This is one of those stories about whether the end justifies the means. But it’s also a story about whether there is really a problem with the means to begin with. As is often the case these days, the story starts with video from a citizen. I’ll be the first to tell you that the video itself doesn’t seem to provide any conclusive answers (though as you will see, some disagree with me), but the whole incident is a bit different and interesting. Here’s the TV news version:
For those interested in more background on this story, here’s an account based on emails I was copied on, the story above by KRQE-TV and two YouTube videos.
To start with, the Albuquerque Fire Department had more than $7000 worth of equipment stolen from Engine 12 and Rescue 12 while firefighters were at Station 5 attending a “Post Incident Stress Debriefing” on Monday. After calling the cops, firefighters began helping police find a suspect and the missing equipment. A woman began shooting the search with her cell phone.
The woman’s edited video (below), that included music and still images, was posted Tuesday by Burque MediaPRO under the title “ABQ Fire Department: Stop and Frisk: where’s my computer, bro”. This is part of the description with the video:
There appeared to be about two dozen fire personnel questioning people along Central and in adjacent neighborhoods nearby looking in and through people’s belongings.
The subjects of the stops appeared to be random as they did not share physical characteristics.
It is unacceptable to incite fear from those you serve.
The woman, who is not identified, told KRQE, “I saw Albuquerque Fire Department randomly stopping anybody they saw on the street”. She also said, “I was completely shocked. It was a complete violation of our constitutional rights.”
(Note: A second clip of what appears to be unedited, raw video from the incident was uploaded to YouTube by Burque MediaPRO late yesterday with the title “Albuquerque Fire Department partaking in a little ‘stop and frisk.’”. It is posted below. On that video, you hear what sounds like the voice of a man apparently accompanying the woman taking the video. At one point, apparently referring to the firefighters, he says, “They might talk to you, but they ain’t going to talk to me.” It makes you wonder about the history between that man and the firefighters.)
Early yesterday (Wednesday) morning, Felipe Hemming of PINAC (Photography Is Not A Crime) News emailed City of Albuquerque officials, the local news media and even STATter911.com, about the YouTube video and the incident. Hemming wrote “I have over 25 years in the fire service and at no time have I received or even seen training for this type of activity offered, is some thing just limited to Albuquerque Fire Department?” (See entire email below.)
Hemming asks an interesting question and I can see lots of potential issues for the fire department IF they were searching people’s belongings without permission (Curt Varone at FireLawBlog.com, you out there?). But I am puzzled about the connection to this story for PINAC News. I don’t see anything on the video showing firefighters or anyone else hassling the videographer (to be clear, Hemming is not the videographer). I also haven’t seen anything about this incident on PINAC’s website.
Also, if you have news in the title of the organization you represent, would it be a bad thing to at least wait for some answers to your questions before declaring the incident “shameful”, “grievous” and “unlawful”? I know that’s really old school of me, but I often have the very same criticism of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. I just can’t seem to get with this”new” journalism thing. I’ve sent an email to Hemming with these questions and will post any on the record response I receive.
Albuquerque Fire Department PIO Melissa Romero complied later in the day to Hemming’s demand for “a prepared media response as well as an explanation for this activity including what sort of disciplinary action will be taken to address the grievous and unlawful behavior” (see email below). While Romero did not address “disciplinary action”, Fire Chief David Downey seemed to respond to that pretty clearly when he told KRQE-TV, “I think the Youtube video is a very poor depiction. To insinuate the firefighters were out there doing something illegal as it said in the video- search and seizure- it’s just ridiculous.”
In the end, firefighters assisted in finding the man police eventually arrested and and recovered some of the stolen property. Did the firefighters go too far in their efforts to solve this crime? I’ll let you and Curt Varone be the judge.
Did a representative of PINAC News go too far in passing judgment based on inconclusive video that doesn’t even have any audio of the interactions between the firefighters and the public? I would have to say yes, but maybe Felipe Hemming somehow knows something about what happened that we don’t know.
Email from Felipe Hemming, PINAC News:
I was sent this video , in which firefighters appear to be conducting some sort of search. Only issue it does not involve any sort of normal fire service related activity but possibly some sort of Law Enforcement activity, even then it would require probable cause if not a search warrant.
According to the description in the video some item was lost or stolen from a nearby station and these firefighters took it upon themselves to conduct these unlawful and possibly illegal stop and searches?
I have over 25 years in the fire service and at no time have I received or even seen training for this type of activity offered, is some thing just limited to Albuquerque Fire Department?
Please address this incident with a prepared media response as well as an explanation for this activity including what sort of disciplinary action will be taken to address the grievous and unlawful behavior. This is shameful and only adds to the tension that exist within your city today.
Response from Melissa Romero, Albuquerque Fire Department PIO:
The Albuquerque Fire Department Firefighters and Paramedics that responded to the tragic “cherry picker “accident in which an adult male and a 12 year old boy were killed and 3 other juveniles were critically injured over the weekend, were conducting a ” Post Incident Stress Debriefing” at Fire Station #5 with the AFD Medical Director when a theft occurred. AFD Engine 12 and Rescue 12 had a Department issued MDT computer (required for unit dispatch and tracking information), an SCBA breathing mask, a department issued portable radio, Wildland firefighting personal protective clothing/equipment along with personal items stolen from their units. AFD crews immediately called APD, and upon their arrival began assisting in the search of the immediate surrounding area in an attempt to locate the stolen items . Some Individuals within the area were asked if they had seen any of the stolen equipment or suspicious activity. During that time, AFD personnel noticed an adult male on a bike that was in possession of a black equipment bag resembling that which was taken from one of the units. APD did place an adult male under arrest relating to the possession of that bag and the equipment inside it. At this time none of the other items have been recovered.
The following is a cost estimate of equipment/items stolen from the Fire Department Units:
- Wildland Shirt $113.25
- Wildland Pants $ 129.75
- Wildland Helmet $45.00
- Wildland Head Lamp $17.46
- Wildland Goggles $32.50
- Wildland Gloves $3.76
- Wildland Boots $160.00
- Wildland Bag $22.00
- MDT Computer $3800.00
- Portable Radio $1985.00
- SCBA Face piece $224.00
Total – $6352.72 (City/Department cost) + personal items belonging to 2 firefighters estimating $500.00-$600.00
OVERALL TOTAL = $7032.72 –$ 7132.72
Public Information Officer
Albuquerque Fire Department