August 10, 2020

Details of APD’s plan for Oñate statue protest still fuzzy

Andy Lyman

Albuquerque Police Department and Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department

It’s been nearly two months since Albuquerque police arrested Steven Baca and charged him with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon after a protest in Albuquerque. The protest began with a group of activists who called for the removal of a statue of 16th century conquistador Juan de Oñate, who is infamous for his brutal treatment of Indigenous people in what is now New Mexico.

Baca, who was seemingly at the event as a counterprotestor, at one point got into a physical altercation with a number of protesters. Accounts of what happened on the evening of June 15 vary. Some videos shared on social media appear to show Baca grabbing and throwing protesters to the ground. Others show a group of people getting into a second altercation with Baca before a series of gunshots can be heard and Scott Williams, one of the Oñate protesters, can be seen falling to the ground. Within minutes of the gunfire, an APD tactical team showed up and cleared the crowd using less lethal munitions. 

Baca has since been charged with numerous crimes, including assault and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

But one thing that remains unclear is when APD planned to intervene had Williams not been shot. It’s also unclear what level of unarmed violence the department planned on allowing before stepping in. NM Political Report examined two different documents obtained from the city, through a public records request, that outline APD’s plan for that day, but neither seem to fully address police intervention for physical altercations like the ones that were captured on video leading up to the shooting. 

Redactions

On July 1, NM Political Report requested copies of any police tactical plans for the Oñate protest from the City of Albuquerque. About a month later, the city provided a heavily redacted operation plan from APD’s Special Investigations Division. Information like the type of operation, officers involved and even the nearest hospital was blacked out of the report. The only specific and pertinent information that was not redacted was the fact that a protest occurred. 

Under the “Plans / Purpose of Operations” section of the operational overview is “On 06/15/2020 there is currently a planned protest.” In the “After Action Review Narrative” portion of the document are the words, “On June 15 there was a planned protest.” On July 28, the city clerk’s office informed NM Political Report the records request would be deemed closed. 

But last week, on the same day NM Political Report asked a city spokesman questions about the redactions, the city clerk’s office reopened the records request and provided a second, slightly less redacted version of the operational plan. The new version provided additional information about what was known about the planned protest, but still did not address plans for breaking up any altercations or plans for if anyone showed up to the protest armed, which a local militia group did. 

Albuquerque City Clerk Ethan on Friday cited exceptions to the New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) as reasons even the second version of the operational plan was redacted. IPRA allows law enforcement agencies to withhold information that may “reveal confidential sources, methods, information or individuals accused but not charged with a crime.” Albuquerque City Clerk Ethan Watson said since the plan was from the Special Investigations Division, almost all of what is in their plan is sensitive. 

“Because it was specifically from that division, because of the nature of their work and the involvement of undercover officers and their methodologies and tactics, that was why that was as redacted as it was,” Watson said. 

Watson also said even the signatures, names and dates of officers were redacted because of the nature of their work and that those officers often work undercover. 

Watson’s office, in an initial response to the records request, also cited an exception to IPRA aimed to protect information “which could reveal specific vulnerabilities, risk assessments or tactical emergency security procedures that could be used to facilitate the planning or execution of a terrorist attack.” Watson said his understanding is that units who handle emergency situations may also be the ones who are deployed to help respond to a terrorist attack. But, he added, “the main exemption we were citing in regard to those redactions was the law enforcement exception.”

Event action plan

Besides a list of criminal charges against Baca, the events on June 15 and the role of police also led Williams and his family to hire a lawyer with the intention of suing the city. 

Albuquerque-based civil rights attorney Laura Schauer Ives is representing Williams, but has not filed a lawsuit yet, at least partly because she’s still waiting on her own records request. 

Before she files a lawsuit, Schauer Ives said, she needs to make sure it’s warranted. 

She said the redactions in the operation plan hide specifics about when or if police planned to intervene had Williams not been shot. 

“We don’t know if the initial tactical plan had set forth a threshold of when they would act because that information is redacted,” Schauer Ives said. “And we don’t know if they were remiss in whether or not they responded at that threshold, because we don’t know what the threshold was, or if there was one.”

NM Political Report shared the operational plan with both Schauer Ives and Baca’s attorney for review. 

Schauer Ives said both versions of the redacted operation plan raise “serious concerns about what information is in that document that they don’t want [the public] to see.”

Jason Bowles, Baca’s defense attorney, also said the redaction in both versions of the operational plan are concerning. 

“This report is all but completely redacted and provides no information,” Bowles said. “This is a search for truth and the public has a right to know all of the relevant facts about what happened with this protest and the city’s response and plan.”

On Friday afternoon, Watson said his office discovered additional records pertinent to the July 1 request from NM Political Report, in the form of an APD Emergency Response Team Event Action Plan. That plan outlined a broader plan for the department, which included a list of support units like the Emergency Response Team (ERT), an Air Support Unit and the Special Operations Division, among others. Under a section labeled “Rules of Engagement,” the plan mostly lays out what was to happen if the crowd turned against officers. But, it briefly addresses the possibility of “agitators.”

“Any subjects that are breaking the law will be identified by ERT officers/supervisors and will be relayed to the Incident Commander,” the plan reads. “The on scene ERT Lieutenant will make the determination if an arrest team will be entering the crowd to remove/arrest any subjects.”

APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos told NM Political Report in an email that the nature of the ERT’s work is why there wasn’t a more detailed plan for fights within the crowd. 

“The primary purpose of the Emergency Response Team is crowd control,” Gallegos said. “That’s why much of the plan is directed toward actions against officers. An arrest team would likely consist of uniformed field officers or tactical officers.”

An initial criminal complaint filed in state district court by APD noted that there was at least one undercover officer observing the events leading up to the shooting. APD Chief Michael Geier, during a press briefing after the incident, said any officers that were undercover did not identify themselves even after Williams was shot, so as to not compromise their work and safety. 

Gallegos, on Friday, echoed Geier and emphasised the safety concern.  

“Undercover officers are present in a different capacity than the ERT,” Gallegos said. “Because they are not in uniform, it would be dangerous for them to engage in an arrest in the middle of a large gathering.”

But Bowles said he thinks things could have been very different had uniformed officers intervened earlier. 

“I think the police on the ground did the best they could with the apparent ground rules that they were working under,” Bowles said. “The failure was city leadership and if police had been allowed to go in earlier this would have changed the outcome.”

Geier signed the action plan, but dated it 10 days after the Oñate protest. Gallegos said Geier actually signed the plan before the protest, but failed to offer an explanation for the date discrepancy. After publication, Gallegos clarified that while the plan was approved the day of the protest, Geier did not sign it until 10 days after the protest.

“I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it, but I have since been told the executive team approved the plan the day of the protest and the Emergency Response Teams were briefed on the plan prior to the protest. But the chief apparently signed it on the 25th,” Gallegos said in an email. “We have dealt with more than 35 protests and demonstrations, requiring a lot of reports, reviews and approvals.”

According to court records Baca was released from jail in June and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Wednesday. 

Below are the three documents provided by the City of Albuquerque, in response to a public records request by NM Political Report.

Updates: This story originally referred to Juan de Oñate as a 15th century conquistador. It was the 16th century.

Gilbert Gallegos clarified that APD Chief Geier signed the Event Action Plan 10 days after the protest.