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City questions monitor’s fairness in APD reform case

The city of Albuquerque is questioning whether the independent monitor overseeing police reform is fair, saying in a court motion that one of his staffers said the monitor has an “ax to grind” and that the monitor himself told police command staff in a recording that they were going to be “collateral damage.”

The city on Tuesday filed a motion requesting an evidentiary hearing regarding the neutrality of James Ginger, the independent monitor overseeing reform. City Attorney Jessica Hernandez said that would allow the city to call witnesses and put on evidence of Ginger’s biases and then a judge could decide if there is a problem, and, if so, how to remedy the issue.

Albuquerque police are in the midst of a years-long reform effort that was the result of a 2014 Department of Justice investigation that found Albuquerque police had a pattern of excessive force. Ginger was hired as the independent monitor who reviews the department’s performance and reports to U.S. District Judge Robert Brack, who is presiding over the process.

Ginger periodically files reports in court describing the police progress with reforms. His sixth report is slated to be released Thursday. So far, Ginger’s reports have been critical of the police department, particularly supervisors and command-staff officers.

Ginger could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. Rules in the settlement agreement prohibit him from making public statements about the reform effort.

The city said it filed the motion in response to two specific occurrences: A tense meeting between high-ranking police and city officials in March 2016 and a recent conversation between a monitoring team member and a police employee.

 James Ginger, the independent monitor of Albuquerque police reform, speaks to the City Council in December 2015

James Ginger, the independent monitor of Albuquerque police reform, speaks to the City Council in December 2015. The city has filed a motion seeking to have a judge hold a hearing to determine if Ginger is biased against the department. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The March 18, 2016, meeting was just before Ginger attended a City Council study session to discuss his latest report. Assistant Police Chief Robert Huntsman at one point during the meeting secretly turned on his on-body camera, and Hernandez asked Ginger if there were going to be any “surprises” during his presentation to councilors.

Ginger then expressed frustration with Hernandez’s recent appearance before the City Council, where she answered questions about the police reform process at length and at times said she disagreed with the monitor’s findings.

“It’s fine. I can play the game, Jessica. I know how, and we can play it,” Ginger said, according to the recording.

Later in the meeting, he appears to tell the police officials that he had problems with Hernandez, and not with them.

“And you guys, and you guys are gonna be collateral damage, and I understand it, right. But I didn’t start this,” Ginger said.

Huntsman said in a sworn affidavit that he normally wouldn’t have recorded the meeting, but did so because he was concerned with Ginger’s behavior. The camera, which doesn’t show much because it is pointing at a table, captures audio of a tense conversation.

“I was incredibly disturbed by Dr. Ginger’s comments during this meeting, especially his comments about this being ‘a game’ and that the department would be ‘collateral damage,'” Huntsman said in the affidavit. “Since that meeting, we have continued to experience interactions with the monitor that we believe were improper.”

The second, and most recent, incident referred to in the motion was a telephone conversation between a member of Ginger’s  monitoring team and a police employee.

The monitoring team member allegedly said that his draft portion of the monitor’s sixth report had positive information about Albuquerque police’s compliance with reforms, but Ginger made changes so the final version will be more critical, according to the city’s motion.

The monitoring team member then said that “it is clear that Dr. Ginger has an ax to grind,” according to the city’s motion, which cited that conversation as the impetus for Tuesday’s court filing. The police employee reported what the monitoring team member said to police officials, including Chief Gorden Eden. Eden then summarized them in an affidavit filed in court, saying that the staff member was scared of retaliation and wasn’t comfortable signing an affidavit.

Officials with the United States Attorney’s Office declined to comment on Tuesday, citing DOJ policy.

Joanne Fine, a member of the city’s Police Oversight Board, such the city’s motion doesn’t surprise her.

“I’ve seen the work that Ginger and his team do,” she said in an interview. “It sure looks like you got six bad reports and you attack the messenger.”

Fine said based on her work on the oversight board, command-level officers have been resistant to reform and she welcomed a change in personnel when the next mayor takes office next month.

“All the evidence points to this being the city of Albuquerque and the police command staff digging in their heels,” she said.

The city’s motion said that police officials have been concerned about Ginger’s bias since early 2016, but have been reluctant to raise the issue because they are worried the monitor would retaliate against them.

“I did not bring these issues forward sooner because I feared further negative treatment and retaliation by Dr. Ginger toward the department,” Eden said in an affidavit. “I had also held out hope that we could move forward in a positive and constructive fashion in spite of Dr. Ginger’s comments in March 2016. However, I cannot ignore the most recent comments by a member of the monitoring team.”

Hernandez said the city is still committed to working with Ginger.

“We remain very willing, as we always have been, to work with Dr. Ginger to move forward productively,” she said.”We care much more about the integrity of the process and the taxpayers who are funding the process, than we are about the specific source of any issues he has with the department.”

“We have been very hesitant to raise this even though we’ve been concerned about potential bias for a year and a half now,” she said in an interview. “His neutrality is essential to accurate reporting and we also have a concern that if there is any factor that influences that accuracy of his reporting of the process, that not only hurts the department but it ultimately hurts the taxpayers.”

Hernandez said the process — which is in its third year — is a “time-intensive, labor intensive, resource-intensive process that the taxpayers are funding. The stakes are very high and it’s a very expensive process and we want to make sure it’s done fairly and in a time-frame that is not extended in any way by some external factor.”

 

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