Artefact: Notes On The Kill Zone

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The Kill Zone is real. It’s not a phrase I made up. It’s an internal Albuquerque Police Department (APD) term for a fluid area that they declare to be under effective martial law for the duration of a SWAT standoff or other “public-security” situation. The reasoning behind it is that it’s unsafe for non-police to be in the area, because either the suspect or the officers may start shooting in any part of that area. Though, let’s be honest – everyone knows it’s far more likely to be the cops. They’ve shot 42 people in Albuquerque since 2010. 

Nationally, it’s trickier to determine. There is no official, reliable nationwide count of police shootings in the United States.

An independent watchdog website tracks all the police killings it can find and counts 196 as of this writing, though that number will undoubtedly be higher by the time you read this. However, the website relies on mainstream-media accounts of killings, meaning if local media outlets fail to report on a killing, it won’t appear in their numbers.

Back to the Albuquerque police: the regulations governing the Kill Zone don’t seem to be particularly rigorous or even clearly defined. Over the course of a SWAT situation, the Kill Zone expands, contracts, and moves at the whim of individual officers, even when the target is stationary. They often move the Kill Zone to wherever the cameras happen to be. There will be a group of neighbors watching the police and as soon as media (independent or otherwise) arrive, the area the neighbors had been standing in all along suddenly becomes the Kill Zone. Everyone then has to leave under threat of arrest or worse.

I once set my camera up on a tripod in the parking lot of an apartment complex across the street from an active SWAT situation, clearly far outside of any danger, and heard them say over the police scanner that they had to send officers to the apartment complex I was in because “we can’t have cameras in the Kill Zone.”

The U.S. Department of Justice stepped in last year in an attempt to score some PR points by creating the appearance that they’re trying to solve the problem. First, they released a rather devastating report on the Albuquerque Police which is actually pretty devastating. The report found that “of the 20 officer-involved shootings resulting in fatalities from 2009 to 2012, we concluded that a majority of these shootings were unconstitutional.”

Their negotiations with the City of Albuquerque resulted in a settlement agreement known as a consent decree, which is still awaiting approval from a federal judge, pending several legal challenges including one from the ACLU and another from the police union.

Many of the specifics of the consent decree are deeply shocking. A significant portion of it centers on defining what constitutes a “use of force” versus what constitutes a “serious use of force.” Under the consent decree, cops can tase someone for fifteen straight seconds and call it a normal “use of force.” Only on the sixteenth second does it become a “serious use of force.” Similarly, the first three baton strikes are regular force. It takes a fourth strike to be considered “serious.” 

Under the decree, all instances of a “serious use of force” by APD are subject to “review” by the newly-formed Civilian Police Oversight Agency (CPOA), an organization created by the consent decree with less teeth than a newborn baby. The consent decree puts the city government in charge of appointing the members of the CPOA. The city, of course, are the same people who appointed the police chief, which is obviously working out well. The CPOA can recommend discipline for officers, but if the police chief doesn’t feel like disciplining his cops, he can choose instead to write a letter to the CPOA explaining why he didn’t do it.

Although it does stipulate that general statistics such as the “number of aggregate uses of force” must be published once a year, at no point does it dictate that any specifics of any investigation be made public. It does occasionally proscribe “discipline” for officers in a variety of situations. Discipline is anything “including, but not limited to, a verbal reprimand, written reprimand, suspension, or dismissal.” So, like, a four-day suspension after listing your job description on Facebook as “human waste disposal” and then killing someone, costing the taxpayer $300,000 in the process?  

The full text of the consent decree can be read here, hosted on our site as an Artefact:

The uselessness of the consent decree is unsurprising, given the conduct of the Department of Justice in Albuquerque. At the same time they were negotiating the consent decree, the US Marshals Service (an arm of the Department of Justice) was going around Albuquerque shooting people left:

and right:

I’ve collected notes here, in the form of an Artefact to support the main piece. All of the stories in the piece are real, and in this Artefact I’ve provided some additional context and background to help readers understand what’s happening in Albuquerque and across the United States.

One

This was at an Albuquerque homeless camp known as Tent City. The city government made the homeless people living there move their camp, and on the first night at the new location (which was farther removed from the city center and with much less light) someone rode by on a bicycle and doused the campers in gasoline. One man I talked to didn’t even have a tent. He was in a sleeping bag outside and the attacker poured gasoline directly on his sleeping bag. He was completely soaked in it while I was talking to him.

The local news never picked this story up, but they did run a lot of pieces based on dubious police claims of crime and violence at the camp. None of the local news bothered to even try to verify whether, for example, there was ever prostitution at Tent City (a claim vehemently denied by every camp resident I’ve spoken to) but they did dutifully report the police accusations as fact. Here’s a sample of some of the local news coverage of the issue:

They later cleared out the second tent city, sending cops around to post no-trespassing notices and then warn anyone who stayed that they would be arrested. The good news, however, is that the city government decided to tackle the large homelessness problem head-on with a “supportive services for the homeless program,” earmarking a full $1.8 million to it in 2015…compared to an approved budget of $157.7 million for the police department.

And a special shoutout to our mayor, Richard J. Berry, a deeply compassionate human being:

Homeboy also once, incredibly, told reporters that the negative attention around the police department won’t cause Albuquerque any trouble in attracting large outside companies to the city, because, he said (as paraphrased by the local news) “site selectors know that many American cities have police departments in trouble, and many are operating under agreements with the U.S. Dept. of Justice.”

Two

The scenes in this piece are all taken from actual SWAT scenes in Albuquerque. Here’s some local news coverage of this one. I think you’ll note the difference in emphasis between my piece and theirs.

Three

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I’ll talk about the bomb robot first. Then we can talk about the mother.

APD won’t release their weapons and equipment inventory, despite the fact that it should clearly be a matter of public record under New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act. They’re being sued by an alternative weekly newspaper (the only decent semi-mainstream news outlet left in the city) to try to get the inventories.

This, of course, means that we don’t know which robots they have or how many of them there are, let alone what it’s costing the taxpayer. But with some digging I was able to discover that as of May 2000, they had a Remotec ANDROS 5A.

I’ve so far been unable to get close enough to get a good picture of the bomb-squad bot, given the restrictions of the Kill Zone and all. But a photo taken by my friend and fellow journalist Pat Lohmann on January 5, 2013, shows APD using what appears to be an ANDROS robot.

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The ANDROS was developed in Albuquerque by Sandia National Laboratories, a federal government agency. It’s now sold for profit by Northrop Grumman, cuz the feds roll like that. It’s primarily a bomb-disposal robot, but it has some interesting optional accessories.

It can be armed with a cannon, for example. It can be fitted with something called an “EU Partners Gas Dispenser Mount,” which the manual boasts is a “Popular military or SWAT accessory for crowd control or other volatile situations where CS gas or pepper spray may be necessary to diffuse hostile actions.” It can fire flashbangs and smoke grenades or be fitted with a circular buzzsaw. And it can plant and detonate explosive charges.

Of course, there’s no way to know which accessories or what capabilities the APD bomb-bot has, cuz they won’t tell us. But they do show their hand sometimes. The “deploys chemical munitions” line in the article comes from a publicly-released APD monthly report dated November 2014. They describe the SWAT situation I wrote about in this segment, which took place on November 9, and reveal that they did use tear-gas or a similar “chemical munition” against the suspect: “The Bomb Squad supported APD’s SWAT Team on November 9 at a local residence. The SWAT team requested robot assistance to assist on a barricaded subject armed with a gun. The Bomb Squad robot was able to deploy chemical munitions into the subject’s motel room, which led to the subject’s surrender.”

I was able to find several APD monthly reports that mention the bomb squad bot being used by the SWAT team, but most of them just say stuff like “The Bomb Squad also assisted APD SWAT with robot support on a SWAT activation.” Period. Very helpful information, thank you APD. But I did come across this morbidly fascinating tale, which wouldn’t be out of place in Terry Gilliam’s dystopian black comedy Brazil. “Entry,” in this case, means they sent a heavily-armed paramilitary squad crashing into the guy’s bedroom:

On August 8, the Bomb Squad provided robot support to APD’s SWAT Team at a northeast location. A barricaded subject had been making suicidal threats and was on his bed under a blanket. The robot was able to reach in through the bedroom window and remove the blanket, thus exposing the subject. The action allowed the entry team to get information confirming that the subject was not holding a weapon in his hand. He was taken into custody within moments of entry.”

We have four major daily news outlets in Albuquerque, three TV stations and a newspaper. In their reports on the November 9 motel-room incident, only one of them mentioned the bomb robot at all. All it says is this: “The bomb squad did have their robot out at one point, but KRQE News 13 was not told what exactly it was used for.”

The rest of the local news coverage failed to mention any of the stuff about the bomb robot. And none of the stories mentioned the snipers or the machine guns. But they did make sure to describe the man as “mentally ill” and note that it’s “unknown if [he] was under the influence of illegal drugs during the incident.”

It turns out there was another situation happening across town at the same time. A man was threatening to jump off a bridge. He ended up not doing it. Based on everything I’ve seen the cops do, I really can’t imagine anything they did made it less likely he was going to jump. Of course, in the news coverage, the cops get all the credit for saving the man’s life.

The trusty local news team posits in this story resuming both incidents that the cops in Albuquerque are doing much better than they used to when dealing with mentally-troubled people, based mainly on the fact that they didn’t actually kill either of these guys.

But here’s where things get really fucked up. The mother of the man who locked himself in the motel commented on the local news’ Facebook page, thanking the police. The station got a story out of it:

But they don’t realize that her letter exposes their own failures. She says she was talking to him on the phone as the SWAT team was outside. She tried to convince him to come out, but he didn’t believe her that it was actually the cops. “He kept shouting that it was not police, they were not in police uniform or in police cars,” she writes.

This is absolutely critical: her son was right on that point, and the viewer would have no way to know it from the TV coverage. Reading her letter after watching their footage, showing normal police cars and SUVs parked on the sidewalk, her son sounds like a crazy person imaging there are flying saucers outside his room. But they weren’t in police uniform and they weren’t in police cars. They were wearing green military fatigues complete with body armor and helmets and carrying assault weapons. They were driving a giant green armored truck, a tank without the cannon, basically. Here’s a picture I took of them outside his hotel room:

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The mother (and the general population) had no way to know based on what they saw in the local news coverage that the police brought a full military-style assault team to bear on her scared, confused son. I saw the news guys hanging around that day. The fairgrounds stayed open the whole time, and they easily could have got footage of the armored vehicle in broad daylight, with a full paramilitary team cowering behind it as it was parked in front of the motel room. They could have got footage of a cop clumsily climbing onto the roof of a neighboring restaurant while carrying a high-powered weapon. But instead they used footage from several blocks away, where normal-looking police cars were blocking traffic. None of their stories had any mention of the machine guns, the body armor, the armored vehicle, the snipers, none of it.

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And that’s extremely dishonest. Their stories give such a selective view of events as to be meaningless. People watching the local news or reading the local paper have no idea of the reality of any of the stuff I wrote about in this piece. They don’t know because the news doesn’t tell them.

Which, of course, is why independent news outlets like ImportantCool are so, well, important.

Four

This one’s the same night as the first segment. It’s pretty scary to be out in a dark lot next to some boarded-up buildings right after there’s been a gasoline attack. I don’t really think the guy was an undercover cop. The lot is right next to a railway, and those guys do work real late. But whether or not he was a cop isn’t really the point. The point is that the police have created such a climate of fear in Albuquerque (and all around the US) that you can never be sure. For those of us who speak out against them, paranoia is the norm, not the exception.

It’s also not outside the realm of possibility that he really was an undercover. They sent a shooter cop to spy on an anti-police-brutality march last year.

The original news story on the incident refuses to name the officer because “the station does not want to hinder any ongoing investigations.” They do, however, note that the cop spying on the anti-police-brutality protest shot someone in the past himself, and names the person he shot, making it a simple matter to figure out who the officer was. For the record, his name’s Jason Peck.

One news station refused to report on the incident at all. One had a story about how the protesters, after seeing the other station’s report, identified the officer and posted pictures of him online. How irresponsible of those protesters. Endangering that poor, defenseless officer and all.

That story makes sure to mention, through the words of a retired police commander, that posting an undercover cop’s photo online “could compromise the officers’ ability to do their jobs, and puts their lives at risk.” But it fails to mention that the cop in question previously shot someone.

Five

To their credit, the local news had some decent coverage of this. For two days. After that, silence. And the attacker is still at large. You can bet that if he’d thrown a firebomb at a rich white person’s house, they’d’ve caught the fucker in, like, eight seconds flat. And if they didn’t, the local news would be howling their heads off about a violent psychopath still on the loose.

You can see the security-cam footage I talked about in that link, too.

Oh yeah, and a store owner really did shoot someone in the back right next to the pizza shop I work at:

I guess I should put a link to the James Boyd video here too, for readers outside of Albuquerque (the vast majority of our audience, I guess) who may be unfamiliar with the story:

In one of the only such cases in the nation, the two cops who shot James Boyd are actually being charged with open counts of murder.

I’m not very optimistic that they’ll ever see the inside of a jail cell. Regardless, there are still killer cops walking the streets of Albuquerque. And by “killer cops,” I mean cops that have literally killed people and are still on the police force, badge and gun and all. In fact, this guy – who shot not one, not two, but three unarmed men over the course of his career – won an award for “outstanding service” late last year:

Six

Here’s the obligatory local-news story on this one:

Notice how they get it into the very first sentence that he had EIGHT WHOLE WARRANTS!!! Of course, it mentions a little further down that they were mostly for probation violations, but who cares? Warrants! Bad guy!

The suspect was supposedly also wanted in connection with a stabbing, but that doesn’t make the police conduct ok. The paper leaves it until the second-to-last paragraph to note that “neighbors were displaced from their homes for several hours.” Local news outlets normally don’t even mention that kind of thing, so small kudos to them, I guess. But to me, the military equipment and tactics are the story. The Kill Zone is the story, because the police have granted themselves the authority to declare effective martial law within whatever boundaries they deem to be appropriate, for as long as they deem it necessary. That’s much more relevant to society – it has an impact on a far greater number of people – than a list of warrants a suspect had. And of course, there’s a reason the police call it the Kill Zone…

But the news never talks about the Kill Zone.

Seven

This one is truly amazing. A local news station received footage from one of the officer’s lapel-cam videos… and censored it.

The fact that the video is censored is actually really important, because a critical piece of the story focuses on a police claim that the man they shot was wearing a bulletproof vest. The giant censor blob over the man’s dead body in the version shown by the TV news makes it impossible to tell whether or not that’s true.

The local newspaper later published the uncensored version online, which does appear to show the police removing a vest from the suspect after they shot him, though it’s kind of hard to tell from the grainy lapel-cam video. But a lot more people watch the television news rather than look for video on a daily newspaper’s website, and all of those people were missing a central piece of the story thanks to the TV news’ inexplicable (and inexcusable) decision to censor the footage.

Both stories note that two officers shot at the suspect, but neither story explicitly points out that only one video was released. Only the most astute media consumers (or police watchers) will pick up on the discrepancy.

There’s also the police claim that the alleged gun and supposed vest were stolen from a sheriff’s deputy. The local news never investigated how that could have happened, or had any information on what procedures the Sheriff’s Office has in place to ensure their equipment is not stolen. Which is actually a highly relevant question, because New Mexico police have had high-powered military weaponry stolen from them before.

Also notable: regarding the shooting, the TV news report presents an unsubstantiated police claim as fact, specifically the allegation that the suspect shot first. “And just Tuesday, as you saw, a cop returned fire on a suspect, hitting and killing him,” the woman reading from the teleprompter tells us.

There’s no source given for the claim that the officer was “returning fire,” it’s simply presented as the undisputed truth. Of course, the source for the claim is the police department itself, hardly an unbiased group. And if you watch the video, you will note that contrary to what the newslady tells us, we did not see that happen. It’s unclear from the video whether the suspect fired first, or even if he was armed.

Eight

This happened after I came home from the scene described in segment two. From what I understand, it’s not uncommon to have flashbacks after witnessing or experiencing traumatic events. It’s a common symptom of PTSD, in fact. I suspect a lot more war and conflict correspondents suffer from PTSD than we realize. There’s always talk of soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with PTSD, but what about the journalists who were there with them? They rode in the same armored convoys. They saw the same violence and death. And non-embedded journalists are exposed to even worse, since they lack the protection of a military force. They ride in regular cars rather than armored convoys.

There’s one other noteworthy time that something like this happened to me. I was at a protest in the West Bank, occupied Palestinian territories, on the eighth anniversary of the popular resistance movement in the village of Bil’in. I had found a spot on a hill where I thought I was safe to rest for a moment, away from the violence the Israeli soldiers were inflicting on unarmed, mostly-teenaged protesters. I took a call on my cell phone, crouched among young olive trees on the hillside. Out of nowhere, a tear-gas bomb went flying by my head.

I saw it in slow-motion, a clear snapshot of the bomb. This particular kind of tear-gas bomb, it’s not a canister. It looks like a cartoon bomb you might see in Wile. E. Coyote cartoons, or wrapped in a turban on the Prophet’s head in a racist European cartoon. You know what I mean, a black sphere with a short, fat, circular piece sticking out on top. The only difference is the Israeli ones spew toxic gas out of a hole where the fuse should be.

I saw this bomb so close I could have reached out and touched it and it looked frozen. It was moving fast enough to do serious damage if it hit me, but for a long moment it seemed suspended in place in the air. Then I told my friend I’d call her back and I ran.

I made it a bit further up the hill, to another area I (perhaps foolishly) deemed safe and called my friend back. I told her everything was fine and I thought it was.

But then, given the schizophrenia of the region, I found myself in a Tel Aviv nightclub that night, dancing with a woman I’d been trying to, um, woo (to put it politely). And things were going very well – she looked amazing, I felt great to be there with her, and I was getting the feeling my affections were not unrequited.

And then the strobe lights came on.

I saw the thing, the tear-gas bomb, in the darkness between the strobe flashes. I mean, I fucking saw it. Each time the room would fall dark in the off beats of the strobe light, I could see the bomb hanging in the center of my vision as clear and as real as the girl standing in front of me. Just hanging there, stationary, as I had seen it on the hill in Bil’in.

I haven’t been diagnosed with PTSD. But then again, I haven’t seen a psychiatrist. I can’t afford it. In my country, an hour-long session runs about $100, U.S. I wonder how many journalists worldwide are living with undiagnosed PTSD. I think there are a lot, especially the freelancers. Probably at least a couple of my fellow IC associates.

Nine

Finally, a special bonus for IC readers: A rare, hallucinatory glimpse of the local police’s Armored Personnel Carrier in never-before-seen footage taken the night of segments two and eight (I was thinking of this and other nights for segment nine, too). Most people in Albuquerque, or the wider Bernalillo County, have never seen this – the news won’t show it. And yes, that’s me cursing on the audio track.

Lost? Get back to the original piece here.

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