In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the cops like to shoot people. Since 2010, the police here have killed 27, many of them unarmed, many of them shot in the back. It's gotten so bad that a recent VICE article wondered if our cops are "The Worst in the US." It's widely repeated here that Albuquerque police kill more people per capita than in any other city, although that's impossible to verify because there is no national database of police shootings. We do know that Albuquerque police kill eight times more people per capita than the famously violent NYPD.
Even the Feds have weighed in on the problem, issuing a report on the Albuquerque Police Department that can only be described as "damning." The Department of Justice looked at the 20 police killings between 2009 and 2012, finding "a majority of these shootings were unconstitutional" and noting "the pattern or practice of excessive force stems from systemic deficiencies in oversight, training, and policy."
The situation boiled over back in March into a kind of mini-preview of Ferguson, with a highly militarized police force driving tanks around in front of the university and firing a shitload of tear gas at nonviolent protestors. The protests were in response to the Albuquerque Police Department's murder of a homeless man named James Boyd, who was shot with an assault rifle for the capital offense of "illegal camping."
All of which makes it a kind of suspect decision by the city to host something called the "National Police Shooting Championships" last week. It's pretty much what it sounds like—a target shooting competition for cops.
The contest, organized by the NRA, took place from September 13 through September 18 at a shooting range which the city operates as a public service, because free food and transportation is boring. It's actually the eighth year the contest was held in Albuquerque, but the first year it sparked public protest.
And public protest there was—at least three separate demonstrations were held against the contest, with demonstrators calling for the "Killer Cop Competition" to be called off or moved to a different location.
In case the "Killer Cop Competition" label comes off as hyperbolic, it should be pointed out that at least one of the cops on the Albuquerque team is actually a killer. On the registration list for the competition, we find one Sean Wallace, who shot and killed a man named Alan Gomez while Gomez was armed with a plastic spoon. Wallace came to APD from the state police, where he killed another man by shooting him three times in the back.
Another police officer, Tim Gonterman, is listed as the point of contact for officers wishing to join the competition despite the fact that he cost the city $300,000 in an excessive force lawsuit after he Tasered a homeless guy until his ear fell off. Gonterman later referred to the incident as "a mistake," claiming that the relative novelty of Taser technology at the time meant he somehow didn't know you're supposed to stop Tasing the guy at some point. APD Chief Gordon Eden, in an apparent attempt to prove that he gives no fucks whatsoever, announced his decision to promote Gonterman in response to the Department of Justice report criticizing APD's use of excessive force.
Wallace has also been an expensive proposition for the state of New Mexico: His first killing cost the state $235,000 in a wrongful death lawsuit, and the city settled out-of-court with Alan Gomez's family for a hefty $900,000.
Gomez's father, Mike Gomez, told me that the decision to hold the competition in Albuquerque reflects the city's lack of concern for the victims of police violence. "They're doing it in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is under investigation for a corrupt and dysfunctional police force. And they're still doing it here," Gomez said. "It's just not right, but, you know, APD doesn't care about the citizens. They don't care about what's right or wrong, only what's good for them. And that's it."
Gomez took part in a protest at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Albuquerque, one of the host hotels for the competition. Demonstrators stormed into the lobby demanding to speak with a manager, only to be told there was no manager, which doesn't really make sense for a giant, 15-plus-story hotel.
All of the (entirely white) staff and guests I encountered inside the hotel lobby were kind of nonplussed about the protest. Desk staff refused to talk to the protestors at all, and instead fled into the back room while other staff members chanted "Shame! Shame!" at the demonstrators. I overheard one woman saying irately into a mobile phone, "I'm trying to check in, but I can't because there's all these people yelling about justice and peace."
Rather tellingly, however, when protestors moved to the parking lot, an African American guest came out on his balcony and immediately greeted demonstrators with "Hands up, don't shoot!"—a reference to the protests in Ferguson. Police violence in the United States disproportionately affects black men, with one study finding that police officers use deadly force against African Americans at least twice a week.
Albuquerque police spokesman Tanner Tixier declined to comment on the competition, referring all questions to the NRA even though promotional materials for the event proudly listed the "City of Albuquerque New Mexico Police Department" as hosts for the competition. The NRA failed to respond to repeated emails and phone messages requesting comment for this story.
In a further attempt to get comment from the NRA and/or APD for the story, I stopped by the shooting range on the first day of practice for the competition. I was told that the NRA had left and there was no one present from APD to speak to us, but while waiting in vain for range staff to contact the relevant spokespeople, we happened to overhear an unconnected Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office training session on the use of tear gas. (Bernalillo is the county Albuquerque is in.)
Showing off one canister, the training officer said, "This one is extremely effective against the mentally ill. I don't know why, but it is… It smells like cherries." The officer later noted of a different kind of tear gas that "this one will fuck up a dog."
Demonstrations continued as the competition itself got underway, with protestors motorcading to the shooting range on the first day of the contest. Demonstrators blocked traffic to the range by driving extremely slowly, and were themselves briefly blocked by the police, although they were (somewhat amazingly) eventually let through to protest at the competition itself.
Upon arrival at the range, protesters set up homemade coffins and laid out photos of the 27 people killed by APD since 2010.
Among the protesters at the shooting range was Nora Anaya, whose nephew George Levi Tachias was killed by APD in 1988 while driving his injured girlfriend to the hospital. "My nephew never got an opportunity to tell his side of the story. How could they demonize him when he was fighting for our country? He fought for our country in Grenada," she said. "The police were judge, jury, and executioner. That is the reason I have been fighting against police brutality."
Demonstrator Renee Garcia said she's sick of the way Albuquerque's police have been treating the city's citizens and she feels insulted by the city's decision to host the shooting contest.
"The whole competition itself is completely uncalled for. It's disrespectful to the families of the victims that have been killed. We still have no justice from the city. We just have absolutely no justice, no closure," Garcia said. "Take your killer competition to another city, another community, another state. Just leave us alone."
That simply ain't gonna happen, according to Albuquerque Police Lieutenant Steve Altman, who acted as a spokesman for the force during the demonstration at the shooting range. Asked if he thinks the demonstrations will affect the competition's prospects of being hosted in Albuquerque next year, Altman responded, "I do not, no. I anticipate that this will also take place next year."
Altman declined to comment on a variety of other issues, including Wallace's inclusion on the team, noting, "I don't really have much to do with the NRA, and in fact this is the first time I've been out here. I'm only here, I'm part of the emergency response team, so, um, that's the only reason I'm here."
Demonstrations continued the next day, with demonstrators holding a "People's Shooting Competition," where they fired water guns at targets, including "Militarization" and "Racial Profiling." Protestors say they will continue to call for reforms inside APD and around the country.
Although the competition will probably be held in Albuquerque again next year, protestors may actually be accomplishing something: APD hasn't killed anyone since July. So that's something.