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State keeps police training changes secret

Academy Director Jack Jones.
Academy Director Jack Jones.
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Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The state law enforcement academy has changed the way it trains police cadets on the use of deadly force – but it’s unclear exactly what those changes are because the state has refused to make the new curriculum public despite a rule requiring that it be published.

In other changes, the state academy’s curriculum was shortened from 22 to 16 weeks of training. All this comes at a time when at least two law enforcement agencies in the state – the Albuquerque Police Department and the State Police – have come under scrutiny for their use of deadly force. In APD’s case, the department is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible civil rights violations.

New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Director Jack Jones canceled an appointment with the Journal to discuss the curriculum changes, which were approved by the academy’s board in December, and refused through a spokesman to comment by phone.

By rule, the curriculum was supposed to be posted online seven days after it was approved, but it had not been posted as of Tuesday. Nor has the Department of Public Safety made a copy of the new curriculum available despite a public records request by the Journal made two weeks ago .

According to minutes of a board meeting in September, the new curriculum dumps what is known as the “reactive control model” and, according to a 2014 class schedule, it includes a new course on live-fire vehicle stops.

The reactive control model prescribes various levels of response by officers depending on a suspect’s actions. For example, an officer can use deadly force only after a suspect attacks the officer with deadly force.

Jones said in the September meeting that officers would rely on case law instead.

“Years ago, what we did was we went by use-of-force guidelines as to what was reasonable and prudent for the officer at the time, and that’s what we’re going to go back to at this point in time,” Jones said. “We believe that the (reactive control model) puts police officers in those little boxes … and what we’re seeing in our agencies that come through the academy is that they have trouble identifying when they can go to a next level of use of force.”

Former DPS Secretary Gorden Eden, who took over as APD chief last week, said departments across the country are re-evaluating their use of the reactive control model in part because of the copyright fees associated with using it.

Public shut out

The academy board last September unanimously approved a change that struck the old curriculum from the board rules in the New Mexico Administrative Code and gave Jones authority to come up with a new curriculum and present it to the board for approval. That happened in December.

Board members said in the September meeting that the change would allow curriculum changes to be made more quickly.

Any changes to state Administrative Code require public comment, so by striking the curriculum from the code, future curriculum changes won’t require public comment, according to Greg Williams, president-elect of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

“What this rule has the effect of doing is that the public will not be able to have input about the curriculum,” Williams said.

What’s concerning, Williams said, is that Attorney General Gary King, who is also chairman of the academy’s board, voted for the rule change. As attorney general, King is responsible for enforcing transparency laws in the state.

King said through spokesman Phil Sisneros he didn’t realize at the time that the rule might reduce public input.

“He (King) would not support something that makes anything less transparent,” Sisneros said in a recent interview. “He is going to attempt to get the board to revisit the entire issue. He wants to look into it.”

King, according to Sisneros, and Eden have said they were working on making the curriculum public.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico demanded on Tuesday that the curriculum be released. “Attempting to conceal public records from concerned citizens only damages trust and does nothing to make the public safer,” Executive Director Peter Simonson said in a prepared statement.

The New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy, located in Santa Fe, provides required training for law enforcement agencies that don’t have their own training academies.

Even those departments with their own academies, such as APD, must include the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy’s minimum standards in their training. They can, however, expand upon them, which is common, according to the NMLEA board’s September meeting minutes.

The state academy board, composed of law enforcement officials from across the state, agreed to shorten the curriculum to avoid redundancy and cut unnecessary “advanced” training, according to meeting minutes.

“This is a basic police academy, and that’s what this curriculum is for, not to produce premiere accident reconstructionists or elite murder investigators,” Jones told the Journal in September.

Eden told the Journal editorial board recently that in general, the curriculum changes eliminated training that some departments believed wasn’t critical for entry-level officers.

The largest cuts in the old curriculum come from a block called “Patrol Procedures and Operations,” from which almost 60 hours were eliminated, including classes called “Role of Patrol in Community Policing,” “Patrol Activities and Incidents,” “Crimes in Progress” and “Crime Prevention and Fear Reduction.”

Paramilitary question

Jones joined the Army in 1971 and four years later joined State Police, where he worked for at least a decade. He then started training people to secure the U.S. Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons, while serving in the National Guard. He is a highly decorated military officer who served in Desert Storm and as a garrison commander for the U.S. Southern Command, according to Journal archives.

He was appointed academy director in June 2013 after being recommended by Eden.

It was Jones’ military training background, Eden said, that convinced him Jones was the right man to lead the academy.

“He is a highly decorated, well-recognized expert in various areas, including military policing,” Eden said last week.

APD, meanwhile, made a conscious decision two years ago to de-emphasize military-style training. APD academy director Joe Wolf said in 2012, when he took over the APD academy, that he would move training away from military policing and create a “university” feel.

But Eden said in a recent interview that police departments are inherently paramilitary organizations and are effective that way.

“By nature of its work, law enforcement agencies across the United States are paramilitary organizations with a command rank structure, and one of the things that helps people understand that structure is to give them that training while they’re in the academy so they understand how important it is to use the chain of command and communicate properly,” he said.

Simonson said that while he agrees with Eden that communication and discipline are important in police departments, he worries that a “paramilitary” mindset could lead to more use of force.

“I think any time you use a description like that in this day and age, it parallels a general trend of militarization in law enforcement across the nation that goes beyond just command structures to include high end technology being used by the military as well as tactical approaches used to stifle dissent and are proven to increase the use of deadly force,” Simonson said Monday.

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