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DOJ reform could cost Albuquerque millions

Mayor Richard Berry on Monday spoke to the media for the first time about APD's most recent shooting. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
Mayor Richard Berry on Monday spoke to the media for the first time about APD's most recent shooting. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
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Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

If the Department of Justice report on the Albuquerque Police Department – due out Thursday – turns out like similar investigations across the country, APD could be facing millions of dollars in reform and some type of federal oversight.

During President Barack Obama’s first term, the DOJ opened 15 investigations of police departments, including one into APD’s use of deadly force that began in November 2012.

Perhaps the city where the situation is most like Albuquerque is Miami. There, the DOJ investigated a pattern of excessive force after seven young men were killed by Miami police in an eight-month period in 2010 and 2011. Since 2010, APD officers have shot at 37 men and killed 23.

Last year, the DOJ announced it had determined that the Miami Police Department had “engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive use of force through officer-involved shootings in violation of the Fourth Amendment. … Between 2008 and 2011, officers intentionally shot at individuals on 33 separate occasions, three of which (the department) itself found unjustified.”

DOJ spokeswoman Dena Iverson said use of force also arose as an issue in New Orleans, Portland, Ore., Seattle and Puerto Rico, as well as other cities, but findings in those places were “not limited to deadly force with firearms.” Among the reforms those departments must make are changes in training, recruitment, performance evaluations and promotions and misconduct investigations. The tab for making changes and hiring a monitor to oversee them has reached as high as $55 million.

In Albuquerque, DOJ investigators have delved deeply into the mechanics of the department’s Internal Affairs unit, which investigates complaints against officers and officer-involved shootings. Investigators have questioned how the unit fits into the department’s chain of command and how independent it is.

Federal investigators interviewed more than 600 citizens who had use-of-force complaints or experienced other problems with members of the department. Officer recruitment, supervision and officer training are other areas that have been under scrutiny by the feds.

But the most important determination is whether the use of deadly force by APD shows a pattern or practice of excessive force. A key question federal investigators are trying to determine is whether the culture within the department encouraged an excessive use of deadly force.

DOJ cases

President Bill Clinton in 1994 signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, opening the door for the federal investigations. At times, the DOJ also cites the Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as authorization.

According to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division website, federal law “makes it unlawful for State or local law enforcement officers to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of rights protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States. … The types of conduct covered by this law can include, among other things, excessive force, discriminatory harassment, false arrests, coercive sexual conduct, and unlawful stops, searches or arrests. …

“The DOJ must be able to show in court that the agency has an unlawful policy or that the incidents constituted a pattern of unlawful conduct.”

Under Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, investigations are more common and tend to be broader in scope than previously. During Obama’s first term, DOJ launched almost twice as many as were opened in President George W. Bush’s second term. Eight investigations are still open.

A look at some of the cases:

  • In Miami, timeliness emerged as a critical issue. At the time of the DOJ report last summer, police had not reached a conclusion on the legality of a shooting five years earlier, and several cases remained open more than three years after the shootings. In its “findings” letter last July, the DOJ cited a need for retraining to correct poor police tactics, inadequate investigative processes and improper actions by special units. It also said use-of-force investigations should be more timely and thorough. A consent decree has not been finalized yet.
  • In Newark, N.J., the police department will soon find itself operating under a federal monitor. The DOJ made the announcement in February. The department was accused of ignoring, for years, complaints of brutality and other misconduct. The ACLU counted 261 complaints against police in 2008 and 2009, alleging excessive force, racism, illegal searches and false arrests. The department upheld only one complaint. Terms of an agreement between the city and the federal government are expected to be ironed out soon.
  • New Orleans’ agreement with the DOJ calls for police to make broad changes related to use of force, stops, searches, arrests, interrogations and photo lineups. The department is also taking steps to prevent discriminatory policing and improve community engagement. Also due for change are recruitment, training, officer assistance practices, performance evaluations and promotions, and misconduct investigations. The consent decree will remain in effect until the city demonstrates it has complied for two years, or until the monitor determines continuing improvement is likely.
  • In Portland, Ore., the DOJ found in 2012 that police engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force against people with mental illness. An agreement listed changes in training, policies and supervision and called for an independent compliance officer and community liaison who would examine data about use of force and report to the DOJ, the city and the public.

DOJ agreements with Puerto Rico and Seattle also refer to people with mental illness.

Methods of change

DOJ has used three alternative methods to make changes in police departments.

The first is a written agreement with the local police department, outlining reforms. The second and more common is the appointment of a monitor by DOJ and approved by a judge, who is paid by the city to oversee agreed-upon reforms. The third is appointment of a special master to oversee reforms – with the backing of a federal judge.

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry is preparing to spend about $1 million on additional training for officers for one year.

Over a five-year period, New Orleans is expecting to shell out some $55 million to comply with its settlement. On top of that, a separate settlement with the Orleans Parish Prison may run as high as $23 million a year, or about $110 million in total. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who originally welcomed the agreements, is now fighting them in court because of the high costs.

Seattle initially set aside $100,000 to hire a monitor. However, between November 2012 and January of this year, the monitor cost more than $1.3 million – not including police training, overtime and other costs, such as a new computer system, expected to run about $10 million.

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