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Editorial: Years of hard work have changed APD’s trajectory

I just want to be clear: we are still not in sight of the end. But we are also not at the beginning.”

– Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair

For those who would say not much has changed in years at the Albuquerque Police Department, remember that in 2012 the city was still in federal court vehemently defending using 47 officers, snipers, attack dogs, bean bag rounds and electric current on an intoxicated 60-year-old guy whose only weapon was his not-so-smart mouth.

For those who would say six long years of police reforms under the watchful eye of a federal monitor mean APD has done what needs to be done, remember that the department didn’t launch its new use-of-force suite of reforms until January of this year. That though 100% of the heavy policy lifting is complete, both the independent monitor and the head of the police union agreed then there were still officers and supervisors who needed to get with the program and embrace changes and the accountability that comes with them.

And know that six years into reform, four men have been shot by APD this year, two fatally, and two in disturbing cases of a family calling for help.

But Nair is correct, that as use-of-force protests and calls to defund the police continue nationwide, Albuquerque is in a much better place than many communities when it comes to constitutional policing. Yes, it remains an evolving system run by fallible mortals who require support and oversight, but it’s hard to imagine officers siccing a dog on and tasing an inebriated senior citizen today – much less the Mayor’s Office defending that in court. And reforms within the department as well as in the surrounding legal system and community at large mean there are clearer guidelines, more watchdogs and additional options to confrontations always ending with suspects in jail at best and the morgue at worst.

Inside APD

Within the police department, Albuquerque requires officers to wear lapel cameras and use dashboard cameras – for the public’s safety as well as their own, and for the sake of public accountability. It has banned chokeholds and strangleholds like the one that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, and it requires officers to intervene and stop such brutal acts. Albuquerque requires its officers to try to de-escalate a situation and has a use-of-force continuum so officers have appropriate training and tools for the myriad situations they face. Officers must give a verbal warning before shooting, as well as report every time they threaten to use, or do use, force.

So as communities look at the #8cantwait campaign, Albuquerqueans should know their city police have embraced six of the eight reforms completely and have come very close on a seventh by banning shooting at moving vehicles unless a person is in danger. The eighth, exhausting all other alternatives before shooting, presents challenges in those situations that escalate from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds.

It bears repeating these reforms are in place because of the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2014 finding APD had a pattern of using excessive force against its citizens, especially those dealing with mental health issues. The scathing report looked at 20 fatal shootings and found the majority were not justified.

Post DOJ, all use-of-force policies have been rewritten and implemented, all officers now have at least 40 hours of crisis management intervention training and, on calls that involve people in crisis, are supposed to partner with licensed social workers. Internal Affairs now has two sections, one for general complaints and one for use-of-force incidents. A Use of Force Review Board now oversees all IA investigations of use of force and deadly force.

And the ranks of unarmed responders working in and with the community have been increased – in addition to those crisis intervention professionals there is now a pilot program of folks who tackle some of the more than 15,000 calls a year for welfare checks of homeless individuals, and others who handle crash reports and evidence gathering. Nair says the goal is to better deploy appropriate resources.

Outside APD

The past six years under the Department of Justice settlement agreement have also brought more oversight on policies and actions. There is now a Civilian Police Oversight Agency, a Police Oversight Board, Civilian Police Councils from each area command, a Mental Health Response Advisory Committee and an internal compliance bureau. But Nair emphasizes follow-through is key for reforms to make a difference, and Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, is right that these groups are only effective if they are listened to. Under prior administrations APD has often disregarded such input.

The Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the courts have stepped up with pre-prosecution diversion and specialty court programs, allowing defendants who are amenable to treatment to avoid jail, felony records or entering the “system” altogether. Now our legal defenders, prosecutors and judges need to find ways to get more people into the programs, which all remain woefully under capacity.

Still to be addressed

Albuquerque, like many communities, must come to grips with police union leadership that protects wrongdoers at the expense of the good, the honest and the professional in its ranks. There must be zero tolerance of conduct unbecoming of APD’s dedicated core group of law enforcement officers.

Our city and police leadership should consider the recommendation of retired APD Deputy Chief Paul Chavez on today’s op-ed page and reinstate college requirements and tuition reimbursement for a better-educated, more mature force. Nair says the city is hoping to ramp up its tuition reimbursement program.

Bernalillo County’s Sheriff’s Department, which is on APD’s pre-DOJ path with a shameful track record of million-dollar payoffs for fatal shootings of civilians in distress, needs to wake up and embrace lapel and dashboard cameras. Kudos to the Law Offices of the Public Defender and N.M. Attorney General Hector Balderas for putting a statewide camera requirement for law enforcement as well as a chokehold ban on the Legislature’s radar.

There remains much work to be done to ensure the Albuquerque Police Department is the best it can be. And while the DOJ investigation did not identify racism as an issue within the department, it is crucial APD examine its interaction with people of color – and stamp out any systemic racism or bias.

But it is also important to recognize that hard work from within the department and the city administration, as well as from dedicated activists and professionals in the community, has brought the department a long way from the pre-DOJ settlement agreement days.

New Mexico’s two U.S. senators got it right when they told Journal reporter Scott Turner that it is time for law enforcement to move away from the “warrior” mentality and toward being “true guardians” of our community.

To do that, APD must require all officers and supervisors to embrace that mentality and a culture of accountability.

That’s the path forward.

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.

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