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A hangman’s noose.
For two decades, that’s what the elite Albuquerque Police Department unit assigned to the city’s worst criminals has used as its symbol.
It will no more. After Journal inquiries, Police Chief Ray Schultz said in an email late Thursday that he is doing away with the noose image. He ordered one of his deputy chiefs to remove it from all documents and apologized “to anyone who may have been offended” by it.
When the Journal first asked another high-level APD officer about the symbol, which appeared on an internal APD wanted poster that came to light last week as part of a lawsuit in state District Court, the officer’s initial reaction was to question whether it was indeed a hangman’s noose.
APD Cmdr. Doug West, who oversees the Repeat Offender Project, known as the ROP team, said early Thursday he was “not a knot expert” when asked about the noose image. “The simple way I look at it is that it’s a rope, and it’s the ROP team. I don’t read into the hangman’s noose. I don’t know a whole lot about knots,” West said. “… It’s something that we need to look at and get rid of … because people would construe this as, like you, you’re looking at it as a hangman’s noose, and if that’s how people are perceiving this, it’s the wrong signal that we need to send. We need to not send that.”
He said similar police units across the country use similar imagery to identify themselves.
Two local civil rights attorneys said using the noose as a symbol for the ROP team goes far beyond creating an image problem for APD. Instead, it promotes violence and serves as another signal that APD is out of control, they said.
“It’s culturally insensitive at best,” attorney Shannon Kennedy said. “For them to say that it’s just a rope shows willful ignorance. It speaks directly to the cultural problem within this police department and encourages a gang-like, us-vs.-them mentality instead of service to the public.”
When asked about the image in a telephone interview, West said he was not familiar with it, had never seen it on any document and didn’t know whether it had anything to do with the ROP team.
After putting the reporter on hold for several minutes, West came back on the line and said it has been the ROP team’s “symbol” for 20 years and that APD now plans to change it.
The noose image is frequently used on internal documents such as wanted posters and is even painted on the wall of the unit’s office, officials said.
Schultz said it was brought to his attention by a city attorney last week, who suggested it might “be misinterpreted by some people in the community,” and that he agreed with that assessment.
The ROP team often works undercover to do exactly what its name suggests: track and arrest repeat offenders.
The Journal became aware of it when a document advising officers to be on the lookout for Nicholas Blume appeared in a court filing. The undated poster was produced by the APD Special Investigations Division and features the noose and the APD Gang Unit logo. It lists Blume’s criminal history and says he is wanted on a felony arrest warrant.
On Feb. 13, 2011, then-officers John Doyle and Robert Woolever wound up in a foot pursuit with Blume after a traffic stop in northeast Albuquerque. Woolever tackled Blume in a parking garage and, while he tried to get him into handcuffs, Doyle kicked Blume more than a dozen times.
The two officers were fired late last year after the Journal obtained a copy of the video, wrote about it and posted it online at ABQjournal.com.
Ray Twohig, a longtime civil rights attorney who represents Blume, said he didn’t realize the ROP team used a noose as its symbol.
“I gather they were among the ones who were after Mr. Blume, and while they didn’t hang him, they sure kicked his head in, didn’t they?” Twohig said. “Certainly using a hangman’s noose does more than create an image. It would tend to motivate the people in the unit as well, and that is not the right motivation.”
A former ROP team member who has filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against APD claims someone left a shoestring tied into a noose in a box of her belongings when she left the team.
APD has faced repeated criticism in recent years over a litany of incidents that critics say points to a culture of brutality and disrespect toward the community within the department. Officers have shot 24 people since 2010, 17 of them fatally. Several officers have been disciplined for posting inappropriate comments on social media websites. And revelations that the police union had been paying officers involved in shootings up to $500 rocked the department earlier this year.
The U.S. Department of Justice has been considering since August whether to launch a full-scale civil rights investigation into APD, and many have called for Chief Schultz to resign.
The department has implemented numerous policy changes the past year. Schultz maintains that APD does not have a cultural problem and says the changes in policies adequately address the public’s concerns.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal