ACLU of New Mexico Sues Albuquerque Police Over Mistreatment of Peaceful Protestors

Affiliate: ACLU of New Mexico
March 22, 2004 12:00 am

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ALBUQUERQUE — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the New Mexico chapter of the National Lawyers Guild filed a civil rights lawsuit today against the Albuquerque Police Department over its handling of a protest against the Iraq war last March.

Fourteen plaintiffs – including two minors – accused the Albuquerque police of violating their free speech rights and subjecting them to false imprisonment, wrongful arrest, malicious abuse of process, and excessive use of force. Mayor Martin Chavez of Albuquerque, Department of Public Safety Chief Nick Bakas, Chief of Police Gilbert Gallegos and 12 police officers were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

“We are deeply concerned by the police department’s policy of managing peaceful protests with the same techniques that are used to control violent mobs,” said Peter Simonson, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Mexico. “These protestors were a threat to no one. They were students, senior citizens, and parents with their children and dogs. Despite their peaceful behavior, the protestors were gassed, beaten with batons, and shot with stun weapons.”

On the evening of March 20, 2003, according to legal papers, a group of several hundred people gathered in front of the University of New Mexico bookstore to protest the decision by U.S. President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. Police officers dressed in riot gear and some mounted on draft horses closed off the intersections of Central and Girard and Central and University Avenues, and then formed “skirmish lines” in front of the demonstrators. The officers then escorted the protestors in a loop that ran west to University Avenue, north on University, and eventually west to Cedar Avenue before returning to Central Avenue.

As the crowd returned to the original gathering spot and crossed University and Central, officers struck people with batons and used horses to force stragglers to move more quickly. As protestors crossed Harvard Avenue, police launched tear gas canisters into the crowd. The officers eventually maced protestors and shot them with beanbag and pepper rounds, dispersing the crowd. In one incident, a police officer fired 15 pepper-gun rounds at a protestor who lay in a submissive posture in the street. Other protestors reported being hit with tear gas canisters that were fired into the crowd. Several arrests were made.

“The actions that prompted this lawsuit are not a few minor instances of officers accidentally stepping over the line,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Cammie Nichols. “This lawsuit responds to a distinct pattern of grossly negligent and over-aggressive behavior that subjected law-abiding citizens to unnecessary danger and intimidation. After the experiences of last March, how many people will stay home the next time a large demonstration is organized, simply out of fear about how the police might respond?”

Albuquerque’s Independent Review Office (IRO) interviewed 47 police officers and 23 citizens last November and found that some police officers used excessive force during the March protest. The IRO also found that some officers failed to render aid or to request aid for injured people, failed to follow standard operating procedures, and used weapons that were not authorized or not recommended for crowd control. The IRO concluded that a series of poor decisions made by high-ranking police officials created a dangerous situation for everyone at the march, including police and demonstrators.

However, the ACLU noted, the police are not required to act on the findings of the IRO or to follow its recommendations.

“Our lawsuit is intended to give the city and the police department a wake-up call that it needs to reassess its strategies for responding to demonstrations,” said Mary Lou Boelcke, an ACLU cooperating attorney. “The policies of the Bush administration are likely to prompt more protests in the near future. We don’t want to see a repeat of last March’s incidents.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order that the police actions violated the protestor’s rights, as well as improvements in city and police training and policies regarding the management of peaceful demonstrations.

Attorneys for the ACLU of New Mexico and the National Lawyers Guild include Nichols, Boelcke, Marc Lowry, Larry Kronen, Cindy Marrs, and David Stotz.

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