Part V: Cops on the streets in Gallup, New Mexico
Originally appeared in The Ranger newspaper.
BY NATHAN A. FERGUSON
To the Gallup Police Department they’re called “203s.” To the rest of the town, they’re drunks.
It was an average Tuesday night in October, and officer Anthony Ashley was cruising downtown district No. 3. He has only been with the GDP for a year, but has seen his share of public drunkenness. About 85 percent of his calls are alcohol-related, he said.
He went on a continuous circuit over his 12-hour shift from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. He checked out the usual spots — popular bars, darkened streets and the ditches near the railroad tracks.
Sometimes he finds bodies.
The police were concerned about the early winter weather bringing snow and icy winds. As the night grew colder, there were calls over the radio to pick up volunteer 203s, wanting to seek shelter at the Na’nizhoozhi Center, a detox facility across town.
Gallup teen-agers, like the kids in other cities throughout the nation, have taken up a new sport: beating up bums. But the worst thing Ashley sees is the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, elderly women passed out in the cold.
Ashley looked for people walking crookedly or just the “regulars” who have become experts in hopelessness. Sometimes people are so intoxicated they don’t remember their names, let alone their birthdays.
Because Ashley gets calls to respond to domestic fights or scraps between strangers, he carries the standard issue, 40-caliber Smith and Wesson and wears a bulletproof vest. Many of the officers at the GDP have knives in their boots, because a lot of drunks carry razors to shave with. Ashley is a big guy but remains friendly. That’s his style.
Ashley’s first DWUI bust was a woman in her mid-20s with a 6-month-old baby wearing diapers. There was no car seat and the windows were rolled down. On another call, a drunk man passed out behind a bar and left two babies in his cold car, the windows frosted over.
It has been said that alcohol can bring out the true self or at least cause people to return to their roots. Night after night, Ashley listens to people babble away in Navajo. About 90 percent of McKinley County is Indian, yet several studies have indicated that Navajos drink less on average than the rest of the non-Native American population.
Ashley picked up three drunks on a sidewalk.
“You’re drunk, sir. We need to get you off the road so nothing will happen,” he said to the older man. The officers use “sir,” as it tends to calm down even the drunkest of drunks.
Although Ashley is an enrolled Navajo, he only speaks a few words of the language. But at least it makes things go easier, because perpetrators tend to mistake him for a full-blooded Hispanic. Despite a colorful history, racism still runs deep in this small Southwestern town.
When Ashley loaded the men in the back, fumes left over from the massive alcohol abuse reform effort filled the car.
“We didn’t do nothing,” said the burping man in the middle. The other two, a man and a woman, kept quiet.
Ashley told the protective custody officer over the radio to meet him at Second and Aztec. The PC vans have separate compartments for men and women. On a usual 12-hour shift they take in between 57 and 67 people, said PC officer Gerald Grano.
After Grano loaded them in the van, he wrote their names on a form. There was a space for clothing descriptions, and that has allowed authorities to solve more crimes. When somebody breaks into a car, for instance, and steals merchandise that can later be turned into alcohol, police know the perpetrator is likely to get drunk and busted later. An eyewitness description is all they need to start an investigation.
To get money, drunks like to shoplift, collect tin cans or donate blood. On the north side, there were a lot of hair spray bottles scattered about from people who ingest the hideous chemicals and guarantee themselves a short life, or at least severe brain damage.
Gallup decriminalized public intoxication but at the same time stiffened DWUI laws, giving residents a choice of either detox or jail. DWUI checkpoints force people to leave town earlier so they can’t have as many drinks or to seek alternative transportation.
A first DWUI offense is a misdemeanor and carries a penalty of 90 days in jail, DWUI school, alcohol screening, treatment, community service and up to a $500 fine. A fourth offense is a felony and carries a mandatory jail sentence of six to 18 months, one to 10 years’ license revocation, and up to a $5,000 fine.
New Mexico also added an aggravated DWUI offense for when somebody shows a .16 blood-alcohol level, refuses to take a breath or blood test, or causes bodily injury. The laws are even stiffer for drivers under the age of 21.
Ashley responded to a call about a fight at the Cactus Motel. He found a shirtless man with a bloody mouth not far from the building. He said his name was Eugene and drank two quarts of beer. That was before he got jumped. It had something to do with a female friend, he said. Eugene didn’t seem to have a problem with going to NCI, though. He knew he would be safe there, unlike jail.
There are some positive signs in Gallup, which has become a model for dealing with substance abuse despite the difficulty in long-term care for chronic alcoholics, which is a relatively new and expensive science.
The GDP only has a small number of drugs calls, and Ashley is seeing more people using designated drivers. The cars may wreak of alcohol and the passengers may not remember who they are, but at least the drivers can stay on the road.
Originally appeared in The Ranger, Riverton, Wyoming.