David Correia's Blog

Policing the Pandemic: How the City of Albuquerque Criminalizes People Living on the Streets

By Keegan James Sarmiento Kloer – David Correia
Counterpunch
October 29th, 2020

Photograph Source: Office of Public Affairs – CC BY2.0

Instead of helping unsheltered people find support and housing, the City of Albuquerque’s Family and Community Services Department has been working closely with Albuquerque police to break up tent encampments, to check for warrants, and to identify people for police to arrest or issue criminal citations.

This pattern of enforcement predates the pandemic but has intensified in recent months. It violates COVID-19 guidance published by the Centers for Disease Control, which in March advised cities against “clearing encampments [of unsheltered people]” because the practice risks increasing “the potential for infectious disease spread.” Albuquerque advocates for the unsheltered agreed and advocated that the City stop evicting unsheltered people living in tents on public property. But the City’s deputy director of Family and Community Services, Lisa Huval, who oversees housing and homelessness and supervises outreach workers, refused to stop the practice of clearing camps, telling reporters that “it starts with one tent and over a few days increases to three tents, within a few weeks, if the city were simply to allow that encampment to establish, could grow quite large, [and] that presents other public health risks to that community.” Huval points to the City’s 450-bed shelter on the Westside with its COVID-19 protocols, as a safer option. Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller agreed, saying at a press conference that “We’re fortunate that in Albuquerque we have lots of good alternatives.”

But many unsheltered people do not feel safe at the shelter. Local advocates surveyed folks on the street in April of this year and most said they felt safer on the streets. “I have tried to tell the city that going to the [shelter] is dangerous for me,” reported one woman in an April 2020 survey of unsheltered people performed by local advocates. She showed a large scar on her body and explained, “I was assaulted there and do not wish to go back because there are social structures there that are abusive to others.”

After a sharp spike in COVID-19 infections at the Westside shelter in September and October, the city closed the facility and quarantined the 127 residents and staff who tested positive for the virus. Advocates for unsheltered people asked Huval to stop breaking up encampments now that unsheltered people have no other place to go. In an October 19, 2020 meeting of the City’s Mental Health Response Advisory Committee (MHRAC), she refused.

Even with the shelter closed, Huval said the city was “focused more on building a more complex and sophisticated system of care for people experiencing homelessness to help protect them from COVID-19.” The chair of the committee, Danny Whatley, agreed, explaining that police aren’t criminalizing people anyway. City outreach workers perform “more of a wellness check,” he said, “not a lot of [warrant] checks.”

According to advocates who work with unsheltered people in Albuquerque, a review of criminal complaints filed by Albuquerque police, and interviews that we conducted with dozens of unsheltered people, city of Albuquerque outreach workers rarely conduct wellness checks or connect people to services. Instead they assist the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) check for arrest warrants, evict people from public parks with little or no warning, identify people for arrest or criminal citations, and destroy people’s belongings, including government-issued IDs, prescription medications, tents, sleeping bags, irreplaceable sentimental items, and more.

Albuquerque’s Mental Health Response Advisory Committee was created as part of the U.S. Department of Justice court-ordered settlement with the city of Albuquerque over what the DOJ called a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing by APD. It provides policy recommendations and oversight for APD’s engagement with people experiencing mental or behavioral health crises. MHRAC’s purview includes how APD interacts with unsheltered people. But it operates instead as a rubber stamp for police and the city’s criminalization of people living on the streets.

This is a pattern that predates the pandemic. At a May 2019 MHRAC meeting, Gilbert Ramirez of the Department of Family and Community Services said the city only clears people from parks after a warning. “[Outreach worker Sebastian Adamczyk] goes out and posts an eviction notice and then goes out again 72 hours later and ensures that [the people camping have] moved.” None of the people we interviewed reported that Adamczyk posts warnings or provides 72 hours’ notice. A woman who had received a criminal trespass citation previously from an APD officer told us that “Sebastian kept changing the amount of time we had to leave. Sebastian called my husband a ‘dumbass.’ He was really strongly asserting his authority. Things escalated. [An] APD officer came and told a property manager that ‘these people are like cockroaches, if you don’t get rid of them, more will come.”

Sebastian Adamczyk is the Public Outreach Program Manager for Albuquerque’s Department of Family and Community Services. Huval claims Adamczyk does not engage in enforcement activities. In June 2019, Huval told MHRAC, “we still have Sebastian doing his job going out to encampments, providing resources to them. He posts a notice. He contacts Solid Waste for removal. He doesn’t normally need police involvement.” We interviewed dozens of people, most said they received little or no warning. Some told us that the city confiscated and disposed of their belongings. “I have had my tent and bedding taken dozens of times from some city official or law enforcement,” one person said.

In late September, we watched as Adamczyk cleared people from Coronado Park, just north of downtown, without warning. When we asked him what his job as outreach worker entailed, he said he helps people get on “housing lists,” and that he works on “getting people signed up for section 8, getting them connected with, you know, like Hopeworks, Healthcare for the Homeless.” When we asked if he works with police to clear parks and encampments, he refused to answer. “It sounds an awful lot like you’re trying to get a public statement,” he told us. When we pressed him for an answer, he said only, “I’m going to direct you to the Public Information Officer.” He then radioed Albuquerque police for assistance.

When the city refused to give us a copy of his job description, we filed a public records request for it. According to the Public Outreach Program Manager job description, the city requires that Adamczyk, who started with the city in March 2019 and is paid almost $75,000 annually, “coordinate with Albuquerque Police Department and other City Departments to ensure occupants leave the encampment after Eviction Notice is posted.” Despite claims by Mayor Keller and Huval that the City’s “focus on encampments [has] really been around providing really good outreach,” Adamczyk’s job description describes enforcement activities such as removing encampments and coordinating with police. Few of the people we spoke to described receiving any services at all. One man told us the only services he’s seen Adamczyk distribute are the bus passes he offers to people to help tear down someone else’s tent. Many people we spoke to received criminal trespass citations from police working with Adamczyk.

We reviewed six weeks of criminal trespass citations issued by Albuquerque police between January 2020 and mid-February. Over that time, four different police officers wrote that Adamczyk helped them check warrants and identified individuals for them to arrest. In mid-February, Valentine’s Day, APD officer G. Gomez drove to “check on” Adamczyk, who “was making contact with 4 transients… [who] were camping and trespassing” on private property. Adamczyk, according to Gomez’s criminal complaint, “had collected” the names of the people and provided them to Gomez for a warrant check. Adamczyk watched the “transients” as Gomez called them, while Gomez ran the records search. One man explained to Adamczyk that he needed to use the bathroom and rode away on his bike. Shortly after Gomez found a misdemeanor warrant for the man’s arrest. While Gomez chased the man in his police cruiser, two additional officers joined in pursuit along with two customers from a local roofing business. The customers caught the man, assaulted him, threw him against a chain link fence, and placed him in a neckmold while police officers handcuffed him. According to records, the court had issued an arrest warrant for the man the previous year for failing to appear in court after being cited for making an illegal lane change and riding the wrong way down a street on a bicycle.

In January, APD officer David Montaño issued a criminal trespass citation to a woman, writing in the complaint that “Public Outreach Employee Sebastian Adamczyk had advised [her] the day prior that she could not camp on property or be on property. Myself and Sebastian located [the woman] again sleeping in a tent on the property. [She] was issued a citation.” There was no mention of a posted eviction notice or any services provided to the woman.

APD officer Adam Theroux cited multiple people for criminal trespass in early January, writing in one complaint that he: “responded as backup for Sebastian Adamcyk [sic] who is a supervisor with Albuquerque Family Community Services. I was briefed that in the past week multiple homeless subjects have been contacted at the Tom Bolack urban forest park located on Zimmerman Ave NE. Several of the subjects have repeatedly been told to take down their tent structures but have continued to setup their structures and live in the park. Sebastian advised me of the individuals he recognized as we drove from tent to tent to contact the subjects who refuse to cease setting up their tents in the park.” Adamczyk and Theroux went tent-by-tent, checking warrants and issuing citations.

Nearly everyone we spoke to received citations for criminal trespass. Albuquerque police rarely arrest people on this charge, preferring to issue a summons instead. This reflects a recent policy change that APD claims reduces the jail population. The people we spoke to, however, say the policy has the opposite effect. We spoke to one man who received a criminal trespass for parking his scooter on a sidewalk. “I’ve tried calling the number on the [summons] but no one ever answers.” A woman sitting with him agreed, saying “they don’t answer, so I don’t know when my court hearing is.” When we asked what she’ll do about it she said, “they’ll eventually arrest me, and I’ll serve two days in jail.” Court documents show that summonses for criminal trespass overwhelmingly escalate into warrants for the arrest of unsheltered people, effectively criminalizing their status as houseless.

City officials have denied or ignored this problem for more than a year. In January 2019, MHRAC chairperson Danny Whatley claimed that APD no longer engaged in enforcement activities for people who have set up encampments. Criminal trespass citations are not “being issued anymore for those living on the streets,” he said. “So many were not showing up for court, so another citation was then being issued for failing to appear. Many were failing to appear because they have no means of transportation. Now they had two citations: trespassing and failing to appear.”

But more than a year later, the practice continues. In February 2020, APD officer Charles Chavez filed a criminal complaint saying he was “in the area to assist the city Public Outreach Coordinator Sebastian Adamczyk [who] had located several people who were camping on NM DOT property. The camp was east of the Heart Hospital right next to the 125 frontage road. Upon arrival he provided me with [one of the people’s] information. [This person] had been told to pack his camp and leave. I checked his information through [the FBI database] and learned that he had two misdemeanor warrants.” One warrant was issued for missing a court date on a charge of shoplifting one bag of rock candy. The other for missing a court date from more than two years ago for shoplifting three boxes of ammunition. When the officers attempted to arrest the man, he ran. APD sent officers in pursuit on foot, bicycle, cruiser, and helicopter. They were unable to locate the man. Adamczyk provided APD with identifying information, which they used to give the man a summons for criminal trespass and resisting arrest.

In an April 2019 MHRAC meeting, a debate about enforcing encampment sweeps came to a head. George Mercer, an MHRAC board member, expressed concern that breaking up camps “will cause [people] to move to unsafe locations. We are taking away those safe places for them [and] causing more problems.” Huval agreed, but said, “we aren’t changing what we are currently doing.” Indeed, the focus of the outreach team led by Adamczyk has been to support police enforcement, not the unsheltered community. In the same meeting, Huval elaborated: “This is about the friction of those living outside with those who are businesses or those who live nearby.” All of the complaints regarding unsheltered people come from local business owners and property owners, a constituency that shapes Huval’s Family and Community Services Department outreach program. Adamczyk has continued to clear encampments and evict unsheltered people from public parks and other lands despite the temporary closure of the Westside shelter in direct response to the economic concerns—the “friction”—of businesses and neighborhood associations.

When we witnessed Adamczyk clear Coronado park in September, he wore no badge and carried no visible gun, but arrived in a city car with flashing police lights that he left flashing while clearing the park. He wore a bullet-proof vest and maintained constant radio contact with Albuquerque police during the time we watched him clear people from the park. We arrived prior to Adamczyk’s arrival and spoke to people who had slept in the park the previous night and were preparing to leave. “Sebastian’s coming,” explained one, when we asked why they were leaving so early in the morning. When we asked one if they knew what Adamczyk’s job entailed, he said only, “he’s a cop, or something. He’ll evict us if we don’t leave.” While Adamczyk is not a police officer with the Albuquerque Police Department, he provides surveillance, personal demographic information, and assistance in enforcement to the Albuquerque Police Department. Adamczyk and other city outreach workers assist the City and APD in the criminalization and harassment of unsheltered people. Though Mayor Keller and Deputy Director Huval deny it, Albuquerque police and city outreach workers make life more difficult for unsheltered people by issuing criminal citations, making arrests, and confiscating possessions, day after day, pandemic or not.

Keegan James Sarmiento Kloer and David Correia are members of AbolishAPD, a research and mutual aid group working to abolish the Albuquerque Police Department. They can be reached at AbolishAPD@protonmail.com