Reverse Drug Sting Targeting The Homeless and Mentally Ill Draws Criticism

By Paul Gaita 06/01/16

Albuquerque officials expressed disdain over undercover officers selling drugs to the city's homeless and mentally ill, then arresting them for possession.

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Reverse Drug Sting Targeting The Homeless and Mentally Ill Draws Criticism

A sting operation conducted by police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has drawn sharp criticism from the city’s mayor and city council members for arresting homeless and mentally ill individuals under the pretense of halting street-level drug sales. The operation, conducted on May 9, was a “reverse buy-bust” (or “reverse sting”) in which undercover police officers or agents pose as street dealers and then arrest buyers on possession charges. Seven individuals were arrested as part of the sting, of which six were homeless; three of those individuals were found to have mental health issues, including one who was found incompetent to stand trial in previous cases. 

The individuals paid between $5 and 10—some paid in coins—for crack cocaine and methamphetamine, which had been obtained from the Albuquerque Police Department’s (APD) evidence room. The individuals bartered for the drugs with a Cricket phone, a Samsung tablet, colic medicine, and a jacket. All seven individuals—of which only one was Caucasian—were released the following day by Metropolitan Court Judge Courtney Weaks, who said that she did not approve of the methods used to make the arrests. In four of the cases, she also found that police did not have probable cause to make the arrests.

The majority of responses from city officials were equally negative, though Mayor Richard Berry did not call for an end to such operations by the APD. “I’m not going to get after them for doing something they thought was right,” he said. “But I think it’s good that we’re moving in a different direction.” However, city councilors on both sides of the aisle voiced stronger opposition to the sting. “It’s ridiculous,” said Councilor Klarissa Peña, a Democrat. “It’s a shame – embarrassing, kind of.” City Council President Dan Lewis, a Republican, stated, “Given the shortage of officers and the demands of the Department of Justice, aiding or enticing homeless people to buy $5 of crack is probably not worth our time or resources.”

APD officials countered by noting that reverse stings like the May 9 operation have been conducted for decades, and have reduced crime in specific areas. In regard to issues of manpower and resources, APD spokesperson Celina Espinoza said that while they could not reveal the number of officers involved in the operation for safety reasons, the operation incurred only minimal overtime expenses because it was conducted during the day.

Assistant Public Defender Jonathan Ibarra, who represented six of the individuals arrested in the operation, said he expects none of the seven to be indicted, but added that attorneys are preparing an entrapment case in case any charges are handed down. As for the APD, Deputy Police Chief Eric Garcia said in a May 16 meeting with city councilors that the department plans to focus on “people who are not necessarily the homeless” in future undercover operations.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.