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Editorial: City Council’s reforms for APD a mixed bag

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The Department of Justice findings are clear: the Albuquerque Police Department has “inadequate accountability systems” and “superficial reviews” of use of force by its officers. Not so clear is what are the best ways to fix those problems.

It is important moving forward that whatever reforms are adopted will result in real, positive change – not change for the sake of it. So far City Council proposals appear at this point to be a mixed bag in that regard.

Councilors Brad Winter and Rey Garduño are sponsoring legislation that would create a new Civilian Police Oversight Agency with dedicated funding and more power. That’s an important reform taken straight from the 46 pages of the DOJ report:

APD needs to “revise the civilian oversight process to ensure that an effective system of review and approval is implemented that includes review of serious uses of force and officer-involved shootings. The oversight process should also have the resources and support necessary to assess and make recommendations regarding the department’s operations and performance that need improvement.” It should be noted that this oversight isn’t the same thing as turning operational control over to outsiders.

To successfully advance this reform from feel-good policy to productive practice, that process also needs to have teeth; currently the chief can opt to disregard the system and its findings out of hand, a common practice before former Chief Ray Schultz.

Garduño’s second proposal is not as productive, a plan to convert the police chief to an elected position. If the races for Bernalillo County Sheriff as well as District Attorney have shown nothing else over the years, it’s that whoever can talk the toughest on crime, or has the best political connections, wins. To improve, APD needs not only accountability but leadership that balances crime-fighting with justice for all involved, and reducing the chief’s job to a political campaign does not promise to strike that balance.

However, a plan by Winter and Councilor Ken Sanchez to make a chief’s hiring contingent on Council approval merits serious consideration. The Council already confirms the city attorney and chief administrative officer, a process that provides for a robust public vetting.

The last proposal, by Councilors Klarissa Pena, Isaac Benton and Ken Sanchez, runs the risk of throwing money at the problem with no real plan in place. Adding one-eighth cent to the city’s gross-receipts tax to fund mental health and substance abuse programs would add 12.5 cents to a $100 purchase and raise $16 million a year.

Yes, APD has had to step in as de facto mental health counselors – with fatal consequences. Yet the Council’s lack of specificity beyond dollar amounts means taxpayers don’t really know what they will be getting for all that money. Simply allocating half to “basic services” and half to a homeless shelter doesn’t answer the important question of how the mentally ill population will be better served. And it ignores the stark reality that many homeless folks, including APD fatal shooting No. 23 John Boyd, refuse to stay in shelters. For accountability, councilors need to flesh out this proposed appropriation before making a decision.

Additional reform proposals are likely, especially once the city and DOJ begin negotiations toward a consent decree. As the discussion continues, councilors have an important responsibility in ensuring those adopted promise to result in positive change.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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