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APD hits ‘milestone’ in DOJ oversight

James Ginger

James Ginger

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The Albuquerque Police Department has reached a milestone in its yearslong reform effort – for the first time implementing all of the policies mandated by the Court Approved Settlement Agreement with the Department of Justice to enforce constitutional policing and prevent the use of excessive force.

In his 10th report, which covered February through July 2019, independent monitor James Ginger wrote that the department has achieved 100% primary compliance.

“This means that a policy has been written and promulgated requiring specific steps necessary according to the CASA,” Ginger wrote in the report, released last week. “Frequent readers of the monitor’s reports will note this is the first time 100 percent primary compliance has been attained by APD.”

Ginger has been overseeing the reforms since the DOJ announced in 2014 that its investigation found APD had a pattern and practice of using excessive force against its citizens.

The department is at 81% secondary compliance – a category that covers training officers on policies – and at 64% operational compliance – a category that gauges whether officers and supervisors are acting according to procedures and being corrected when they don’t.

This is a slight improvement over the last period, whose report was released in May, covering the second half of 2018 and beginning of 2019.

What follows is a look at how the reform effort is going.

What is APD doing well?

Ever since the change in mayoral administration in late 2017, Ginger has praised APD Chief Michael Geier and the top brass on their willingness to adopt the reforms and cooperate with the process.

This time was no different, and he specifically mentioned the extensive rewrite of the use-of-force policy suite that was implemented in January. Officers received their first round of training earlier this year and are now undergoing the second round, which teaches them how to apply the new policies, according to an APD spokesman. Next, supervisors will receive targeted instructions and all other officers will be trained using reality-based training scenarios and subject control.

“The Chief and the leadership cadre have hit the mark solidly on the policy front,” Ginger wrote in the report. “Training processes have been basically rebuilt, and APD is currently in the ‘growth phase’ of building internalized planning, development, organization, documentation, delivery, evaluation and supervisory mechanisms to ensure effective and constitutional operations.”

Ginger also listed several other accomplishments, including the creation of a data analysis group that is “a remarkably talented and focused group of individuals” and the re-creation of a Force Review Board, which will review the Internal Affairs investigations into serious use-of-force cases.

What does APD have to watch out for?

Ginger also praised the progress made by the Internal Affairs Force Division, whose commander he said is “highly committed to the task of providing the agency with honest and thorough use-of-force investigations that include legitimate assessments of whether force was justified and objectively reasonable.”

Most of the work the division had undertaken as of June 2019 involved an extensive review of the more than 300 backlogged use-of-force cases that were too old for anyone to face discipline. The division did find 22 cases that involved an out-of-policy use of force.

However, Ginger cautioned that APD might not be as thorough in more recent cases when there is more at stake for an officer.

And the investigations continue to blow past the two-month deadline required in the settlement agreement – only 9% of the 54 IA investigations into serious use-of-force cases were completed within 60 days. The average completion time was 72 days.

“The continued lack of timeliness in completing serious use of force investigations requires the serious attention of APD,” Ginger wrote, adding that the delays impact the effectiveness of reviews and performance improvement plans and could make it so the investigations lose their positive impact.

What is not going well?

Conduct, investigations and discipline by midlevel personnel, mainly field sergeants and lieutenants, continue to be ongoing roadblocks for the reform effort.

The latest report reiterates this.

Ginger cited “a trend of officers making excuses for not activating their OBRDs” (on body recording devices or lapel cameras) before – or sometimes in the middle of – an encounter. Sometimes, he said, they just turned the audio off.

He referenced several cases of officers improperly using electronic control weapons (ECWs, or Tasers) and also not turning on their lapel cameras and not being disciplined for it. In one case six officers executing a felony warrant and had set up a perimeter around a house but failed to turn off their cameras apparently “under the misguided assertion that they were saving their batteries.”

After reviewing a random sample of six cases of electronic control weapon use, Ginger found a number of problems ranging from improper deployment of the weapon to problems with supervision and oversight and reporting the use of force. In some cases, a supervisor who was involved in the incident was also responsible for reviewing it for policy violations.

“These problems – credibility issues, omission of facts, improper findings of compliance with use of force SOPs, etc. – continue to arise from bias and/or conflicts of interest when compromised supervisors investigate use of force incidents in which they are involved – as participants, witnesses, etc. – or have overseen,” Ginger wrote.

He said supervisors frequently excused poor behavior by saying they had worked with an officer previously and found him or her trustworthy, an officer is well respected, or admitted to wrongdoing and won’t do it again. Then, rather than report an incident to the Internal Affairs division, the supervisor merely offers a verbal warning.

“These types of de minimis ‘excuses’ for sergeants or lieutenants failing to perform are serious and potentially fatal flaws in APD’s processes designed to correct aberrant behavior, as required by APD policy,” Ginger said. “They need to be eliminated.”

What were the reactions to the report?

Mayor Tim Keller and Police Chief Michael Geier both highlighted the strides made by the department since Keller’s mayoral administration took office.

“For the first time, APD is in full compliance with the core requirements of the agreement, while making substantial progress in implementing the reforms,” Keller wrote in a statement. “The monitor also praised APD for embracing reforms and institutionalizing the changes so the department continues to improve. Now that training on the new Use of Force policy is underway, we can shift focus to making sure our supervisors are addressing the issues that will come up as we navigate those policies in the field.”

Geier also alluded to the ongoing problems with the supervisors overseeing field officers.

“We have created high standards for officers and their supervisors, and we are encouraged those standards will lead to lasting trust from the public we serve,” he wrote in a statement. “We have always known that a big culture shift is a key part of this process, and by focusing on supervision and accountability we can take the next steps in that transformation.”

Paul Haidle, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and part of the APD Forward coalition, applauded the strides the department has made in recent years as well but said there continues to be an “elephant in the room” when it comes to certain officers.

“At the end of the day, if you have people who have been with the department for a while, and were here back in the old days, and they’re still here, they’re the ones overseeing and meting out discipline or not, they’re the ones who are crucial to the success of this,” Haidle said. “That’s where it really starts to look like a culture issue. It’s not like these sergeants need more training on what to do; they had plenty of training. Tere’s no question on how to do this oversight; it’s a question of whether they want to or not.”

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