Mayor Richard Berry on Thursday vetoed the City Council’s request for a federal investigation into civil rights violations by Albuquerque police, the same day he met with top executives of the U.S. Department of Justice to discuss the allegations.
Berry said the actions aren’t inconsistent. The veto of the legislation, he said, was based partly on procedural questions, such as whether City Council approval of the bill violated the state Open Meetings Act.
Furthermore, he said, his administration is already cooperating with the Department of Justice, which will decide on its own whether a full investigation is warranted.
“We’re already working in collaborative fashion,” Berry said.
City Councilor Rey Garduño, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the mayor’s reasons for vetoing the legislation don’t hold up against massive public outcry over APD “misconduct.”
The veto “sounds like an attempt to block this investigation,” Garduño said. “I take umbrage. If we have nothing to hide, then we have nothing to hide. And if the DOJ decides to conduct this investigation, then it will do so regardless of the will of the City Council or the Mayor’s Office.”
Even before the Aug. 1 vote on the resolution, there were questions about whether it was proper to act on it.
Interim City Attorney Robert Kidd and a council policy analyst noted that the DOJ request was in the form of an amendment to another bill, which focused on asking the city to hire an expert to study police policies and procedures.
The public, then, wasn’t notified beforehand that the DOJ issue would be voted on, a potential violation of the Open Meetings Act, critics said.
APD officers have shot 19 men since January 2010; 13 of them have died. The majority have been Hispanic men in their 20s and 30s.
In addition to the shootings, APD has struggled with officers posting offensive comments on social media websites.
Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, was in Albuquerque on Thursday for a plea deal in the infamous “swastika branding” case. In that case, the first in the nation prosecuted under a strengthened federal hate crimes law, involved the assault on a Navajo man who is disabled.
Since the Justice Department was already reviewing civil rights allegations against APD, Perez met with Berry, police officials and local advocacy groups while he was in town.
“There is no investigation under way at this point,” Perez told reporters. “We are gathering information to see what the next step is.”
The Justice Department receives police misconduct complaints from advocacy groups, private citizens, news accounts and cities themselves. Federal officials decide whether to start a full investigation by determining whether a “pattern or practice” violation has occurred, meaning “police misconduct is the agency’s ‘standard operating procedure’ – the regular, rather than the unusual practice.”
Investigations can take up to a year and a half. If it finds there has been a violation, the Justice Department works with the cities to develop a plan of action. If that doesn’t work, the department can sue the city for changes.
Perez would not say when the department’s review of allegations against APD began or what prompted it. And he would not provide a time frame for when a full-blown investigation may begin.
Peter Simonson, executive director of the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Perez was “very receptive” during his meeting with local advocacy groups.
“Fortunately, I think we got his attention,” Simonson said. “I certainly hope we were convincing, because our efforts to try to get APD to address its problems have met with a refusal to accept responsibility. The shootings are obviously very serious, but that’s not all. The mismanagement, the lack of supervision and the thoughts officers have posted online raise real questions about their ability to do their jobs.”
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal