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Police reform: No time for complacency

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In 1981, I moved to Portland, Oregon, months after sufficiently recovering from a car crash that had shattered my leg, my face and my complacency about the future.

I was 24, between college majors and looking to find and redefine myself, and the Portland Police Bureau was looking for a few good men.

Maybe, I thought, they could use a relatively good woman, too.

Acceptance into the academy back then required passing three tests – the first a written exam to assess mental fitness, the second a grilling by a dour-faced panel of top brass that felt more like being interrogated as a suspect in a murder than an interview.

To my surprise, I passed both with flying colors.

The third involved running an obstacle course while wearing a gun belt. But I never showed up for that. Two nights before the test, I watched “Hill Street Blues,” a popular cop-centered TV show. In that episode, a police officer is forced to fatally shoot a gang member accused of killing a 10-year-old girl. The gangster was 14.

The officer insists she’s OK after the shooting, but it’s clear she isn’t. And it was clear to me that night that I wasn’t cut out to be a police officer.

Months later, I bumped into the lone woman who had been on the panel of dour-faced brass. She was disappointed, she said, that I had changed my mind about the police academy.

“We could have used someone like you,” she said.

Though I can’t be certain, I believe that woman was Penny Harrington, who four years later became Portland’s police chief, the first woman to head a major U.S. city’s police department.

Harrington was chosen to rehabilitate a police department rife with corruption and strong-arm culture. Three months after she became chief, Portland was rocked by the death of an unarmed black man, who couldn’t breathe as officers applied a chokehold.

When Harrington ordered a review of the use of the deadly hold, the police union marched in protest. When she fired two police officers after discovering they were selling T-shirts that read “Don’t Choke’em, Smoke’em,” the union countered with a vote of no confidence.

Harrington never recovered from that. Seventeen months later, she was out.

By then, I had found my way back to Albuquerque – and to journalism. After years of various editing positions, I chose to return to the streets as a cop reporter for the Tribune.

My first day on the beat in 1998 was also the first day in town for Gerald Galvin, the new Albuquerque police chief. Then-Mayor Jim Baca had chosen Galvin for his commitment to community policing.

“When the community likes and knows and respects police officers, if there is enough of that positive interaction between police and the community, it has positive results,” Galvin told me.

But Galvin’s efforts to create that positive interaction were never fully realized. The Albuquerque police union was wary from the start, upset that an “outsider” had been chosen over its preferred longtime veteran.

Galvin also made enemies of the rank and file when only a month into his tenure he chose to break from paramilitary tenets by restricting SWAT, decentralizing detective units to substations and moving specialized units to patrol divisions.

Galvin further shook things up when he shook hands with Byron Shane Chubbuck, a charismatic and prolific bank robber nicknamed Robin the Hood who led police on a wild manhunt for nearly seven weeks until he was injured in a shootout with them.

“I shook his hand and I told him I was glad that we didn’t have to kill him,” Galvin told me of the infamous handshake in February 2001. “I show that courtesy to any human being.”

Galvin was gone by the end of the year.

All of which is to say that as long as I have been aware of or cared about police business, there have always been efforts to make things better that never seem to get far because of internal and external powers.

Now as protests continue across the country over the over-militarizing of police forces and the continued questionable deaths of men and women of color at the end of a service revolver or a knee, Albuquerque is about to embark on something new.

On Monday, Mayor Tim Keller announced his plan to create the Community Safety Department, which would reroute certain 911 calls involving behavioral health, homelessness, addiction and other social issues to trained, unarmed professionals.

The idea, believed to be the first of its kind, makes a lot of sense, though most of the details have yet to be worked out. Police aren’t meant to be social workers. Nor are they meant to be soldiers of war.

Whether it becomes another well-intentioned idea that gets crushed from within or discarded with the changing of chiefs and administrations remains to be seen. But what is clear is we are long past the time – again – for complacency. It’s high time to find and redefine the way our police system works, both for their sake and ours.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.

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