Protesters blast embattled Albuquerque police over shooting contest

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An annual target-shooting contest highlighting the skills of law enforcement is coming under fire from people who say the event misses the mark because the police department in this year's host city is under investigation by the Justice Department for using deadly force.

On Saturday, the first day of the National Rifle Association-sponsored National Police Shooting Championships in Albuquerque, demonstrators staged a mock funeral procession on the road to the shooting range, forcing competitors to the shoulder.On Sunday, protesters shot foam bullets and water guns at targets in a city park. The protesters note that since 2009, 32 people have been fatally shot by Albuquerque police. The most recent case that sparked outrage was in May when James Boyd, an unarmed homeless man, was shot in the back at his makeshift campground in the foothills of the nearby Sandia Mountains.

In April, the Department of Justice released a scathing report citing APD's use of excessive force that violated the constitutional rights of the victims.

"This is the year the [DOJ] report confirmed our department has used excessive and lethal force unconstitutionally and this is not the time for police to be shooting targets in a competition that looks like people," said Sayrah Namaste, spokeswoman for the Albuquerque Coalition to Stop Police Brutality. "They should be stressing de-escalation skills, not shooting skills."

Namaste said that Mike Gomez, whose son was shot and killed by police, led a campaign against the city to protest the participation in the event by Officer Sean Wallace, who killed Gomez's son. Wallace has subsequently dropped out of the competition

Demonstrators stood outside the city shooting range on a west side mesa where the first two days of competition opened with the Tactical Police Competition.

According to the NRA website, "the program incorporates competitive-based skill and scenario courses of fire to allow you to practice and evaluate your skills using your duty firearms and gear in hypothetical police-related encounters and solve the challenges presented, according to your own tactics."

This event is scenario based and has target silhouettes that resemble people.

"Albuquerque's police issues have nothing to do with us," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulamandam.

Arulamandam said the NRA has held this event without incident in Albuquerque for the past eight years.

Earlier this year, protesters stormed a city council meeting, forcing councilors to flee to safety and briefly occupied Mayor Richard Berry's office, demanding the firing of Police Chief Gorden Eden.

Two weeks ago, the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which is the main hotel and headquarters for the shooting event, was stormed by some 25 protesters who expressed their anger the hotel was involved in the event. Protesters also forced their way to the room floors and began shoving protest fliers beneath room doors.

"It was pretty intense and scary," said Alexandria Montoya, a front desk manager for the hotel.

Sylvia Fuentes, whose son, Len Eric, was shot and killed by police in 2010, told the Albuquerque Journal that Berry is “insulting us, the parents of the children that have been killed here, and he’s insulting our city.”

Officials have downplayed the connection between APD's recent history and the event they project will bring some 500 people to the city.

“We welcome the opportunity to host law enforcement professionals from around the world here in our beautiful city and we thank them for their commitment and service at the local, state and federal levels to keeping our communities and nation safe,” Breanna Anderson, Berry's spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Albuquerque police spokesman Tanner Tixier said the department is not opposed to demonstrations as long as they are done lawfully and respectfully.

"We don't want to infringe on anyone's First Amendment rights, but we are ready for anything," Tixier said.

The march and protest in a local park, which turned into a Sunday picnic, went off without incident or even a police presence.