ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As chairman of the city’s Transit Advisory Board, Israel Chávez recently fielded a call from a community member who talked about the city’s use of public transit vehicles to transport riot police to protests.
The caller reported seeing a city Sun Van paratransit vehicle drive by and suddenly wondering if it was carrying its typical passengers or police.
“That’s not what people should be thinking,” said Chávez, who introduced a Transit Advisory Board resolution condemning the city’s use of public transit vehicles for nonemergency policing purposes and calling on Mayor Tim Keller to end the practice.
The resolution passed during the TAB meeting earlier this month.
The TAB – an appointed citizen board – has no authority to change city policy, and Chávez said he doesn’t know whether its vote will make a difference. Chávez said the mayor never responded to a previous resolution the board passed that urged the city to stop accepting bus fares during the pandemic to avoid extra passengers lingering near the fare box and the driver.
But Chávez said busing police officers is a growing concern around the country, with Boston announcing last month it would no longer use its buses to take officers to protests.
The TAB resolution says that transit-dependent populations have a higher risk of negative encounters with police officers and that using city transit vehicles for policing “negatively impacts” the Albuquerque transit department’s image and public trust.
“Our bus system has a bad enough rap for the myriad things it had to go through the last few years. This is not another thing we should be dealing with,” said Chávez, a local attorney. “People need to see these buses as resources for the community.”
ABQRide, the city’s transit department, used its buses and its drivers to ferry Albuquerque Police Department officers to the protests that began happening locally in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in late May. ABQRide spokesman Rick De Reyes did not say how many times transit has provided vehicles for such a purpose but said it has recently changed to lending APD decommissioned Sun Vans. The vans do not require a commercial driver’s license, and APD has used its own personnel to drive them.
De Reyes said ABQRide values the TAB’s advice and always gives it “due consideration,” though a top executive in Keller’s administration is defending the practice of police using buses.
Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael said in a statement that the city respects the resolution’s purpose but that buses help move law enforcement to critical situations.
“Using buses to support public safety enables the city to avoid the types of militarized vehicles that are not in line with our values,” Rael said.
CENTER STARTING: The city last week broke ground on the new Westgate Community Center. Planned for more than a decade, the $8 million project near 98th and De Vargas SW will have a fitness room, game room, computer lab and two activity rooms.
It is expected to open by June 2021.
Future phases will bring a gym with a regulation-size basketball court, playing fields and more.