Jewel Hall was leading the fight in 2012 to bring the U.S. Department of Justice to Albuquerque to investigate police use of force
when she learned that eight cops had fired 46 bullets at her own son back in Michigan, killing him and sparking an international outcry.
Milton Hall was mentally ill, lived on the streets and had been accused of stealing a cup of coffee, she said.
It was all too familiar to the retired science teacher and union leader, 83, who has seen hundreds of young men killed by Albuquerque police since moving here in 1977. But when the bodies started falling even faster than usual—23 killed and 14 wounded by officers over four years—Hall and her fellow activists at the Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Council of Albuquerque, which she cofounded in 1990, started talking. And then Christopher Torres, the son of the group’s longtime vice president, Renetta Torres, was killed in 2011. That’s when they organized the ad hoc Martin Luther King Task Force and got to work.
“We thought we had to say to the city, after we’d done our work and looked at the number of kids that had been killed, that somebody has got to come and look at the situation,” said Hall. “They cannot keep doing this to the community.”
Hall got the idea of bringing in the DOJ from her brother-in-law, who helped put New Orleans back together after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. In the ugly aftermath, as police allegedly gunned down desperate survivors, the intervention of the Department of Justice was a galvanizing force that saw results overnight, her brother-in-law told her.
“So I suggested to our nucleus group that we needed an objective look at all of these murders after we’d done research and found that Renetta’s son wasn’t the only one that had been murdered unjustly,” she said.
It was not an easy fight. They did win. The DOJ is here, it has condemned APD practices, and a DOJ monitor, James Ginger, is overseeing reforms spelled out in a consent decree that will take an estimated four years to implement. Bringing DOJ here was a monumental undertaking featuring one major roadblock, said Hall: Mayor Richard J. Berry.
First, the Task Force went to Mayor Berry and asked him to join their cause: “We were naïve enough to think that if it happened in New Orleans and we explained it to the mayor, that he would also join us. But the mayor refused to join us.”
One big barrier to Berry’s participation, said Hall, was that he wanted Renetta Torres off the Task Force, but they refused. Berry also didn’t seem to think there was a problem at APD.
“When we met with Berry to help us get an objective review of these killings of all these kids, he told us we had the best police force in the United States,” said Hall, who then chuckled. “We know each other well,” she said of the mayor, but wouldn’t elaborate, saying their history was “negative” and “not newsworthy.” “I just worry about being an old woman in jail,” she said, and chuckled again, perhaps uneasily. “I hear they don’t treat you well.”
Then the Task Force tried the City Council, which voted to bring the DOJ, but Berry vetoed it. Later, the City Council voted unanimously to support the DOJ if it did come to town, and that vote stuck. But they still couldn’t get the mayor onboard, and failed to get the City Council to override the mayor’s veto. So the Task Force approached then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who helped get the ball rolling.
Consent decree reactions
The city will get a chance to see how implementation of the consent decree is going when DOJ monitor Ginger presents his quarterly progress report to the City Council at its March 7 meeting. Ginger had originally been expected to show that APD is 95 percent in compliance with reforms, but APD is not expected to meet that goal.
The reforms outlined in the consent decree include: a requirement for a system of accountability for use of force and investigations of use of force; how decisions for SWAT enforcement are handled; a training regimen for use of force and how officers are held accountable; and an enhanced crisis intervention process for dealing with those experiencing mental issues.
The ACLU of New Mexico, which was a partner with the Task Force in bringing DOJ, said it’s optimistic but that the consent decree falls short.
“I think it’s our best opportunity to push for systemic change in APD,” said executive director Peter Simonson. “While we would have hoped for a stronger decree, we also recognize the opportunity to reform a department that has gone through three cycles of officer-involved violence in 40 years. This is the first time a federal agency has stepped in to enforce changes. It represents a unique opportunity to undo problems that have been with this department for many years.”
Simonson would have liked to see better reporting of how SWAT teams are used, better accountability of APD’s bodycam policy, and more specific requirements regarding violations of policy and discipline.
Although she’s elated to see the federal government taking an interest in APD, Hall remains skeptical of the process. That’s largely because those most affected by the killings have not been involved, she said. She would have liked to see survivors like Renetta Torres have a say during negotiations and implementation.
City Counselor Ken Sanchez is confident in the job James Ginger is doing, but acknowledged the challenges ahead, and believes the process has been transparent and that the right people from the community have been involved.
“We’ve got a monumental task ahead of us, and there needs to be enormous reform,” said Sanchez. “One thing I was concerned with was having a community involved that truly understood the issues.”
Responding to Hall’s concern that survivors have not been part of the process, Sanchez said, “I’ve been at the meetings and I think some of those people were involved. The stakeholders must be involved for this to work.”
“A firing squad dressed in police uniforms”
The consent decree has been a bittersweet victory for Jewel Hall. She still sees a terrible imbalance of power in this country, a structure she refers to as a “fraternal order.”
It’s fitting that her babysitter growing up was her great grandmother, who was born into slavery in the 1850s and who taught Hall how power works in America.
“It was like an oral history every evening about how the system works, how they use ethnic groups to further their own cause,” said Hall.
That could explain why Hall insists she became an activist “at birth.”
“I come from the old school, and I used to hear my ancestors say over and over the police in this country are an extension of the KKK, which protected certain populations and were trained that certain populations were less valuable than others,” said Hall. “And every so often, I think those thoughts are valid.”
That brings to mind the terrible video that can be seen online of those officers in Saginaw, Michigan, circling her son Milton, 49, a German shepherd barking at him for two minutes before the cops unload a furious barrage of firepower. The body drops, the
bullets stop firing, the body is still, and one officer rolls Milton onto his belly and cuffs his corpse.
At the time, Jewel Hall described it as “a firing squad dressed in police uniforms.”
So where does she stand now, at 83, a woman who’s been fighting an elitist system all her life? What did she take from these latest battles?
“It told me that even though DOJ came and DOJ is a part of the government system, that it is still a relationship of fraternal order between national government, state government, and city government,” said Hall. “To me, it says that to get justice with those three who in some way protect each other, you have to have either money or numbers.”
She talked of James Boyd, the homeless camper shot down by APD in 2014. “Boyd would still be living if he had stayed on Second Street or Fourth Street,” she said. “But he went up into the million-dollar homes, and they went and got him.”
If money rules, then all you have to fall back on is strength in numbers.
“From my experience, the most powerful thing is numbers because when numbers rise up, [governments] do not want that kind of publicity about their city or their state or the United States going worldwide,” said Hall. “So if you can get numbers or coalitions of people to come together, and have your mission and concerns clearly and professionally stated, then you can get policies changed.”
Republished from 1.27.16 issue of ABQ Free Press.