Consecutive front pages of the Albuquerque Journal last week offer both symmetry and insight into Mayor Tim Keller’s formal request that the city be released from portions of its 5-year-old police oversight agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
One lays out a case for why it’s time to exit part of the agreement. The other for why it’s there in the first place and we should proceed with caution.
In a story featured on page one Sunday, Jan. 12, the mayor in his State of the City address presented his arguments for partially releasing the city from formal oversight. The city filed a motion on Jan. 10 in federal court asking the DOJ to move large swaths of the agreement into the “sustained compliance” category and suspend monitoring of others.
Keller’s team told Journal reporters and editors the city would assume monitoring of those categories while still reporting the data to the federal monitor and court, not only saving valuable resources but gaining valuable experience for the day – when it comes – that the monitor is gone.
“This is going to be the largest step forward the city has taken to address these challenges since it all started in 2014,” Keller said. “It is one giant step closer to freeing up additional officers and taxpayer funding to focus back on crime.”
The federal monitor, who has been paid roughly $5.6 million, has taken no position. But the union that represents Albuquerque Police Department officers is supportive. Its president, Shaun Willoughby, says it will boost officer morale and free up resources for areas in which the city is not yet in compliance. He correctly points out the city “is asking for nothing more than what they’ve already earned.”
Without question, APD has made substantial progress toward the goal of constitutional policing.
But Page 1 from Monday, Jan. 13, reminds us of the kinds of things that led to oversight in the first place.
It recounts how the city recently settled a lawsuit in one of the most egregious cases of police power abuse in memory – even though, thankfully, no one died.
Two older men were drinking in March 2009 and got into an argument. One of them called 911 claiming the other, Tony Nelson, threatened him with a rifle and a knife.
That drew a response of 47 – yes, nearly four dozen – police personnel including 17 SWAT members and eight K-9 officers. Nelson ultimately followed police orders to walk out of the house and turn around. He dropped a knife and stopped about 20 feet away from officers. But when he turned to his left, police fired five bean bag rounds and a wooden-baton round at Nelson. They launched a flash bang grenade to disorient him and turned loose a police dog that bit him. They then shot him with a Taser, one officer shocking him six times in 37 seconds.
A jury found no excessive force, but then-Chief U.S. District Judge Bruce D. Black vacated the verdict, saying that allowing it to stand “would have been a miscarriage of justice.”
“No reasonable person could believe that an inhibited, slow-moving 60-year-old individual who made no physical or verbal threats and wielded no weapon could constitute a threat to the safety of the 47 armed and shielded police officers who stood 20 feet away,” the judge said.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine – in the words of Nelson’s attorney, Ryan Villa, that police would “go that crazy for basically two old guys who got drunk and got into a fight with each other.” But that was APD, back in the day.
Sadly, the city appealed Black’s ruling and the legal fight went on, until recent months. In addition to the $675,000 settlement, the city spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on attorneys, expert witnesses and other expenses over nine years of litigation. Speaking of resources that could have been better used elsewhere.
The mayor is right when he argues it is time for APD to begin transitioning out from under federal oversight in areas of compliance. But with that comes an even greater responsibility for constitutional policing by APD. Officers have tough jobs, and when the city won’t admit when they are clearly out of line – like the Nelson case – it undercuts officers who do things the right way when they have to make those life-and-death decisions on our behalf.
The initial DOJ investigation turned up serious abuses the agreement is designed to address. We agree that APD has turned the corner. But if we forget what got us here in the first place, we do so at our own peril.
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.