In the week since Steven Baca shot and injured Scott Williams at a protest against the statue of conquistador Juan de Oñate in Old Town on June 15, the Albuquerque Police Department has been criticized for its handling of the shooting.
APD, along with Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, have since defended the police response.
Judge Charles Brown ordered Baca to be released from custody on Monday ahead of his trial. Baca faces two counts of battery and one aggravated battery charge for attacking three women at the protest, which was captured on video and has been corroborated by witnesses.
KUNM producer Marisa Demarco was at the protest and witnessed Baca throw a woman to the ground, which was the incident that directly preceded the shooting — protesters pursued Baca after that violent attack and during the ensuing confrontation, Baca shot Williams.
“He yanked this girl down in front of me. He came up behind her and ripped her to the ground, and her head smacked the pavement in front of my feet,” Demarco said.
Baca’s attorney Jason Bowles argued in a motion filed Friday that “the state has not even interviewed these alleged victims,” meaning that there was no basis for the aggravated battery charge.
This comes less than a week after District Attorney Raul Torrez announced that Baca won’t be facing any charges related to the shooting at this time. The New Mexico State Police have since taken over the investigation.
“I want to make it absolutely clear: The reason he is not facing that charge right now is because the investigation is not complete,” Torrez, who has been highly critical of APD’s handling of the investigation, said.
Six minutes after the shots were reported, Albuquerque Fire and Rescue arrived on scene, according to an APD press release. This was after the APD Emergency Response Team had secured the scene.
In an interview with KUNM reporter Hannah Colton, the parents of Scott Williams, who were at the protest, recounted hearing shots fired and realizing the victim was their son. Daniel Williams, a retired paramedic, said that while he was treating his son, he saw the police arrive.
“It looked like a whole battalion of military was coming,” Williams said. “The SWAT team has a paramedic on board, and he came out with his bags, and he told me to get the hell out of there. And I told him that I was a retired paramedic, and this was my son, and we were going to work on him together. And he agreed with that.”
Williams and the paramedic who arrived with the police worked together to stabilize Scott and eventually loaded him into an ambulance. Several police officers on scene, however, were confrontational with both Daniel and Denise Williams.
“I was told by a couple of cops to get the hell out of there — and you know, while I was still working on my son. They were extremely rude and obnoxious,” Mr. Williams said.
“When I realized it was Scott and Daniel on the ground, and I walked across the street with my hands up, a cop came up in my face,” Mrs. Williams said. “I said ‘That man on the ground is my son. And the man working on him is my husband.’ And he told me, ‘I don’t give a fuck if you’re the Virgin Mary, you get the hell out of here,’ and he took whatever was in his hand — a baton or a rifle — and he put it on my chest and shoved me backwards.”
Mr. Williams said the aggressive police response made the situation worse.
“In my opinion, the way the cops came in as a battalion just absolutely exacerbated the whole situation,” he said.
Five minutes after the police arrived on scene, Williams was taken away in an ambulance and riot police tried to keep protesters away from the crime scene.
“The riot police showed up a few minutes later. It felt like a long time before they arrived on the scene,” Demarco said. “They took the Civil Guard (an armed far-right militia that was at the protest) into custody along with the guy who’s accused of shooting him, Steven Baca, then the riot police began forming lines and kind of pushing on the protesters.”
“We knew a lot of individuals when shots were fired … had left the area,” APD Deputy Chief Harold Medina said at a press conference on Monday. “There were others there that had gotten caught up in a clash with law enforcement, so we knew that we weren’t going to have the witnesses that we typically do right away. We knew that we didn’t have the luxury of securing the scene as usual.”
KOB 4 reporter Megan Abundis posted a video interview with a protester on Twitter immediately after the shooting, writing, “People upset police aren’t interviewing protesters about the man who was shot. Police still holding the line.”
In the video, the woman said, “I’m upset that right now a man was shot, and the police have arrived, and they have not interviewed any of us as witnesses. They have not asked for any photos or videos, and there’s tons of photos and videos here tonight.”
The woman goes on to say, “They told us they need us to move because it’s a crime scene. If it’s a crime scene, there are, like, 50 witnesses and yet the police are not interviewing us. They’re treating us like the criminals.”
Echoing Medina’s justification of the police response, an APD statement issued Monday said, “Detectives did not have the benefit of initial witness interviews, because the top priority of police on scene was to end the violence that followed the shooting.”
It’s unclear what violence the release is referring to, as the release only mentions a few protesters trying to push into the crime scene. After arresting Baca and removing Williams, APD released tear gas and fired less-lethal projectiles at protesters.
“It continued for a couple of hours — tear gas and flash bangs, less lethal rounds, police with rifles with their lasers pointed at folks which was, I think, scary for everyone,” Demarco said.
Concerns have also been raised about why the police didn’t intervene after Baca attacked multiple women, given that, according to APD, there were undercover officers in the area to observe.
During an interview with Gwyneth Doland for New Mexico In Focus, Keller said it was his understanding that police were at the opposite end of the scene.
“What happened was kind of at the intersection of Mountain by the statue, and it’s my understanding our folks were way back in Tiguex Park observing.”
The preliminary police report seems to contradict Keller’s statement.
The report states that “an undercover police detective stationed in the area observed several members from what appeared to be the main protesting group pursuing Steven on foot while he backed away from them, utilizing pepper spray to douse the oncoming crowd.”
As has been established by video footage and Daily Lobo interviews with witnesses, this confrontation happened moments after Baca threw a woman to the ground, meaning that any officers in the area presumably would have also witnessed that attack.
Doland also questioned Keller about the presence of the New Mexico Civil Guard, an armed far-right militia who have been described as white nationalists and have been at Black Lives Matter protests throughout the month, after appearing at an anti-lockdown protest in April.
“Have police on the street been too tolerant of these groups? I mean, we’ve heard these reports of them being referred to as ‘armed friendlies.’ Have police been too tolerant of these militia groups?” Doland asked.
Keller responded that under the First and Second Amendments, they had a right to be at the protest.
“I want to remind folks, unfortunately in New Mexico, you can’t push those groups out,” Keller said. “They unfortunately are protected by two constitutional rights, freedom of speech and the freedom to bear arms, and we want the power to change that.”
He continued, “We have two options: We have de-escalation, which has been our policy, and I understand now that’s been really challenged, and we have to look at that. The other thing we’re looking at is if we actually try and put officers between the two groups, because they both have the constitutional right to be there. That typically in other cities has led to much more violence.”
“It’s just a very difficult challenge and, again, we’re trying to de-escalate things and unfortunately — for those folks, I mean — you tell me and our department what we can do legally, and we are interested in learning and doing that.”
Throughout the past month, Keller has emphasized that the APD approach to protests is de-escalation.
Per the terms of his release, Baca must report to Pretrial Services, can’t possess firearms and can’t attend any protests while the charges are pending. Judge Brown said that although he believes Baca poses a danger to the community, these conditions can keep the community safe.
Scott Williams is still in the hospital as of the publication of this article. Demarco, who is a close friend, said his recovery is going well.
Writing for the art publication Momus, Candice Hopkins and Raven Chacon detailed Williams’ work in the local art and activist community.
“Over the last few years, Scott’s practice changed to one less concerned with making his own work and more concerned with making space for others … It was in this spirit of allyship and helping others in the fight for racial and social justice that saw Scott spend weeks at Standing Rock assisting Indigenous activists and placing himself, as a white man, on the frontlines of Black Lives Matter protests in Albuquerque,” Hopkins and Chacon wrote.
Williams’ parents, who described their son as “a longtime activist for human rights and racial justice,” said they want the shooting to generate institutional change.
“If we’re going to survive as human beings and live in an equitable society, we can’t be brutalized by the people who are sworn to protect and serve us,” Mrs. Williams said.
“We have been taught these last two and a half weeks, three weeks — whatever it’s been that the Black Lives (Matter) movement has escalated — to lament, to listen, to learn and to leverage,” Mr. Williams said. “And we want to leverage this situation for change.”
Liam DeBonis contributed reporting to this article.
Bella Davis is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bladvs