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APD, DOJ, city outline progress made on police reform effort

It’s been more than a year since the last public status conference was held for the court-mandated Albuquerque Police Department reform effort and a lot has happened.

The judge presiding over the case stepped down, and a new one was appointed. Mayor Tim Keller and his administration completed their first year in office. APD completed a monumental review of the backlogged use-of-force cases.

On Tuesday morning, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the city of Albuquerque, the police department, the police union and the many stakeholders in the effort gathered for the first time before Judge James Browning in Federal Court.

Overall, the consensus throughout the all-day hearing was that APD has improved dramatically under this administration, there’s a lot more left to be done, and all of the participants are committed to seeing the reform through.

No action was asked of the judge.

“I believe we have established real momentum,” Mayor Keller said, as the first speaker to address the room. “Our commitment to this process is real and enduring.”

One of the enduring problems the department needs to continue to address is getting supervisors – like sergeants and lieutenants – to enforce policies and discipline officers who violate them, said Dr. James Ginger, the independent monitor overseeing a police reform effort, speaking via teleconference.

“(Police Chief Michael) Geier has pulled a U-turn with this police department and is getting it in line with best practice,” he said. “But until the sergeants are in harness and pulling in the same direction as the chief, things won’t get done as quickly.”

Paul Killebrew, with the United States Department of Justice, echoed that sentiment.

He said one of the problems the DOJ found in its yearslong investigation into APD was a lack of consistency and accountability when officers violated policies or used excessive force. He said often times discipline was meted out only if stories appeared in the media or the city needed a “sacrificial lamb.”

Now he said he’s still noticing ways in which supervisors skirt reporting use of force by detailing an action in an “Additional Concern Memo” rather than an official report to the Internal Affairs Division.

He said the practice spiked in 2018 at the same time the IA force review division began gearing up.

The chief put a stop to this process earlier this summer but Killebrew said it was an example of how the department will have to play “whack-a-mole” to catch people trying to avoid calling out misconduct.

Both the city attorney’s office and the attorney for the police union objected to Killebrew’s characterization of the memos and said there was no concerted effort to hide misconduct.

On the other hand, Killebrew noted the department’s IA force division “went beyond expectations” in tackling a 300-case backlog of use-of-force cases. Those cases were older than 120 days and no disciplinary action could be taken against the officers, but the investigators still looked at every single one from the ground up, noted any infractions in an officer’s file and kept an eye out for enduring patterns or problems.

Many of the cases predated the current administration, and Killebrew said he believed they “made the best out of a bad situation.”

Chief Geier plans to personally meet with officers who were found to be at fault to coach them on what they need to improve upon.

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