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Misconduct Allegations Try APD

By Chris Vogel
Journal Staff Writer
    It's been a rough 10 months for the Albuquerque Police Department.
    As Gilbert Gallegos enters his third year as police chief, the department faces allegations of corruption, officer misconduct and use of excessive force.
    There are also union problems, staffing shortages and criticism from the city's independent review officer, who investigates citizen complaints.
    But Mayor Martin Chávez said the jobs of Gallegos and Nick Bakas, chief public safety officer, are safe.
    Chávez, in a recent interview, saluted APD for lowering the city's crime rate.
    He said the department is on track.
    "That doesn't mean (Gallegos and Bakas) have not been taken out to the woodshed a couple times; they have ... " he said. But, he added, "overall, the police department is doing very well."
    Among APD's problems:
   
  • A high-ranking officer was disciplined for giving the mayor's wife a break on a parking ticket.
       
  • An officer was indicted last summer after he was accused of detaining people for no reason at traffic stops, and another resigned after he was accused of forcing a woman he had stopped to expose herself.
       
  • After a surprise inspection, the department's jail transfer station was shut down this month because of possible mistreatment of prisoners.
       
  • And potentially the most damaging: allegations that civilian employees stole thousands of dollars in money and property from APD's evidence unit, and that top officials covered it up.
        Jay Rowland, the city's Independent Review Officer, has at times clashed with Gallegos over complaints of officer misconduct.
        "The department clearly has some problems and needs civilian oversight," Rowland said recently.
        Gallegos and Bakas acknowledge that APD has its troubles.
        "I know we have a lot of issues we're addressing right now, but we have a good department," Gallegos said in an interview earlier this month. "It's a very professional department."
        Said Bakas, "When we talk about corruption, I remember the days when officers were accused of murder and burglary— that in my mind is corruption. I've seen corruption, I know corruption, and we are not where we were many years ago. In perspective, we're doing very well."
       
    Top brass under fire
        The leadership of Gallegos and Bakas was questioned when the allegations of evidence theft surfaced.
        In early March, an anonymous memo alleged that the two men at one point turned a blind eye to the accusations. They deny they delayed investigating the evidence unit and said the department should be recognized for locating, then investigating possible internal crime.
        Evidence-handling problems are not new for APD. A 1999 city audit found improper storage of money, lax security, problems with evidence and inventory procedures and discrepancies between accounts.
        As a result, cash is now kept in a vault behind a locked gate, according to a followup 2003 audit.
        "Apparently, we had some ongoing problems with the evidence room," Gallegos said. "Why wasn't something done in 1999? It was me who initiated the (recent) internal investigation to find out what in the hell is going on, and some people seem to forget that.
        "To let the unit go to what it was in 1999 and earlier would be irresponsible, but to do the things this department did was the common sense and professional thing to do, and I'd do it all over again."
        He said the internal investigation was launched when a routine inspection in August uncovered possible misconduct by unit employees. Along with the internal probe, APD asked the Attorney General's Office to conduct an inquiry.
        "I've heard all the rumors, and all I can say is that I hope the department acted as quickly as possible," said Jeff Remington, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers' Association.
        Chávez said he was pleased that the AG's Office was brought in. Its findings will determine whether Gallegos and Bakas acted quickly enough, he said.
        The parking ticket break for first lady Margaret Aragón de Chávez resulted in disciplinary action for APD Capt. Conrad Candelaria.
        An internal investigation determined that Candelaria broke department procedures when he used his discretion to reduce the ticket to a warning. Candelaria has said that neither the mayor nor his wife had contacted APD.
        Last summer, officers Christopher Chase and Duane Currell were indicted for allegedly abusing people during traffic stops.
        Chase was fired for detaining people for no apparent reason, according to an indictment. In all, the indictment alleges that 11 people were victims of numerous crimes, including sexual assault.
        In an unrelated incident, Currell resigned after he was accused of coercing a woman into exposing herself, then grabbing her during a traffic stop, according to an APD investigation.
        Last fall, the department's emergency line came under scrutiny when residents failed to reach an operator after dialing 911. APD hired more operators after an internal review and a visit by Chávez to the dispatch room.
        The prisoner transfer station near the Big I was closed after a surprise inspection by Rowland and internal affairs officers uncovered understaffing and possible mistreatment of prisoners. That means arresting officers must drive prisoners more than 20 miles to the new West Side jail.
        Rowland reported a lack of medical care, an erratic toilet and a prisoner handcuffed outside the station without shoes and pants.
        The fate of the station highlights what has been a thorny relationship between Gallegos and Rowland.
        Rowland independently investigates citizen complaints and forwards his findings to the Police Oversight Commission, which makes a ruling. But it is up to Gallegos to decide if an officer is disciplined.
        Rowland said Gallegos agrees with him on about 97 percent of his findings. But their most common disagreements are over cases involving excessive force.
        In the past 18 months, Rowland said he has determined that officers used excessive force in 10 complaints, only one of which Gallegos sustained.
        "Our non-concurrence rate is low, but it concerns me that it's in the use of excessive force (cases)," Rowland said.
        One case in which he found excessive force was during an anti-war protest near the University of New Mexico in March 2003. Gallegos didn't agree, and the officer was not disciplined.
        Earlier this month, the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild filed a civil rights lawsuit claiming excessive force and free speech violations.
        Despite APD's problems, Gallegos said his cops are taking care of the most important one— crime.
        He pointed to national FBI crime figures, saying they show that crime dropped 10 percent in 2002 and 6 percent in 2003.
       
    Goals for APD
        Gallegos has a number of goals for APD, including installing a computer system that would allow officers to write reports online in their cars.
        He has also started to replace the department's fleet of vehicles every five years as opposed to every eight years.
        Remington said items like new cars help keep officers productive, but the greatest strain on morale is the lack of a contract. He said officers have not been given a raise or their promised pay step increases in more than two years.
        In late February, Remington and other officers camped outside Civic Plaza for several nights to protest pay and what they say is a lack of leadership.
        "In the past, APD was a very prestigious law enforcement agency, and hits like the evidence unit and not getting the (pay) steps damage morale," he said. "It hits the perception that we're working at a quality agency."
        Gallegos said he was "very supportive regarding pay raises. I think our officers deserve them, and I am confident they will get something new in their paychecks in the next few months."
        Chávez set a goal of staffing 1,000 officers by 2005, and the department failed to reach its intermediary goal of 955 in February. APD says it has 937 officers, while the union contends that the number is lower.
        Bakas and Gallegos agree with the union that APD does not have enough officers.
        "Yes, we are short," Gallegos said. "We know that, and that's why we're trying to beef up the force size."
        Bakas acknowledges that a retiree who had a criminal record was hired and another was fired after failing a drug test, which was taken after the officer was assigned to full-time duty.
        Regarding questions about his leadership, Gallegos mused during a recent interview about how public perceptions can change.
        Thirty years ago, he was known as an Albuquerque police union advocate and became a national union leader as president of the national Fraternal Order of Police. He is still a board member.
        "In 1975, I was mentioned in an Albuquerque Journal editorial as one of seven city heroes and leaders," he said. "Several years later, I'm a bum."
        But Gallegos said he doesn't believe that about himself, and neither do Bakas and Chávez.
        "I advise the chief on our preference on situations, but all the directors are expected to run their departments and the chief is doing a very good job," Bakas said.