else at ProgressNow New Mexico has any input on stories or story selection at NM Political Report.