APD chiefs often on the firing line - Albuquerque Journal

APD chiefs often on the firing line

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The eight candidates jockeying to succeed Richard Berry as mayor of Albuquerque disagree on a lot of issues.

But when it comes to Police Chief Gorden Eden, they are singing from the same page. Not long after the new mayor takes office Dec. 1, he’ll be out of a job.

The fact that the chief of police is a political lightning rod shouldn’t really surprise anyone. It has been that way for more than 40 years – dating back to the time the city moved from a city commission to a mayor/council system.

In theory, a mayor’s appointment of the city’s chief administrative officer – who is supposed to run the day-to-day affairs of city government – is the most important job selection he or she makes.

But if history holds true, the next mayor’s selection of who runs the police department will make or break the public image of the next administration.

Through the years, candidates for mayor have tried to persuade voters they have the best plan for fighting the city’s chronic crime problem. And that typically comes down to the chief.

Eden, a former U.S. Marshal and secretary of the state Department of Public Safety, was appointed by Berry in 2014 after the departure of Ray Schultz and interim chief Allen Banks. He has been dogged by some of the same issues that his predecessors struggled with – high crime rates, not enough officers and a rocky relationship with the police union.

But Eden has also been in charge of trying to bring APD into compliance with the wide-ranging reforms demanded by the Department of Justice after an investigation found that the “Albuquerque Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of excessive force.”

The city signed off on federal court oversight of the agreement it reached with the DOJ in 2014.

The court-appointed monitor has at times been withering in his criticism of the department’s reform efforts, but has also praised some of the changes the department has made.

Some of the reforms mandated in the agreement have been made by departments around the country – increased training in dealing with mentally ill people, classes on defusing confrontations with civilians and changing tactics, like requiring the department’s SWAT team to deploy as a team instead of individuals.

Other reforms, many of them dealing with internal department reporting of use-of-force incidents, have been more difficult as they require a change in the “culture” of how supervisors view their roles and relationships with the officers they oversee.

Eden’s successor will inherit all those challenges.

History repeats itself

A review of the Journal news archives shows that – with the exception of the DOJ reforms – those challenges aren’t new.

Every chief under the current mayoral form of city government, from Bob V. Stover to Eden, has faced the same issues.

Among them:

• Recruiting enough officers to fully staff the department. By the time the next police academy graduates next year, the department may have the same number of officers it had in the mid-1990s under then-Chief Joe Polisar – 948.

• With a few notable exceptions – including several years early in the Berry administration – relatively high crime rates have plagued Albuquerque since Stover was appointed chief in the 1970s. At that time, the city ranked number one in the nation for felony crimes reported per 100,000 population. Last year, the city ranked in the top 10 in the nation for property crime and was in the top 50 for violent crimes.

• Officer-involved shootings and use of force have been an issue in Albuquerque since the mid-1980s, reaching a zenith with the Department of Justice investigation and findings that the department engaged in a pattern and practice of excessive force and unconstitutional policing.

• The administration’s relationship with the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, the bargaining unit for all officers, runs through the chief’s office. If there is a dispute, it doesn’t matter if it originated with the mayor or the City Council. The chief is on the hot seat no matter who started the fight.

• Civilian oversight has been an issue police chiefs have dealt with since the 1980s, when former state Supreme Court Justice William Riordan was named independent counsel to oversee the work of the department’s Internal Affairs unit and look into civilian complaints. The independent counsel position and old Police Advisory Board have been replaced twice by civilian boards that have had varying degrees of success in dealing with past chiefs.

Outside forces

Some of these issues – high crime rates, officer morale and even recruiting, at times – are impacted by events outside the control of the chief of police.

Higher crime rates are often tied to poor economic conditions, high unemployment and the availability of narcotics imported from foreign countries – with cheap, high-quality Mexican methamphetamine and heroin now flooding the city.

A bad economy also impacts police.

During an economic downturn, raises for police officers may be delayed. The same holds true for the number of academy classes that bring new recruits into the department. That’s especially important because the retirement system and contract, in effect, incentivize officers to leave after 20 years.

If the economy interrupts the flow of new officers, promotions within the department get delayed and the department shrinks because officers retire faster than they are being replaced.

Those sorts of budget decisions are made by the mayor and the City Council, but if officers are unhappy with small pay raises or there are not enough officers on the street, the police chief usually takes the hit.

There are issues that fall directly on the chief’s shoulders. Among them, the department culture around use of force, internal department scandals, cooperating with other law enforcement agencies, including the District Attorney’s Office, and willingness to cooperate with the civilian oversight board. Mishandling any of those can be the downfall of any chief.

Given the immense media interest in the police department, trying to quietly push bad cops out the back door hasn’t worked in the past. Chiefs who confront the issue up front tend to face less scrutiny from the media.

Cooperating with the DA tends to be a two-way street. Some chiefs have been more adept than others in their relationship with prosecutors.

Any new chief will have to decide how he or she wants to deal with the civilian oversight board.

The three civilian oversight boards created by city ordinances since the 1980s have met with general resistance from APD.

Some chiefs, like Gil Gallegos who was appointed by Martin Chavéz at the start of his second term, made it clear that they didn’t want to cooperate with the civilian board and largely ignored the board’s findings in disciplinary cases.

After Gallegos left APD in a cloud of scandal involving thefts from the department’s evidence room and allegations of cover-ups, Chavéz appointed Ray Schultz.

Schultz tended to be more polite in his dealings with the board, but largely ignored any recommendations they made.

The City Council overhauled the board and split it into a civilian oversight board and an agency that investigates civilian complaints.

The board has been generally critical of APD and Eden’s cooperation with it has been described as “grudging.”

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