New APD policy plays down use of force

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque police officers have started training on a new use-of-force policy that emphasizes de-escalation and instructs officers to use the “minimum amount of force necessary” in any given situation.

A policy statement that introduces the new regulations says officers need to de-escalate situations whenever possible. They can do this by providing warnings, advisements, suggestions and giving the suspect space instead of using force, which can include anything from physical restraint to using a firearm.

It also states that regardless of the legal standard for force, APD officers are expected to use the minimum amount of force necessary. That phrase didn’t exist in the department’s prior use-of-force policy.

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So far, fewer than 100 officers have been trained on the policy,which was distributed to officers in late January. Police union officials have raised questions about how the new rules will be enforced before training is complete.

lbuquerque police officers in riot gear stand their ground after using tear gas on protesters near Central and University in March 2014. The protest was after the fatal shooting of homeless camper James Boyd. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

lbuquerque police officers in riot gear stand their ground after using tear gas on protesters near Central and University in March 2014. The protest was after the fatal shooting of homeless camper James Boyd. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The new policy was created through months of negotiations among the city, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Albuquerque Police Officers Association. It was approved by James Ginger, the independent monitor overseeing police reform.

The policy was revamped as part of the reform effort that stems from a DOJ investigation that found Albuquerque police had a pattern of excessive force and a “culture of aggression.”

The DOJ’s findings came after Albuquerque officers shot at more than 40 people in a five-year period. Some of those shootings led to lawsuits and more than $25 million in judgments against the city.

Negotiations are wrapping up on a related policy that outlines how sergeants and higher-ranking officers investigate use-of-force cases. Together, a goal of the new policies is to ensure there is accountability up and down the ranks of Albuquerque police when an officer uses force, City Attorney Jessica Hernandez said.

“You have to have a clear policy that you train people on, but ultimately the culture changes when (officers) know they will be held to that standard,” Hernandez said in an interview last week.

“This puts some new elements on officers that they haven’t been trained on before.”

Albuquerque police SWAT officers prepare to apprehend a suspect who shot at officers after he fled a car crash near Louisiana and Zuni. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Albuquerque police SWAT officers prepare to apprehend a suspect who shot at officers after he fled a car crash near Louisiana and Zuni. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Shaun Willoughby, the president of the police union, said the policy can be successful if officers and their supervisors are well trained on it. But he said there is tension between rank-and-file officers and the administration over the policy because even though it is in effect, most officers haven’t been trained on it.

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There have been 77 officers trained so far on the new policy, and another group started the training Wednesday and were to complete it over the weekend, Hernandez said. The settlement calls for all officers to be trained on the new policy by June 2.

“I think today officers are confused,” Willoughby said. “We need to invest time and effort into training. Every police officer and supervisor needs to be trained on policy. These individuals have to intimately understand the policy.”

The curriculum includes three days of classroom training, one day of defensive tactics and one day of reality-based training. Officers must also pass a test.

Hernandez said current officers will lead most of the training and former Albuquerque police officers have been contracted to help with the reality-based training. The policy will also be taught during the police academies for new cadets.

Willoughby said there is nothing in the policy that would compromise officer safety as long as officers don’t pause or second-guess themselves because they don’t know if force is appropriate in a serious situation.

“You don’t want a police officer to fail to act when it comes to protecting themselves or a citizen because they don’t understand a policy,” he said.

Police Chief Gorden Eden declined to comment last week. He issued a statement through a spokeswoman that described the training and said police reform was a priority for the department.

Calm the suspect

The policy says officers will try to slow down most situations, other than events like active shootings, and try calm the suspect. It says police should evaluate the suspect’s mental health history, size and other factors, such as how many officers there are compared to suspects, when determining whether force is appropriate.

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Willoughby said it changes protocols on how officers respond to people who are suicidal or suffering from a mental illness.

The policy also covers officers shooting at motor vehicles, a practice that was criticized by the DOJ in its findings letter and was debated among the parties as the new policy was crafted.

The new rules prohibit officers from reaching into or placing themselves in front of vehicles. Instead, the policy says they will move out of the path of a moving vehicle and find cover, and it prohibits them from shooting at the vehicle unless the driver is using a deadly weapon other than the car.

The rules say, however, that if the officer is in imminent danger and has no reasonable alternative, the officer can shoot at the vehicle – after considering whether the shot creates a danger to the public that outweighs the benefit.

“It happens a lot where a suspect is using a vehicle in a dangerous way against officers,” Hernandez said. “I think everyone in the room realized the problem with outright prohibitions. But we wanted to make sure officers knew they are not allowed to create the danger themselves and then have to shoot at a vehicle.”

Ginger, the monitor, has sat in on some of the training and members of his team plan to appear at future training sessions, Hernandez said.

DOJ officials declined to comment.

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