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Editorial: Somebody at APD needs to turn the public info lights on

Back in September, Mayor Tim Keller gave one of those rousing transparency speeches public officials are so fond of – especially those who are relatively new in their terms.

“Government only works when it is accountable to the people it serves, but historically there have been several gaps in this area at the city. We’re working to make our city more open and transparent across all departments. … ”

Kudos to the mayor.

Except that the Albuquerque Police Department – the organization one could argue should be at the top of the transparency list as it seeks to rebuild public trust while operating under a federal settlement agreement – apparently didn’t get the memo. Or officials put it in the circular file.

About a month after Keller’s ode to transparency in early September, APD shot a man it said was taking “about 80 people” hostage in a Chinese restaurant. It’s an obvious case of exceptional public interest: hostages in a public place, a police shooting, etc.

So how does that case stack up on transparency? Well, as of this week, police still haven’t identified the suspect or said what condition he is in. Or what charges he is facing. Or which officers shot him. Or whether they were put on administrative leave. In fact, as reported by the Journal’s Elise Kaplan, APD has released next to no information about any of the shootings officers have recently been involved in – a total of four in the past 2½ months.

In the understatement of the year, spokesman Gilbert Gallegos says the department has “been slower than we aim to be to keep up with the public release of information related to recent officer-involved shootings.” You think?

Gallegos cites various reasons for the virtual information blackout, including the need to interview many witnesses and involvement of other law enforcement agencies.

None of those justifies the extent to which the public is being kept in the dark. Just because you can’t tell all doesn’t mean you can’t tell some. Imagine this kind of blackout after the Las Vegas shooting. Or Parkland. Or Orlando. Those were much larger crime scenes with many more victims, yet law enforcement managed to get information out to the public in a timely, responsible manner.

Gallegos says APD can’t release any information on what happened in the hostage-taking and shooting at Lin’s Restaurant because federal authorities are leading the investigation into part of the incident.

That’s nonsense. The feds are there as a neutral third party to make sure the investigation is legit. They can’t, and shouldn’t, totally muzzle APD. We see officials all over the country holding press conferences about high-profile shootings in which federal authorities also are involved.

Gallegos said APD plans to hold a media briefing and answer questions about the other three shootings Friday. It will be interesting to see what information the department is finally willing to release.

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, expresses well-founded concern in light of the reform-driven Department of Justice settlement agreement APD is operating under.

“It’s important to remember that APD was shooting and killing someone about every month and actively resisting the public’s efforts (to see what was going on.) We don’t want to return to those days. It threatens to erode the trust that APD has built with the community over the past year, and it sends a message that not much has changed inside the department.”

No doubt the mayor was sincere in his comments about transparency. To prove it, he needs to have a sit-down with APD Chief Michael Geier that results in a change in this wrong-headed “keep ’em in the dark” policy that has been so effectively implemented at APD.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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