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Judge overrules police union objection to use-of-force policy

US District Judge James Browning

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The federal judge presiding over the yearslong reform of the Albuquerque Police Department ruled against the police union earlier this month in a move that the city says will allow it to enact a more stringent standard for when officers can use force.

At issue was a sentence in the department’s new use-of-force policies, implemented in January, that reads: “Supervisors and (Force Investigation Section) detectives shall consider the facts that a reasonable officer on scene would have known at the time the officer used force in evaluating whether the force was in compliance with department policy.”

In a motion filed last year, the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association argued, among other things, that the sentence was vague and undefined and it’s difficult to determine what facts “a reasonable officer” would have known. It asked for the sentence to be replaced with: “The determination of ‘objectively reasonable’ is based on the totality of the circumstances and the facts known to the officer at the time of the incident.”

But U.S. District Judge James Browning overruled the union’s objections, saying he can only amend the use-of-force policy if it violates the constitution, federal law or the court-approved settlement agreement between the city and the Department of Justice. He found it did not.

He said the language in the use-of-force policy is consistent with the “objective-reasonableness standard” laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Graham v. Connor case, which defines when an officer can legally use force and how much force can be used.

“For instance, the determination whether a reasonable officer would have known that the offender suffered from mental illness is not based on whether it surfaces after the situation that the offender suffered from mental illness,” Browning wrote. “Instead, the determination is based on whether a reasonable officer at the crime scene would have known from the circumstances that a person suffered mental illness.”

It took the city years to revise APD’s use-of-force policies in a manner consistent with the court-approved settlement agreement. The city entered into the agreement after a Department of Justice investigation found APD had a pattern of excessive force against citizens.

“A key component of the Settlement Agreement with the DOJ – and the work to repair APD’s relationship with the public – was an overhaul of the department’s Use of Force Policies,” city spokeswoman Jessie Damazyn wrote in a news release about Judge Browning’s ruling.

An independent monitor overseeing the reforms has generally been complimentary of the city and APD since Mayor Tim Keller took office, saying there has been a change in attitude and level of cooperation. However, he has also pointed to a culture in the mid-level management that continues to resist reform.

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