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Albuquerque’s mayor says the city will ask a federal judge to release it from portions of a five-year-old agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, citing its consistent progress toward police reform.
In his “state of the city” address Saturday, Tim Keller said Albuquerque’s request will encompass roughly one quarter of the 276 requirements outlined in the Court Approved Settlement Agreement, or CASA, that the city signed in late 2014 after a federal investigation found its police had a “pattern and practice” of using excessive force.
An independent monitor is responsible for assessing the city’s CASA compliance. The proposed release would narrow his focus, but city officials say the municipality itself would assume the role of monitor for any portions removed and still report relevant data to the federal court and DOJ.
“This is going to be the largest step forward the city has taken to address these challenges since it all started in 2014,” Keller told the approximately 1,000 people who gathered at the Albuquerque Convention Center. “It is one giant step closer to freeing up additional officers and taxpayer funding to focus back on crime.”
The city’s initial contract with independent monitor James Ginger cost $4 million. An amendment in 2019 added another $1.6 million. The Albuquerque Police Department has dozens of officers and civilian personnel assigned to DOJ compliance issues.
The city filed a motion on Friday in federal court asking the DOJ to move large swaths of the agreement – covering everything from use of force and behavioral health to hiring and civilian input on police matters – into sustained compliance and suspend the monitoring of many others, outlining its plan to self-assess those areas moving forward.
The monitor “takes no position” on the city’s motion as that self-assessment plan has not been finalized, according to the motion, and a statement from the monitor will be filed once that plan has been reviewed.
The city’s new plan to remove certain portions from the agreement would provide the city valuable self-monitoring experience, Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair said.
“It will give us sort of a training wheels period to be in self-monitoring,” she told Journal reporters and editors during a meeting. “The last thing we would want to do is to get to the end on (the entire agreement) and realize we don’t know how to track this ourselves, so it’s a great practice run for us.”
APD has reached 100% “primary” compliance with CASA by writing and promulgating the necessary policies, according to Ginger’s most recent report.
He scored the department at 81% for “secondary” compliance, which relates to training officers on the relevant policies, and 64% for how well the officers follow policies in the field and the department corrects those who do not.
Ginger’s reports show ongoing compliance with dozens of sections of the agreement, including those related to training and operation of tactical units, providing basic crisis intervention training to field officers and creating a strategic recruitment plan to attract qualified applicants from “a broad cross section of the community.”
“The Department of Justice and the Independent Monitor are actively working with the City and APD on the self-assessment plan discussed in the motion,” Sean Sullivan, U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman, said in a email on Saturday. “The Department of Justice will file its response to the motion after the self-assessment plan has been completed and submitted to the Court.”
Shawn Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, said the union stands behind the city in its request, and he hopes all parties involved “support this effort.”
He called the city’s request a “positive step” that will help APD’s morale and allow it to focus more resources on aspects of the DOJ agreement they still need to work on.
“The city of Albuquerque is asking for nothing more than what they’ve already earned,” Willoughby said. “…We have worked our tails off and the city of Albuquerque Police Department deserves this win.”
The American Civil Liberties Union – which has closely scrutinized APD’s reform effort – did not immediately respond to messages.
Public safety was a recurring theme in Saturday’s approximately 40-minute speech. New Mexico’s largest city continues to grapple with crime and recorded more homicides in 2019 than any year in recent history. Keller’s administration also came under fire when APD acknowledged it had been inadvertently providing inaccurate crime statistics that significantly overstated improvements. It subsequently released numbers that showed more modest reductions in property crime and little change in most violent crime categories, at least in the first half of 2019.
The mayor has touted his goal of adding 100 new officers each year having come into office when the ranks measured about 850. He said Saturday the department will hit 1,000 officers in 2020.
He said the city also intends to clear the rape kit backlog this year.
Keller, a Democrat, is midway through his first term, one defined in part by the city’s efforts to reduce homelessness. The city in November won voter approval for $14 million in general obligation bond funding to build what officials have described as a 24/7 centralized homeless shelter that would accommodate an estimated 300 people and help guide them to social services and permanent housing.
“We asked voters to confirm our collective desire to step up. We put Albuquerque’s first 24/7 gateway shelter on the ballot, and thanks to you we have a mandate,” Keller said.
The mayor said the plan is to break ground on the project next winter, though he must still work with City Council to determine the site – a decision that is likely to trigger neighborhood opposition.
Keller – who has already declared his intention to seek another term in the 2021 election – also on Saturday discussed the state of the local economy. The city added 3,100 jobs in 2019, according to the state Department of Workforce Solutions most recent labor market review. The industries making the biggest gains were “professional and business services” and the leisure/hospitality sector.
“For the first time, total employment is officially higher than it was before the recession,” the mayor said.
Don Harris – one of just three Republicans on Albuquerque’s City Council – and the president of the local chamber of commerce both said in written statements Saturday they have seen the city’s progress on the economy front.
“The city has made truly remarkable strides with regard to economic development – Netflix, TopGolf, NBC Universal, Kairos Power and more,” Harris said.
But both said the city must continue addressing crime and other issues.
“Sustaining – and further stoking – this growth will, of course, require that we remove impediments to long-term economic expansion,” Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Terri Cole said. “This includes addressing homelessness, improving how we fight crime and punish serious repeat offenders, and turning the downtown area into a vibrant and safe destination for visitors, residents, and businesses alike.”
Journal staff writer Matthew Reisen contributed to this report.