ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Albuquerque police officers are keeping an extra eye on bus stops across the city, targeting people not catching the bus. Chief Harold Medina says the structures and benches that make up a bus stop have become a place where people are sleeping, camping, and even smoking fentanyl. With his department taking over transit security, the police chief has officers working overtime to fix the problem. “Bus stops were created for individuals to stay at, wait, and to utilize public transportation,” Chief Medina said.

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KRQE obtained several lapel camera videos showing officers confronting and arresting people at bus stops throughout the last two months of the operation.

Officer: What’s up guys? Have a seat. I’m Officer {inaudible}, Albuquerque Police. Just so you know, you’re being recorded. What you got in your hand there, bud? 
Emery: Oh, it’s just
Officer: What you got right here?
Emery: It was just… 
Officer: Yep, just leave it. Just leave it. 

At the bus stop on San Mateo Boulevard NE and Prospect Ave NE, two APD officers arrest James Emery for drug possession, after they say they saw him with drug paraphernalia. That includes rolling papers, foil, three straws, and a pipe, according to court documents. Emery also got the charge of ‘wrongful use of public property.’

“They’re public property with a specific intent,” the Chief said of bus stops. “And when that specific intent is turned into other reasons, it’s important that we recognize that we do enforce those types of laws.”

Officer: Hey, police department. Just keep that right there, okay? I can already see it, so just put it right next to you, okay? Right there to your right. Put it right there. I’m gonna grab it from you okay, so don’t move. 

Lapel camera footage shows the officer moving foil, a straw, and a suspected fentanyl pill from Irene Torres’s lap. She was sitting at a bus stop near Zuni Road SE and Alcazar Street SE around 1 a.m.

Officer: I passed by twice in the last hour, and you guys were doing the same exact thing, okay? So that’s why I came to contact you guys. 

The officer arrested Torres for possession of a dangerous drug and drug paraphernalia. The timing of her arrest is also important the Chief said, pointing out that buses do not run at 1 a.m., so there’s no need for anyone to be using the bus stop at that time.

“The three biggest things we see is individuals using it for shelter, individuals using it to consume drugs, and individuals using it just to sleep and get rest at,” Chief Medina explained.

The Central Avenue and Louisiana Boulevard NE bus stops are a big concern for the Chief. He asked officers to pay extra attention to the area. While there, KRQE saw a few people using drugs and another had set up shop selling sodas.

“You see that all the time. It’s normal. I see that every single day,” an employee of the nearby Pad Thai Café said. She asked we not identify her because of the vandalism the restaurant has already endured she said at the hands of the people who frequent that bus stop. When asked about APD’s new enforcement, the woman said she was glad to hear the department is doing its part. “I think it’s a good idea just to try to do something,” she said.

In one case, court records state officers saw Oscar Carbajal sleeping at the Central and Louisiana bus stop. In one officer’s lapel video, they explained when they woke Carbajal up, he ran. The two officers went after him.

Officer: Park right here. I’ll go that way. 
Officer: Police Department. Sit down bud. Sit down. 
Officer: Go ahead and sit down. 
Officer: Sit down on the ground. Down on the ground now. 

Carbajal eventually complied and after he was cuffed, the lapel video showed the officers learned he had two active felony warrants. The Chief said that is not unusual, explaining a number of the people his officers encounter have outstanding warrants.

When KRQE asked for data on the new effort that began about two months ago, the department explained the numbers are roped in with enforcement at parks and medians across the city, too. APD is reporting a combined total of 314 felony arrests and felony warrants cleared, the seizure of six guns, $24,000, and at least 10,000 pills, plus the takedown of a suspected drug dealer. APD said Tyler Witt was selling at a bus stop. Officers found two handguns (one stolen), $12,014 in cash, 8 grams of cocaine, 50 grams of meth, and 3,065 fentanyl pills at his home, according to the department.

“It’s just a ripple effect,” the Chief said. “They are a hotspot for us to continue enforcement.” Part of that effort Chief Medina said is removing the structures at some bus stops to deter the attraction of shade, shelter, and a meet-up location.

When officers do approach people, the Chief said they need reasonable suspicion. One example of that, he explained, is someone not getting on the bus after several have stopped in front of them. “The bus stops are not meant for individuals to spend the day, for the individuals to use a shelter and for the individuals to sleep in,” Chief Medina said. “So there are a lot of different reasons why we need to move people along from bus stops at certain points.”

So why now? A few reasons. The Chief said shoplifting investigations revealed their suspects use the bus as a getaway ride. So, he mandated officers in every part of town ride the bus once a week as a deterrent. And from those rides, he said they learned riders felt safer on the bus than waiting for it. With APD also taking over transit security, the Chief wanted to know the full scope of issues his department needs to address. “We give the strong enforcement with sworn officers. People get citations, people get arrested, they get tickets, and then we transition to some security guards who are inheriting a much-reduced problem,” he explained.

That’s a problem the Chief admitted will likely never go away, especially when offenders are not held accountable. Court records showed both Torres and Emery were let go and never returned to court. APD caught up with Torres about three weeks later when officers said they caught her shoplifting.

“We need somewhere to send individuals who have substance abuse problems. We need somewhere to send individuals who have mental health concerns,” Chief Medina said. “Many times I hear the argument that states, you know, it is not humane to incarcerate all these individuals. I’ll push back and I’ll say it’s not humane to leave these individuals in the sun, in the elements, suffering from different variety of diseases and not getting them the medical treatment they seek.”

The Law Office of the Public Defender agreed with the Chief that intervention and rehabilitation are needed for people with substance abuse issues. But the Office said they should be diverted into those programs instead of being arrested.

The Office also provided a statement sharing its concerns with the overall operation, specifically, the officers using the charge ‘wrongful use of public property.’

It’s still not clear to us how the Wrongful Use of Public Property statute applies in these situations. But even if it did, officers need to be aware that the state’s Attorney General’s Office has determined is it likely unconstitutional and other court rulings have determined it is functionally unenforceable in court. People have the 4th amendment right to be secure in their persons, houses, effects, etc. against unreasonable searches and seizures. Any arrest that occurs without a police officer reasonably believing that the individual is committing a crime will most likely be thrown out.

Dennica Torres, Albuquerque District Defender