Council leader unveils police reform proposal

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Councilor Pat Davis

With a movement to defund, reform or dismantle local police forces sweeping the nation in the wake of protests against police brutality and systemic racism, the president of Albuquerque’s City Council says he and the council have some ideas to overhaul APD.

Pat Davis, a former police officer and current council president, said reforming APD is a multi-pronged approach that should involve rerouting behavioral health calls to others, getting more officers to engage with the community and shuffling some money in APD’s budget to other efforts.

But, for Davis, that doesn’t necessarily mean fewer officers.

“What you’re probably going to see out of this is we’re not abolishing APD, we’re not going to stop hiring cops, but … there seems to be more of an interest now in aligning other city resources we have toward that public safety,” he said. “So people feel safe and welcome, and included in our community; that’s not always what we’ve done with all of our money. I think we’re going to try to push that forward a little bit.”

The mayor is expected to announce his own plan at a news conference on Monday.

APD is already in the midst of a yearslong reform process mandated by the courts after a Department of Justice investigation in 2014 found that officers had a pattern and practice of excessive force. Stakeholders generally agree that the department has made a lot of progress, but still has a long road ahead. Davis said the ideas he’s considering might slow things down.

Albuquerque has routinely had high rates of violent and property crime over the past several years. Last year, the city saw more than 80 homicides, a record high in recent memory, and the detectives solved about half. The issue has led the community to ask officials for action and resulted in councilors implementing a tax increase in 2018 to hire more officers.

The conversation over police reform has come to a head in cities across the country since the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes. Video of Floyd’s death was shared over social media, causing widespread protests, rioting and violent – some deadly – clashes with police.

The situation has led many local officials to question the efficacy of their police forces and, in some cases, make sweeping changes to how they operate.

For Davis, Albuquerque is no different.

Engaging with the community

The proposal would change multiple levels of the department, from reorganizing the police budget and officers’ jobs on the street to emphasizing behavioral health assistance and studies to determine the best route for community engagement. Sweeping changes to APD’s operations would likely require buy-in from Keller and a majority of city councilors.

Davis said police officers shouldn’t be responding to many calls involving a mental health crisis, homelessness and other behavioral health-related issues.

Right now, APD operates a Crisis Intervention Team, trained to respond to tense behavioral health calls, but Davis said that job could be diverted to Albuquerque Fire Rescue or some other public health role.

“We totally divest the idea of behavioral health and law enforcement unless there’s a critical incident, that’s a real thing we can do,” he said.

Davis’ comments come on the heels of a June 4 incident where an officer shot and critically injured a man experiencing a mental health crisis in Northeast Albuquerque. That shooting is still under investigation.

Davis, who helped pass a law years ago keeping APD from responding to “down and out calls,” said he also suggests a 24/7 dispatch line for calls regarding the homeless that would be answered by those in a public health role.

When it comes to money, Davis said he believes the city can reroute $1 million of APD’s $220 million budget to community organizations and social services.

Going forward, the council plans to meet with the community in July to gain input into possible changes to APD’s budget, police operations and other avenues where funds could be placed to better the community.

“I think the mayor and I both share an appreciation that we don’t think politicians should just be deciding where dollars come out and where they go,” Davis said. “We don’t want to get into this knee-jerk reaction that we can solve this by just writing a check, so we’re trying to figure out how we can create a process.”

Although Davis said they have already shifted funding from the public safety tax into community services, officers “don’t have time to stop policing and work on community.”

One idea he has is to have the police chief and higher-ups respond to calls for a certain amount of hours per week, freeing up beat officers to engage with the community.

“You might get the police chief coming to your burglary call, but that means your neighborhood officer is … playing basketball with kids down the street,” he said. “That’s a strategy that police departments all over the country use.”

To build on that trust and relationship, Davis said he hopes to conduct an APD staffing study to see how many officers are needed to do their job and balance an effective level of community engagement.

During the pandemic, APD relegated lower priority calls, such as car burglary and vandalism, to a telephone reporting system, and Davis said he would like to analyze the efficiency of the process in the hopes of carrying it forward on a more permanent basis.

Mixed reviews

Shaun Willoughby, president of the Police Officers’ Association, calls Davis’ proposals political “pandering.”

“The facts and the figures are right before Albuquerque’s eyes,” he said. “We have invested literally millions of dollars in reform, the last thing Albuquerque needs is for Pat Davis to re-reform the reform process.”

Willoughby said APD’s Crisis Intervention Team program, required as part of the DOJ agreement, requires over 100 hours of training for officers before they hit the street. He said it is crucial to officers’ training and questioned “why you would fix something that isn’t inherently broken.”

“This isn’t pre-crime, this isn’t ‘Minority Report’, this isn’t Hollywood, you can’t dictate what calls are going to be volatile,” he said.

Willoughby called the proposal of possible cuts to funding “ignorant, idiotic and ludicrous,” saying the department is already understaffed. He said, if Davis wants better community policing, they should invest in more officers not take money away and undermine reform efforts.

“Because of one criminal act by a bully cop, 2,000 miles away, it’s all for nothing and he’s trying to recreate the reform wheel, sidestepping on everything that we’ve done, every connection we’ve made with this community,” he said. “It’s just disrespectful and it makes cops feel disrespected, underappreciated and not supported.”

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization supports many of Davis’ proposals, particularly on reallocating APD’s funding to reduce interactions between armed officers and the public.

“This is the surest way to reduce the pattern of police violence that we’ve seen in New Mexico and elsewhere around the country,” he said.

Additionally, Simonson said the ACLU calls for a “comprehensive assessment” of APD staffing and operations to decide where armed officers could be replaced with specially trained professionals to “better address the social problems that give rise to so many low-level crimes.”

Danny Whatley, with the Mental Health Response Advisory Committee, said he appreciates the conversation happening around reform, but would caution against a rush to decisions that could prove harmful.

Whatley agreed that community input is needed, but added that residents need to be “careful” when considering cuts to APD’s budget.

“Reform is not cheap and defunding the police is not a rational statement, and certainly not a plan that would make our city safer,” he said. “I also have concerns about failing to encourage and support law enforcement. If we are not careful, we will lose the brightest and best, and … we will be forced to dumb down the standards and the community will suffer.”

Whatley said that if units are created to take some calls away from police “in a safe way,” then he could see a reallocation of funds.

“It would also be good to know how many of the responsibilities that fall on law enforcement could be handled by non-sworn individuals,” he said.

Whatley said Albuquerque Fire Rescue has realized it needs to take a “greater role” in mental health crisis issues, but said removing the Crisis Intervention Team from APD would not only be a “bad move,” but also “impossible.”

He said calls for service that may not appear related to mental health, but escalate to such, will always require an officer trained in crisis intervention and a unit to oversee such training.

“The caseloads that these officers carry, and the amount of time, effort and passion that these women and men pour into these cases will change anyone’s mind who would think about removing this role from APD,” he said.

Whatley said he is, however, a proponent of having a separate unit of mental health professionals to assist in nonthreatening calls.

“We certainly are not perfect, but we have the right people and pieces in place to continue to improve and to become the police department that the community expects,” he said. “It is not helpful to paint this police department with the broad brush that is being used in our nation today because of the horrible actions of other police officers.”

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