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Inside the Twisted Police Department That Kills Unarmed Citizens at the Highest Rate in the Country

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Reprinted from AlterNet

Hyper-militarized cops here have killed residents with shocking impunity.

Image of police in riot gear
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When an Albuquerque police officer shot his 22-year-old son to death, Mike Gomez was determined to crusade for justice. Three years later, he is simply despondent.

"It's so frustrating," Gomez told me. "There's no accountability here. There's no justice. There's no respect. There's no humanity here. There's nothing. It's so disgusting that they get away with it."

A single father, Mike Gomez struggled for years to help his son, Alan, cope with a substance abuse problem. When Mike Gomez left town on May 10, 2011, Alan Gomez fell back into his addiction and was overcome with paranoid delusions. He began pacing back and forth on the front lawn of his brother's house, holding a conversation with an imaginary person about gang members assembling to kill him. Alarmed family members eventually phoned a dispatcher from the Albuquerque police, who summoned police to what she mistakenly believed was a hostage situation.

From across town, an off-duty cop named Sean Wallace heard the alert blare through his scanner, then barreled over to the scene before a crisis intervention officer could arrive. Without provocation, Wallace opened fire, killing Alan Gomez with a high-powered rifle as he entered the house through a screen door. The troubled young man was holding nothing in his hand but a plastic spoon.

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With his death, Alan Gomez joined the list of at least 27 people killed by Albuquerque police officers since 2010, and the more than 40 wounded by gunfire. In a city of just over 540,000, the body count is staggering. Indeed, the rate of officer-involved shootings by Albuquerque police is eight times that of the NYPD and two times higher than in Chicago, a megalopolis with one of the steepest levels of violent crime in the country.

Alan Wagman, an assistant public defender who served on Albuquerque's Police Oversight Commission, told me he observed a pattern of brutality that extended well beyond the shooting of unarmed people. He described witnessing numerous cases of officers applying a technique known as a "sternum rub" to homeless people. "They take their knuckles and hold it against the breastbone, push and rub back and forth," Wagman explained. "The pain is so extreme only a comatose person wouldn't wake up. So cops will come upon a passed-out drunk, give him a sternum rub, the person wakes up and hits the cop and they charge him with assault on a peace officer. I've seen this more than once. It's clear they're trained to do this."

Wagman described the Albuquerque police as the most violent department he has ever encountered in his career as a public defender. "I think they're trained to kill people," he said. "I can't understand it any other way."

A damning report released this April by the Department of Justice concluded that the "Albuquerque police department engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional use of deadly force." It went on to accuse members of the department of having "shot and killed civilians who did not pose an imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death to the officers or others." The report singled out Wallace for killing Gomez when "no one's life was in danger and an APD negotiator was on his way to the scene.''

When I visited Albuquerque this October, local civil liberties activists explained the city's plague of lethal police violence in a broader context of racism and economic inequality. The legacy of settler-colonialism and its echo in the immigration crisis has cultivated an atmosphere of racially charged brutality. The state's economy subsists off of the arms industry, military contracts and nuclear research, fueling a militarized culture that filters down to local police forces.

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Albuquerque is at the crossroads of major drug-running route, making it a central staging ground for the federally funded war on drugs. Add to the equation a plethora of casinos, a dearth of jobs and a local government operated by a tax-slashing mayor overseeing a corrupt patronage network and it becomes clear why the blighted metropolis known as Duke City has become a virtual playpen for killer cops like Sean Wallace.

A Killer's Rewards

Wallace joined the Albuquerque police in 2007 during an ill-fated push to expand the force to 1,000 officers. He was among four officers who had just been fired from the New Mexico State Police for taking payments from Wackenhut, a private security contractor, while on duty as state cops. The four barely averted prison terms for the double-dipping scandal.

When the rejects were hired by the Albuquerque PD, then-Deputy Police Chief Mike Castro pledged, "They do not carry guns, they are not going to be badged." Almost as soon as Wallace reported for duty, however, he was sporting a badge and bearing an assault rifle.

Besides killing Alan Gomez, Wallace has shot two other unarmed people in his short career -- one died -- and terrorized an untold number of others. He was named in a federal lawsuit for ramming the car of a wanted man driving his family to school, then handcuffing the man's children as their schoolmates watched in horror. Though his killing of Gomez cost Albuquerque $900,000, part of a whopping $26 million tab in settlements paid out to families of citizens killed by cops since 2010, Wallace has received nothing but rewards from his superiors. (The first time he killed an unarmed person, Wallace cost the city $235,000.)

For shooting Gomez, the Albuquerque Police Officers Association paid Wallace $500 and gave him three days off. Other cops who shot local residents have received checks ranging from $300 to $1,000, along with several days of leave -- payouts the police union calls "decompression money."

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Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post,, Al Jazeera English and many other publications. He is a writing fellow for the Nation Institute. His book, (more...)

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