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Federal Drug Sting Raises Questions Of Racial Profiling

Anson Stevens-Bollen/New Mexico In Depth

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been criticized in recent years for running undercover sting operations that lead to disproportionate arrests of people of color. Last year in Albuquerque, the same ATF team picked up a hugely disproportionate number of African American people in an undercover sting operation.

Jeff Proctor reported the story forNew Mexico In Depth. He spoke with KUNM’s Elaine Baumgartel. Proctor says of the 103 defendants caught in the sting, 59 were Hispanic and 28 were Black – which raises questions about the methods of the ATF team and the Albuquerque police officers who assisted with the investigation. 

Proctor: It’s not just that they got 27 percent Black people in a city with a 3 percent Black population. But if you look at the statistics from the U.S. Sentencing Commission for the last 10 years here, you’ll see that for gun crimes and drug crimes in federal court in New Mexico, it’s about 5 percent Black people there. It’s a massive over-representation, even compared to what crimes statistics in federal court have looked like traditionally here.

KUNM: Defense attorneys for some of these folks, critics of this operation, say this is not an example of what effective policing looks like. Why not? Why isn’t getting folks like this who are doing these drug deals, or even setting up these drug deals or selling guns, why is that not effective policing to arrest folks like this?

Proctor: Traditionally in these kinds of under-cover sting operations, what you’ll see is that they’ll try to get local informants to infiltrate ongoing known criminal enterprises. In this case, they brought informants into town, and at least the defense perspective is, had those informants go to a neighborhood that’s primarily populated by minorities and people who are struggling with drug addiction, and wave around good opportunities to commit crime.

KUNM: Is that entrapment?

Proctor: I think you will, for some of these individual cases out of the 103, see some of the attorneys raise an entrapment defense. But bigger than that, and broader than that,  it’s this question of, is it the government’s job to go and maybe create crime where it didn’t necessarily exist before?

KUNM: What did the feds say about this operation? How did they explain the disproportionality in the number of African Americans they picked up?

Proctor: Nobody from the federal government would do an interview with us. We used the things they said at their press conference announcing the results of this operation. What they said basically was, we went out to target the ‘worst of the worst,’ that’s the phrase they used, and [they said] we did that by bringing in the best of the best, this team of agents from out of town. I went and attended a number of hearings associated with the sting and was able to listen to one of the lead agents testify about how they designed this thing.

KUNM: What did you learn? How did they train for these kinds of operations? How do they make sure they're not racially profiling communities? How did they determine where to start looking for criminal activity?

Proctor: Best I could piece together is that they’re going by their gut. They don’t have any training manuals either for confidential informants or for agents in terms of how to design or go about these kinds of operations. Basically, the agent’s testimony in court was, I’m not biased, the people I work with are not biased, we did not choose our targets based on the color of their skin.

KUNM: With this investigation, did you find that the ATF and the local Albuquerque police officers that they worked with, did pick up the most violent, repeat offenders that they were going after?

Proctor: We found a couple of people who were selling large quantitie s of drugs and assault style rifles to agents. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, what we found was that they were people who were selling relatively small quantities of drugs to agents and in many cases, people who were brokering deals, who weren’t the actual drug dealers themselves. We also found a number of people who were literally homeless and penniless at the time that they were swept up into this sting. Other people who were in drug rehabilitation programs. Broadly speaking, the answer to the question, at least in terms of our findings, is no. 

Elaine Baumgartel was KUNM's News Director from 2013 to 2019. She was local Morning Edition host from 2007 through 2012 and she regularly hosted the station's live news and public affairs show for some years. Elaine originally came on board at KUNM as a volunteer and student employee in 2003.
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