Meet Sam Costales, part of the Albuquerque, New Mexico Police Department.
In 2006, Costales was present at a roadblock set up by the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department SWAT team, after a carjacking investigation turned into a gunfire-laden, high-speed chase.
The roadblock also happened to be set up in the neighborhood of race car driving legend Al Unser, Sr. Here’s the initial news report of what happened as Unser approached the roadblock:
While the incident was still unfolding, Bernalillo County sheriff’s investigators allege Al Unser started going through a roadblock in an attempt to get to his property. Despite six or seven warnings to leave the area, he still refused to leave, saying it was his property–he owned it.
When the deputy told him he would be arrested, Unser allegedly said, “You can’t take me to jail,” and began cussing at the officer.
Officers report he then jerked away and said, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Al Unser.”
A short time after he was arrested, Bobby Unser showed up. Deputies said he, too, refused to leave and resisted arrest.
Both were transported to holding cells at the Valley substation before being taken to jail.
“They simply told them numerous times to leave the area, and they simply refused to do so,” Erin Kinnard of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department said. “Were not talking about a situation where we’re trying to catch a shoplifter.
“This was a serious and dangerous situation.”
KRQE News 13 was told Al Unser threatened the arresting officer, telling him he would get back at him some day.
Unser of course said that’s not the way it happened. He says the officers were rude to him, refused to tell him why he couldn’t drive home, then pulled him out of his car and tossed him into a thorn bush before arresting him for resisting arrest.
Costales is a cop with the Albuquerque Police Department, not the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department, so he initially remained silent, and wasn’t interviewed as part of the investigation. But he was later contacted by a private investigator for the Unser family. That’s when he explained what he saw. His version of events were a lot more like the Unsers’ than the sheriff’s deputies.
Costales said he heard “yelling and screaming” after deputies stopped Unser’s vehicle.
“They were running and screaming at the driver, ‘Get the hell out of here,”‘ Costales said. “It bothered me. People have a right to know what’s going on. An explanation would clear them out quickly.”
Three or four deputies were involved in the confrontation, he said.
At one point, Costales said, Unser turned his vehicle around as if to leave as deputies continued yelling at him. Unser stopped and stepped out of his vehicle with his hands outstretched, he said.
Costales said it appeared that one deputy then made a shoving motion toward Unser.
“I thought, ‘This is getting out of hand,”‘ he said.
Costales testified that Unser got back in his truck and started to leave, and that he heard a deputy say, “That’s it, you’re under arrest.”
“They swung open his door, they grabbed him and threw him face down on the ground into a sticker patch,” Costales said.
The Albuquerque officer said he heard Unser tell officers as he was lying on the ground that he had an injured shoulder.
Asked by defense attorney Charlie Daniels if Unser was resisting, Costales replied, “No, sir, there were three of them on top of him.”
Costales added, “There was a right way of doing things and a rude and hateful way of doing things. I think they chose the latter.”
After Costales’ testimony, Unser was acquitted on all charges.
But the story doesn’t end there. The officers at the roadblock were never even investigated, let alone disciplined. In fact, the only action the Benalillo County sheriff took was to call the APD chief to complain about Costales’ testimony. Costales soon found himself the subject of an internal affairs investigation, one instigated by his own police chief at the behest of the sheriff. The charge? Improperly wearing his uniform while testifying in court. A police spokesperson explained to the local paper that officers are only permitted to wear their uniforms when testifying for the prosecution. When they testify for the defense, they’re to wear street clothes. Make of that what you will.
After the trial, the head of the police union in Albuquerque sent a letter to the Bernalillo County Sheriff apologizing for Costales’ testimony. It read:
As Secretary of the APOA i feel it is my duty and responsibility to apologize to you and your officers. Ofc. Sam Costales does not represent APD/APOA. The majority of our officers look at the BCSO as our brother and sisters in blue. We are embarrassed and ashamed of Ofc. Costales’s testimony in the Unser trial. If there is anything we can do to rebuild the damage caused by Sam please let me know.
Remarkable. Costales wasn’t exactly jumping up and down to sell out his fellow cops. According to a report by one New Mexico non-profit, Costales had retired from the police force three years prior after witnessing to much brutality, and feeling powerless to do anything about it. When APD asked him back as part of an effort to step up street patrols, he agreed, but only after first promising himself and his wife that he’d speak up about any abuses he saw. Even still, Costales spoke up about the Unser incident only after contacted by Unser’s defense team, then testified to what he saw when asked to do so while under oath. Seems to me he’s a pretty credible witness. He had little to gain from selling out his fellow officers (I doubt he was gunning for my “Cop of the Year” award), and quite a bit to lose.
And so much for police unions sticking up for their members, eh? Tell the truth under oath about police abuse in order to prevent a wrongful arrest and conviction, and they’ll drop you like you’ve just been tasered.
The sheriff responded to the union rep:
“Like you, I was shocked and dismayed when I learned that Sam was on the stand sucker-punching our deputies. Make no mistake, while his testimony was a work of fiction, it was pretty much game over after he finished…Sam Costales is incapable of breaking the brotherhood that bonds these great agencies.”
The internal affairs investigation of Costales ended without any formal complaint against him. But it sent a pretty clear message. And the retribution has apparently continued. Last August, Costales filed a federal lawsuit against his department, the sheriff’s department, and the police union:
Officer Sam Costales, in a federal lawsuit filed last week, alleged there’s an unwritten “blue code of silence” in which officers are expected to lie or keep silent to avoid contradicting fellow officers or situations that would make another law enforcement agency look bad.
And he said officers who break that code are punished by “derogatory comments and smear campaigns,” ostracism within the department and retaliation and by other officers refusing to back them up on calls in the field.
The lawsuit said that despite requests for transfer, Costales remains on patrol in a dangerous neighborhood, under a cloud of hostility, and wonders every time he gets a call whether other officers will back him up.
Costales said criticism by White and Schultz created a hostile and potentially life-threatening work environment and that stress has forced him to seek mental health treatment and take medication for anxiety and sleeplessness.
Seems like the lesson in all of this is clear. There may indeed be only a “few bad apples” in the police force. But if you, as one of the good ones, report their abuses, it’s you who will be punished, not them. This is also why I’m skeptical of police accounts of botched raids, shootings, and other incidents. There’s way too much incentive to lie, way too much protection for liars, and, in those cases where the police actually are at fault, too little protection for cops who do dare to tell the truth.
In my book, Sam Costales is a hero. He’s your Agitator.com “Cop of the Year” for 2007.