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Editorial: APD right to move force investigations to Internal Affairs

A policy change at the Albuquerque Police Department removing use-of-force investigations from the chain of command is a step in the right direction and an important move forward in rebuilding the public’s trust in the APD.

The policy shift is one aspect of APD’s revised Use of Force policy that went into effect Jan. 11. Now, all but the lowest-level uses and shows of force are being investigated by a team in the Internal Affairs Force Division, rather than APD field supervisors.

Having field supervisors investigate subordinates was inherently problematic and put supervisors in an unenviable position. Like many work families, police often interact socially, from backyard barbecues to attending the birthday parties of each other’s kids. Supervisors and rank-and-file are in the same union. And all quite literally depend on each other to come home safely after each shift. It is patently unfair to expect a sergeant or lieutenant to conduct an unbiased investigation of officers he or she has trained, mentored and supervises in life-and-death situations.

Cmdr. Cori Lowe of APD’s Accountability and Oversight Division told reporter Elise Kaplan in the Feb. 10 Journal that supervisors prefer third parties investigate use-of-force cases. Lowe said giving the task to Internal Affairs will help boost morale and free up sergeants and lieutenants in charge of area commands to spend time in the field.

It’s a smart change that puts investigations into officers’ conduct at arm’s length – and that’s essential considering it was APD’s abuse of force that brought the U.S. Department of Justice and a more than $1 million-a-year settlement agreement to town in 2014, and it was that abuse of force that damaged many residents’ confidence in the department.

Case in point: In a letter submitted this week to the U.S. District Court overseeing the Court-Approved Settlement Agreement, Albuquerque attorney Antonio “Moe” Maestas of the Community Coalition says the city has made significant progress but the group doesn’t believe the city is able to reliably self-assess yet. Maestas points to a recent monitor report faulting supervisors for frequently failing to hold their officers accountable, as well as the fact the city has still not provided its 2018 or 2019 Use of Force reports.

At a time when the city is seeking to suspend outside monitoring of about a quarter of the requirements laid out in the DOJ settlement, the policy change regarding use-of-force investigations could get that data on track and help remove a lingering cloud of suspicion of a blue wall of silence.

As for logistics, it appears the Internal Affairs Force Division is staffed to handle use-of-force investigations with a commander, three lieutenants, five sergeants, 18 detectives (plus openings for four more) and eight civilians.

Changing the culture at APD will take time, and objective evaluation of use-of-force cases – along with timely accounting of those cases and IA findings – are paramount in achieving success and regaining the public’s trust.

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.