The biggest laugh at Monday night’s marathon Albuquerque City Council meeting came when council President Ken Sanchez announced, “Mayor Berry sends his regrets for not being able to attend tonight’s meeting.”
That was pretty much the end of the levity as, for the next five hours, people went to the microphone to blister Mayor Richard Berry, Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden and the City Council and describe what they said was an out-of-control Police Department and a city bureaucracy that’s had its head in the sand.
Berry said he skipped the meeting because he was talking with a group of young professionals about problems at APD at the time, his fourth meeting of the day on the topic, according to his office. That’s a good excuse, but a terrible public relations move. People went to the council meeting to talk to the city’s leaders, and the top city leader sent them a message that he was too busy to listen to them.
Eden sat in the back of the City Council chambers wearing his blue uniform and took his medicine as these words were used to describe his department: “Inept.” “Morally bankrupt.” “State terrorism.” “Paramilitary.” “Despicable.” “Homicidal.”
Officers were accused of beating people, lying under oath to protect themselves from the law, committing public executions and costing taxpayers millions in police brutality lawsuits.
“Corrupt.” “Sick.” “Dirty.” Unacceptable.” “Repulsive.” “Trash.”
Eden helped ignite the storm that now engulfs Albuquerque by dispassionately describing the fatal shooting of transient James Boyd in the Sandia foothills on March 16 and then opining the killing was justified. Others watched a police video of the shooting released by APD and saw something that could never be justified.
But Eden gets credit for sitting through what amounted to a public flogging, especially since he’s been on the job only a few weeks and the problems belong mostly to his predecessors, former Chiefs Allen Banks and Ray Schultz.
It wasn’t lost on the overflow crowd, though, that Berry is in his second term as mayor – with all of the 37 APD shootings, including 23 fatalities, since 2010 happening on his watch – and that he has only now seemed to have awakened to the urgency of the problems within APD.
Berry, according to his office, was on a spring break vacation with his family when APD released the Boyd video on March 21. He drove back to Albuquerque March 22 , was briefed on the video March 23 and on March 24 in an interview called it “horrific.” He later called the Boyd video “a game changer,” asked the FBI to investigate, announced a program of more officer training in de-escalation and crisis intervention techniques as well as a tracking system for officers’ use of force throughout their careers.
Much of the testimony Monday evening was a history lesson.
One speaker reminded the crowd that Berry vetoed a City Council resolution in 2011 that would have invited the Department of Justice to investigate APD. (Berry cited concerns that the council vote violated open meetings laws.) The DOJ came in anyway, and today it will announce its findings and remedies.
There was also mention of the city-commissioned 1997 Walker/Luna report on APD whose conclusion sounds awfully familiar these 17 years later: “The city of Albuquerque suffers from serious problems related to fatal shootings by APD officers, extremely high annual payments for tort claims involving police officers, a citizen complaint system that is not adequately open to citizens, and a high level of tension between the APD and segments of the community.”
Mike Gomez, whose son was one of the 23 men killed by APD since 2010, reminded councilors that he and other relatives of those killed have been going to meetings and making these complaints for years.
“We warned you,” he said. “But you sit there and you look at your cellphones. You look at your iPads. You don’t listen to us.”
It was an awkward and devastating moment – because if we all were being honest, we would have to admit that complaints about the police, aired by the same groups of people at these same meetings for years, had started to sound like background music and were easy to ignore.
APD has had a record of using excessive force for a long time, warning bells have been ringing for years and – thanks to a disturbing video of a man being killed – everyone is now all ears.
I hope someone recorded the meeting and put it on a DVD for the mayor so he can experience the full fury of a roomful of people who feel their city is unraveling and that they have been patronized or ignored.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or email@example.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.