The acting U.S. Attorney in Albuquerque will hear out local black leaders and their concerns over a massive, 2016 undercover sting operation that “sent shockwaves” through the city’s black community.
Acting U.S. Attorney James Tierney agreed to meet in a July 11 letter to the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the grassroots Sankofa Men’s Leadership Exchange.
The groups’ leadership contacted Tierney after a series of stories by New Mexico In Depth that examined the operation conducted by the federal bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF).
The operation scooped up 28 African Americans — out of 103 arrested — or 27 percent, an “alarming” statistic, Dr. Harold Bailey noted in the NAACP’s letter. Bailey is the president of the local NAACP chapter.
But the two groups shouldn’t expect many answers from Tierney.
“Because this office is dedicated to the fair and just enforcement of the law, we are receptive to hearing your concerns even if we may not be able to respond to them at this time,” Tierney wrote. U.S Department of Justice policies prohibit him and his staff from discussing “pending cases, investigative techniques and information that is not part of the public record,” he added.
NMID’s investigation found that ATF targeted an impoverished, largely minority section of southeast Albuquerque with the help of local law enforcement agencies including the Albuquerque Police Department. Most of those arrested were charged with drug crimes and, in some cases, firearms-related offenses.
In addition to the arrest of a disproportionate number of blacks, agents arrested mostly low-level drug users and people without lengthy, violent criminal records rather than the “worst of the worst” repeat, violent offenders federal officials said were the focus of the operation, an NMID investigation found.
Patrick Barrett, a member of Sankofa’s leadership, informed Tierney in that group’s letter that “This matter is of the utmost importance to the Black community in Albuquerque. Our community here is small, and has been traditionally targeted by law enforcement and marginalized in the public school system.”
For example, Barrett said APD officers have shot a disproportionate number of black people through the years. But authorities told black community leaders: “ ‘APD has an excessive force problem, not a racial discrimination problem’ ” — despite a showing of disparate impact regarding police shootings involving African Americans.”
Regarding the ATF sting, “with such small numbers, when our community was targeted, and 28 arrests were made, it sent shockwaves through our community,” Barrett wrote.
No meeting dates have been set with Tierney, said Barrett, who hopes federal officials schedule two meetings, one with Sankofa and another with the NAACP. Barrett is a member of both.
To date, 65 of the 103 defendants arrested in the ATF sting have pleaded guilty; 29 have been sentenced. The other 38 have pleaded not guilty.
Meanwhile, APD has broken its silence on the operation — at least in part.
For months, New Mexico’s largest law enforcement agency has told NMID that it cannot comment on its role in the sting on account of orders from ATF.
But this week, local radio station KUNM’s Marisa Demarco aired an interview with Barrett about the black community’s reaction to the operation. KUNM contacted APD for comment and received a response saying the department “in no way targets any demographics in our community other than criminals.”