Watching the city’s news conference a week ago, which was held to respond to the Department of Justice report on the use of excessive force by the Albuquerque Police Department, I kept harking back to the 2013 mayoral debates and Mayor Richard Berry’s dogged re-election talking point – that all was well within APD and if there were any problems, he’d fixed them.
“APD is doing great work.”
“We have one of the finest departments in the country.”
“We’ll let my opponents tear down the Police Department, but I’ll build them up.”
“I will stand up today and say, ‘I am proud of my Police Department and the men and women who serve.’ ”
That last declaration triggered an angry response from challenger Paul Heh, the bombastic dark horse in the race. “Folks,” he said, “my head’s ready to about explode.”
I felt like my head was ready to about explode last week as Berry rolled out his new message on APD, after the DOJ report.
Berry went before the news media with three themes, and he held fast to them like a mouse in a sticky trap: He believes in APD officers, the chief and the department. He’s been working hard on the issue for years. And thanks to the DOJ letter, he now has a lot more information about what has been going on at the Police Department and there’s now a great opportunity for hard work and collaboration to make things better.
If APD were a Little League team that had just suffered its 10th straight shutout, that would have been an appropriately encouraging dugout speech. But according to the DOJ investigation (which I encourage you to read in its entirety on our website), the Police Department has been an agency with a culture of aggression, systemic problems in training and oversight and a record of hurting or killing citizens without sufficient provocation in the 11 months before Berry took office and the 4½ years Berry has been mayor.
When the contradiction was pointed out between his public posture over the years and the DOJ’s blistering conclusions, Berry pleaded ignorance. “We have a lot more information today that we did yesterday,” he said again and again. Pressed on the matter – “Why did it take the DOJ to get information that you as mayor claim you can’t get?” – he acknowledged that pretty much everything the DOJ presented was derived from public information.
Much of it was reported right here in the hometown newspaper year after year after year. The DOJ looked at those examples, added more and drew conclusions. For example:
• “The department’s lack of internal oversight has allowed a culture of aggression to develop. … A lack of accountability in the use of excessive force promotes an acceptance of disproportionate and aggressive behavior towards residents.”
• “The use of excessive force by APD officers is not isolated or sporadic. The pattern or practice of excessive force stems from systemic deficiencies in oversight, training, and policy.”
• “Albuquerque police officers shot and killed civilians who did not pose an imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death to the officers or others.”
• “Officers also used deadly force in situations where the conduct of the officers heightened the danger and contributed to the need to use force.”
• “We found instances in which the SWAT unit did not operate with the discipline and control that would be expected of them, and this lack of discipline contributed to unreasonable uses of deadly force.”
• “A number of areas in which training seemed to be entirely lacking or at least dangerously deficient.”
During his re-election campaign, Berry said in reference to his opponents, “I don’t think I want to live in these gentlemen’s world – where everything is broken, where everything’s on a downward spiral, a cloud for every silver lining.”
Sad to say, folks, but that’s where we’re living now.