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APD consent decree is under wraps for now

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Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque police officers and activists critical of police agree on one thing: They’d like to see what’s on the table in negotiations between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice over what reforms the Albuquerque Police Department will have to make.

They and the rest of the community likely will have to wait about six months.

The Justice Department in April released a report after a 16-month investigation that determined APD had a pattern of violating residents’ constitutional rights through excessive use of force. The city and the Justice Department will try to negotiate a court-enforceable agreement over how to reform the police department to remedy that and other problems raised in the report.

APD has shot and killed 26 people since the beginning of 2010, but the DOJ report also raised concerns about the department’s use of non-lethal force and the operations of some of its tactical units.

City Council President Ken Sanchez said he expects city councilors will publicly vote on the consent decree, which he said likely won’t happen until shortly before it is filed in court. He said that once city councilors see the documents on police reforms, they will be made public.

But the council’s role in the process isn’t entirely clear.

Albuquerque City Attorney David Tourek declined to comment on whether or not councilors will approve the consent decree or if the document will be made public prior to being filed in court.

Rob Perry, Albuquerque’s chief administrative officer and a former city attorney, last week declined to comment on the negotiations, but he left no doubt that the document isn’t being crafted through anything like the normal legislative process for City Council bills, when public testimony is accepted at almost every step.

“It’s a legal process,” Perry said. “It has to be understood, it’s attorneys from the Department of Justice dealing with attorneys from the city.”

Police officers are not sure what reforms will be considered, said Stephanie Lopez, the president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association. The union and rank and file officers are not privy to negotiations.

“We’re concerned that the reforms will be motivated by politics instead of what is reasonable for Albuquerque police officers to succeed,” said Shaun Willoughby, the vice president of the police union.

Sanchez said police officers should know what policy changes are being considered.

“The police officers are going to have to buy in with this, so they have to know what’s going on,” he said.

Jewel Hall, president of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, said she is concerned that lawyers involved in negotiations are out of touch with Albuquerque’s minority and poor communities.

Hall and other community members who had pushed for the DOJ investigation met with Justice Department officials in early June. Hall said the DOJ officials would not tell her what reforms are being considered, but they guaranteed her that opinions gathered in public forums would be referenced as the Justice Department and city negotiate.

Scott Greenwood, an Ohio civil-rights lawyer who is serving as Albuquerque’s chief negotiator, told city councilors last week that “we’re ready to start face-to-face negotiations with a draft.”

He said during the meeting that both sides know the core issues that need to be addressed and negotiations are likely to take about six months.

A DOJ spokeswomen declined comment this week on whether a draft agreement has been prepared or whether the public would get to see it before it is filed in court.

A federal rule of evidence appears to keep settlement offers or statements made during mediation confidential.

If the city and DOJ can’t reach an agreement, the Justice Department can file a federal lawsuit against APD to get a judge to order reforms.

“We, like a lot of people, would love to be at the negotiating table, but we also understand that too many cooks in the kitchen could cause the whole process to break down,” ACLU-NM Executive Director Peter Simonson said in an email. “The DOJ has assured us that they will press for the strongest consent decree possible and we look forward to reviewing what they come up with.”

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