ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A top federal law enforcement official says the U.S. Justice Department will “peel the onion to its core” to determine whether Albuquerque police have a systemic pattern of violating people’s civil rights – especially through the use of force.
There also are ongoing federal criminal investigations into APD officers, although Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in an interview with the Journal on Monday that he could not comment on any of those.
A federal law passed in 1994 in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots in Los Angeles gives the Justice Department authority to conduct sweeping civil investigations of police departments.
Anyone with information about use-of-force related misconduct at APD is asked to email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 855-544-5134
And that’s what Perez said is in store for the Albuquerque Police Department.
The civil and criminal probes follow a highly publicized rash of police shootings in Albuquerque – 25 since 2010, 17 of them fatal – and a series of other questionable use of force incidents, some of which have been caught on camera.
Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and Police Chief Ray Schultz pledged to cooperate with the investigation during a news conference with federal officials Tuesday.
The mayor and the chief have sought to stave off a Justice Department probe of APD by implementing dozens of self-prescribed policy changes, many of which are aimed directly at the way officers use force.
It’s unclear how long any of the investigations will take. In other cities where the Justice Department investigated police, the probes have ranged from a year to more than two.
Tuesday’s announcement ended nearly a year and a half of speculation about whether the feds would intervene in Albuquerque. In August 2011, Perez announced during a visit to Albuquerque that federal officials were “gathering information” on APD.
Families welcome announcement
The end of the long wait was a relief to Renetta and Steve Torres, who wiped tears from their eyes Tuesday as Perez announced the DOJ investigation.
The Torreses’ 27-year-old mentally ill son, Christopher Torres, was shot three times after a struggle with APD officers in the family’s back yard on April 12, 2011. The shooter, Christopher Brown, and another officer had come to arrest Christopher Torres on a warrant. According to police, Torres had disarmed the other officer before Brown shot him.
“Right now I would say there’s a segment – a larger segment than the city is willing to admit – of the community that’s afraid to call APD because they don’t know what the outcome’s going to be,” Renetta Torres said, adding, with her husband, that she was pleased with the announcement.
After their son’s death, the Torreses joined a group of families of men killed in APD shootings and other community activists who, as news accounts of police misconduct piled up in recent years, have called for a federal investigation and the resignation or firing of Police Chief Schultz.
Schultz dug in during Tuesday’s news conference, saying he already has 30 years as a city worker and could retire.
“I could easily turn and run away,” he said. “But this, to me, is a challenge.”
Other community leaders also applauded the Justice Department’s announcement, including Jewel Hall, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Task Force on Civil Rights, and Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.
“I’m very, very pleased that they’re finally here,” Hall said. “We finally have an outside agency not made up of police judging police to provide an honest assessment of the police department and improve the safety of our community.”
Simonson added: “While the (civil) investigation is going to focus on the use of force, we believe the problems are more deeply rooted than that. I’m confident this investigation will get at what causes some of these issues.”
‘No stone unturned’
“We are going to peel the onion to its core,” Justice Department civil rights boss Perez said Tuesday. “We will leave no stone unturned.”
The civil investigation will entail reviews of use of force documents and APD policies, interviews with police brass and rank-and-file police officers and meetings with community groups, he said.
The Justice Department’s team of lawyers, investigators and hired law enforcement experts also will look at the way APD polices itself, Perez told the Journal this week. APD’s internal affairs processes will be under the microscope, and federal investigators will look into whether there is ample oversight from department leaders regarding use of force.
Investigators also will go on ride-alongs with officers, he said.
If federal investigators determine an unconstitutional use of force is the norm at APD, rather than the exception, the Justice Department will try to work with APD and city leaders to develop a plan for reforms.
If that doesn’t work, the Justice Department can sue the city for court-ordered changes.
“Our goal is to search for the truth,” Perez said in Monday’s interview. “We’re looking to see if there are systemic problems embedded in the culture of the department.”
Perez thanked Chief Schultz during the news conference for changing policies to address use of force issues at APD prior to federal intervention.
However, he said during the interview that the DOJ’s investigation “will compare what’s on paper to what’s actually happening in practice on the street.”
The Justice Department’s police investigations, Perez said, have three goals: to get law enforcement agencies to a place where they can effectively reduce crime, respect the U.S. Constitution and ensure public confidence.
“Some would argue that the first two goals are at odds with one another,” he said. “I reject that. … And when you do both, you earn the respect of the public.”
Perez drew a line between the civil probe and criminal investigations.
There are two different units within DOJ that focus on police issues: the criminal section, which works on “criminal accountability of particular individuals,” Perez said, and the civil investigators, who drill down into systemic issues. The units do not share information.
“It’s very hard to try to reform a department using the criminal process,” Perez said in the interview. “The criminal process is very, very important and indispensable. … When you’re talking about fixing systems within a department, the process that we’re undertaking is much better suited for that task.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque confirmed last month that one ongoing criminal investigation involves parking garage surveillance video that captured an incident in which then-APD officer John Doyle officer repeatedly kicked Nicholas Blume, a fleeing suspect, in the head while then-officer Robert Woolever held Blume down.
Justice Department officials would not provide specifics on any other criminal investigation, but confirmed investigators are looking into more than one.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal