On September 1, over 200 community members gathered to grieve the loss of Keshawn Thomas, a 27-year-old Black and Latino man who had been killed by the Albuquerque police three days earlier.
To honor him, a car was fashioned into a shrine decorated with flowers, homemade signs and photos. It was parked at the pump at the Valero gas station where he was killed on Albuquerque’s west side. Family, friends and other community members in attendance held signs for passing cars and chanted demands for reform.
Loved ones attending the vigil shared memories of Thomas and demands for justice. They demanded that the Albuquerque Police Department release the footage of Keshawn’s death immediately. More importantly, they want the responsible police officers charged in his death.
Others who have lost a family member to APD violence joined the vigil in solidarity. They included the family of Dominic Smith, who was killed by APD not far from the vigil for Keshawn Thomas. Smith’s family also recently erected a new vigil to their relative who was killed by APD 13 years ago.
Killing of Keshawn Thomas part of a pattern of abuse by APD
Three days before his family was erecting a memorial to him, Keshawn Thomas was asleep in his car outside of a Valero gas station on Albuquerque’s west side. Seeing Thomas asleep in his car outside, a gas station attendant called the police a little after 11 pm. Multiple officers responded and, after waking Keshawn up and speaking with him briefly, shot him as many as a dozen times.
This incident marks the seventh fatal shooting by APD so far this year.
These examples are part of a much larger problem that has been so bad and continuous that APD has been under Department of Justice oversight since 2014. The unnecessary killing of homeless camper James Boyd in March of 2014 led to furious and large mass protests that actually led to the closure of parts of downtown Albuquerque.
Specifically, the DOJ investigation cited APD’s “too frequent use of deadly force against people who pose a minimal threat” and interactions with “persons with mental illness and in crisis too frequently result in a use of force.” The DOJ initiated a “Court-Approved Settlement Agreement” after the investigation that outlined 267 policy reforms and required twice-a-year progress monitoring by the DOJ.
ABQ mayor says APD has improved — the people say no way!
It came as a major surprise on September 1 — the same day as the vigil for Keshawn Thomas — when Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and the APD announced that they will now be able to suspend a portion of the DOJ’s police reform oversight. Specifically, one-quarter of APD’s Settlement Agreement is being suspended. The main areas of the agreement will continue to be overseen by the DOJ, including documentation of use-of-force and disciplining police when their use-of-force violates the law or policy. But now recruitment, field training and specialized units like SWAT team will be monitored by APD themselves. No more outside force monitoring whether a recruit shows tendencies towards excessive violence. No more monitoring whether officers are being trained according to policy or just past custom of escalation and violence. No more DOJ oversight over the SWAT unit.
This decision seems unbelievable when in this year alone APD has been responsible for seven killings. One of these deaths this year was 15-year-old Brett Rosenau. He was watching an older man work on a motorcycle and when a SWAT raid attacked. They chased the man into the house and Brett followed. The joint APD-Sheriff’s Office SWAT raid launched flash-bang grenades and tear-gas canisters into the house every thirty minutes for over five hours. When there were visible signs outside that a fire started, the police let the house burn for another 40 minutes before calling the fire department. Brett was already dead by smoke inhalation by the time they arrived.
Other similar incidents underscore the continuing problem. James Langlois died when APD confronted him while he was sleeping in his van in a Target parking lot on July 5.
Langlois, who was 64 and on probation for driving under the influence, had began a few days earlier to cough up blood. He communicated to his probation officer about his deteriorating health, and said he was going to a cabin “to die peacefully.” His probation officer reminded him that this travel would violate his probation terms and issued a warrant for his arrest. Langlois shared that he would rather take his life, adding, “Just say a prayer for me. Again, I thank you for being kind.”
On the night of July 5, Langlois was sleeping in his van at a parking lot of a Target. The manager reported to the non-emergency police number that a man was sleeping in his van in the parking lot.
When police arrived, Langlois was polite, but when they went to arrest him for traveling against the terms of his probation, he pulled out a gun and closed himself in his van. Surrounded by police pointing guns at him, James shot himself inside the van. One police officer fired an additional shot at James in the incident.
APD has never displayed any “progress”
The DOJ’s relinquishing of oversight on these important areas is unjustifiable considering APD’s long record of opposition to the reforms. The DOJ Monitor’s Report has repeatedly cited “passive resistance, and outright support for, and implementation of, counter-CASA (counter police-reform) processes,” especially among lieutenants, sergeants and mid-level commanders.
The Albuquerque Police Officers Association openly denounced the entire reform process, spending $70,000 in 2020-2021 on billboards and ads which stated: “Are you tired of crime? Text #Crime Matters More. Tell City leaders that you care more about crime than wasting millions on endless DOJ oversight.” This racist counter to the popular “Black Lives Matter” movement at the time explicitly denounced the DOJ reform process.
In response to the DOJ investigation, Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association said that “We’re talking about the bureaucracy of police officers being taken off the street because somebody that was not used force on said ‘ow’ … Albuquerque police officers are terrified that they will lose their job for simply doing their job and it’s not fair.” (Albuquerque Journal)
When the DOJ investigated and forced reform on APD in 2014, they cited as a problem that 20 people were shot and killed in the previous four-year period (an average of five fatal shootings per year). So far in 2022, APD has already had seven fatal shootings. How can this be considered an improvement?
At the “progress” announcement, Chief Administrative Officer Lawrence Rael was quoted in the Albuquerque Journal arrogantly stating “there is an end in sight to this reform.” But there is no indication of an end in sight of police violence and murder of the working class people of Albuquerque. But as the people showed at the vigils for Keshawn and others, people will fight back!
Justice for Keshawn Thomas, Brett Rosenau, Collin Neztsosie, Valente Acosta-Bustillos, Dominic Smith, James Boyd, and all victims of police terror in Albuquerque and elsewhere!