Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
After two years, nine months at the helm of the Albuquerque Police Department, Chief Michael Geier will retire at the end of next week.
Deputy Chief Harold Medina will take over as interim chief starting Monday and the city will figure out a preliminary timeline for the search for the next chief in the upcoming month.
A formal announcement, and news conference, was held about 24 hours after rumors first began swirling about Chief Geier’s upcoming departure. The issue had been at the heart of a tense exchange at a City Council meeting Wednesday evening as a councilor repeatedly questioned the city’s chief administrative officer about who is in charge of the department and whether the chief still has the backing of the administration.
At a news conference Thursday, Mayor Tim Keller said the details were finalized that morning and it was Geier’s decision to leave at the end of this pay period – Sept. 18. The news comes as the department is facing a special audit for overtime practices and an internal affairs investigation into the chief of staff. It has also faced vocal criticisms for releasing crime stats that were later revealed to have exaggerated improvements, and for its handling of a Juan de Oñate protest and subsequent shooting in June.
Prefacing his statements by saying he was going to have a hard time getting through this, Geier addressed the media, saying his wife has a chronic illness and the couple has custody of their young grandchildren. He said he has recently been feeling that he is not spending enough time with his grandchildren due to the demanding hours of the job.
“I love this department, I’ve had a wonderful career in law enforcement,” Geier said. “It was very enjoyable and I feel very rewarded. It gave me the opportunity to serve others, and now it’s time for me to rest and turn the reins over to people who have more energy, are a little bit younger and have a lot more time.”
He left immediately after speaking and did not take any questions.
Keller and Geier met about 12 years ago when Keller was a freshman state senator representing Albuquerque’s International District and Geier was an APD commander.
The chief was one of the first appointments the mayor made when he took over in late-2017. Geier served as interim police chief until June 2018 when, at the age of 65, he was hired permanently. Keller’s administration said it had reviewed applications from more than two dozen others before choosing Geier.
Geier’s career in law enforcement has spanned more than 45 years. He was an officer in the Chicago area for 20 years before coming to New Mexico and spending another 20 years as an officer with APD.
In February 2014, he was appointed police chief of Rio Rancho and, three years later, he stepped down, citing personal reasons, including changing circumstances in his wife’s health.
He was tapped to run APD nine months later.
Keller said there were many factors contributing to the decision for Geier to retire – including the “big issues our city is facing,” as well as “small distractions.”
“We started talking about this over the summer at a high level because of his personal situation,” Keller said. “Then we saw the need – I saw the need – for increased progress for a faster rate of change.”
The rank and file in the department was officially notified of Geier’s departure shortly before the news conference began.
Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, said the union welcomed the news and is looking forward to seeing the department move in a different direction.
“The APOA has had significant concerns with the direction of the police department under Chief Geier’s leadership for some time,” Willoughby said. “We look at this as a positive move and we look forward to hopefully being involved in the national search for the new police chief and just trying to get past this.”
He cited conflicts among the chief’s command staff, as well as a recent survey by the union that found 62% of participating officers do not feel supported by Geier. The survey also found 96% don’t feel supported by City Council and 83% don’t feel supported by Mayor Keller.
“We haven’t been able to focus our resources to tackle Albuquerque’s out-of-control crime,” Willoughby said. “We just have a lot of work on our plate between reform and an increase in violent crime in Albuquerque, even recent shenanigans and infighting on the fifth floor … APD police officers deserve constant genuine leadership, and we deserve the opportunity to succeed and to move forward.”
Keller, who ran on a platform of fighting Albuquerque’s high crime rates, did not directly answer the question about whether Geier’s retirement was an acknowledgement that the city had not progressed enough on combatting crime.
“Any time we have rising crime, we’re not where we want to be, that’s certainly the case,” Keller said. “Any time our Department of Justice reforms are stalled out, that’s not where I want to be, that’s absolutely the case. But I think you also have to be thoughtful and timely about those issues and when you make changes, and I think now is the right time.”
He said he felt the city’s yearslong police reform effort – which began in 2014 – with the Department of Justice could be moving faster. However, he also praised Geier for having turned the department around in relation to the reforms. Recent reports by the independent monitor overseeing the reforms have also been very complimentary about Geier and the team he put in place to oversee the demands in the settlement agreement.
“Essentially, the chief leaves a legacy that in a pivotal moment in our department, in our city, he did a courageous job of righting the ship through our first year and he got that new leadership in place,” Keller said. “He leaned in to addressing gun violence, and also to getting reform efforts on track. I appreciate and am extremely grateful for him taking this very, very difficult job that a lot of people couldn’t handle or wouldn’t even want because it’s so difficult.”
Keller referenced the internal investigation opened into Chief of Staff John Ross over the summer for allegedly improperly purchasing electronics with Geier’s signature stamp and other “conduct that reflects poorly on the department,” and said that had become a distraction,
“That’s also something that no one wants to see,” Keller said. “I don’t want to see that either because I want everyone focused on fighting crime.”
He said chiefs hire their administrative staff – later clarified as chief of staff and administrative assistant – so when leadership changes, so do those employees.
“I do want to state specifically, any chief hires their administrative assistants, they hire their chief of staff,” Keller said. “So, when there is a change in the chief, those positions disappear. The details of the investigation and so forth, we’ll honor that when its done, but obviously those positions are gone and those folks will be moving on.”
Deputy Chief Medina, who was made first deputy chief this summer in a new command structure, was hired onto APD in 1995. He served with the department until 2014, when he retired and became Chief of the Pueblo of Laguna for three years. He returned to APD as a deputy chief when Keller took over as mayor.
‘Time for someone else’
Rumors of Geier’s potential retirement had sparked a tense exchange Wednesday night between City Councilor Brook Bassan and Sarita Nair, the city’s chief administrative officer who oversees APD. Bassan pressed Nair about her and Keller’s involvement in police management, prompting Nair to repeatedly deny making any tactical or operational decisions.
Bassan also cited social media rumors about Geier’s impending departure, asking Nair if the chief still had the administration’s support. Nair called the question “disrespectful” and did not give a direct answer, instead saying that Geier was the “right person for the job” when he was hired nearly three years ago.
Keller – who was not at the council meeting – addressed the exchange during Thursday morning’s news conference and had harsh words for those who he said were “pandering to social media.”
“I think it’s important that we give the chief and the leadership and the departments at least a couple of days out of respect to understand what they’re doing next and when their last day is,” Keller said. “I think it was totally inappropriate for council to go into those questions in public.”
Bassan, however, disagrees that she was in the wrong, saying she is relaying questions from her constituents. She said she considers it her responsibility to seek answers for the public, and that Nair “evaded” her questions and could have instead acknowledged the administration was evaluating the chief’s performance.
“I realize they (the mayor’s administration) don’t want me to be vocal; that would make everything a lot simpler,” she said. “But I seriously believe the city of Albuquerque deserves to know what is happening.”
City Council President Pat Davis said he was not concerned about how the city ultimately announced Geier’s retirement.
But he did agree with Keller that it was the right move. He said he trusts Medina to take the reins for the time being, but looks forward to finding a permanent new leader to continue the department’s progress, saying he thinks that will likely require someone from outside.
“It’s the right time (for change),” Davis said. “The mayor and I have talked on and off about this for the last couple of months; we’ve been very clear (Geier) has done a great job of positioning the city to actually make progress with the DOJ reforms and get us there, but there are some of these stubborn issues like gun violence and some challenges to recruiting that just have continued to persist. I think it’s time for someone else to come in and take a new look.”