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Editorial: With APD’s Geier out, we need a strong chief who’s allowed to tackle rampant crime

“City to seek federal help in boosting APD”

– Sept. 2, A1

“Most NM voters back police, oppose cuts”

– Sept. 10, A1

“Bust leads to gun store suspect”

– Sept. 10, A1

“Keller administration grilled on handling of APD”

– Sept. 10, A5

“Chief Geier to leave APD”

– Sept. 11, A1

These are but a few of the headlines from recent Albuquerque Journal pages. You don’t have to look far to find law enforcement in the news.

APD Chief Mike Geier

APD Chief Mike Geier

And there’s no question a community’s police chief, and its police department, are among the highest-profile and highest-scrutinized jobs and agencies in local government. But the Albuquerque Police Department has had more than its share of well-deserved controversy over the years – the most recent being questions regarding the fatal shootings of people suffering with behavioral health issues.

The department has been under a Department of Justice settlement agreement since 2014 as civilian and police officials work together to ensure reforms lead to constitutional policing.

And yet, given all this plus a checkered history that includes an evidence-room scandal and social media postings of “human waste disposal,” and in light of truly horrifying deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of police across the nation, a recent Journal Poll found New Mexicans overwhelmingly support their police officers – 74%. And that a large majority oppose cutting funding from those officers’ departments – 61%.

The support is there because most of us realize we count on these men and women in uniform to answer our calls for help – and that the vast majority do their best to answer those calls.

Still, questions arise when 80 people are killed in Albuquerque in 2019 and only 50% of those cases are solved.

Or when rioters follow a Black Lives Matter protest Downtown this summer by lighting fires, smashing windows and throwing bricks at officers and APD arrests few, if any, responsible for the vandalism that occurred in front of them.

And when protesters and counterprotesters clash over the statue of conquistador Don Juan de Oñate in Tiguex Park, with plenty of weapons: chains, pickaxes and rifles. But no cops, until someone is shot. APD had been ordered to stay in the nearby Albuquerque Museum because officers’ mere presence could inflame the crowds. Their distinct absence created a vacuum the so-called New Mexico Civil Guard and armed thugs were ready, willing and able to fill. District Attorney Raúl Torrez says APD’s response then bungled the investigation.

To be clear: Geier has dedicated decades to public safety, in the Chicago area, Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. He has helped institute policies at APD that have cut auto theft from record highs, focused on gun violence and helped get court-monitored reform efforts on track.

But whether by choice or by orders from the 11th floor, Geier was never the public face of crime-fighting the city needed, especially once Albuquerque was deemed one of the most violent cities in the nation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Just last week, City Councilor Brook Bassan publicly questioned Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair on whether the mayor’s office was overmanaging the police department and whether Mayor Tim Keller and his team were pushing Geier out. Nair sidestepped the queries, criticizing Bassan for churning the “rumor mill.”

Less than 24 hours later, it was announced Geier was retiring.

As questions swirl about who’s really been in charge of the department – Geier, a 20-year-veteran of APD who came out of retirement three years ago to take the helm, or Mayor Tim Keller’s progressive administration – let’s remember:

• The department issued rosy statistics on crime last summer, then had to take them back and acknowledge that while property crime had decreased, violent crimes including homicide, human trafficking, kidnapping and assault had remained constant and drug offenses, prostitution and animal cruelty were up 9%.

• Geier was mum while $9.7 million in federal grant money for police officers hung in the balance over the city’s immigrant-friendly policies. Then-Deputy Chief Harold Medina (now interim chief) didn’t hold back, calling it “political extortion.” The federal grant, approved by the City Council 7-2 Wednesday night, will pay the salaries of 40 new officers for three years. It is the kind of thing a police chief is expected to vocally advocate for.

• A survey of 433 APD officers this summer showed 62% of them did not feel supported by their police chief; even more did not feel supported by their mayor.

• Then APD posted a tweet on its official account, ostensibly by Geier, denouncing the high-profile police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as “senseless.” APD later deleted the tweet, with a department spokesman acknowledging it was sent without Geier’s approval.

• Other internal strife was revealed when a whistleblower said Geier’s chief of staff, John Ross, bypassed city rules to buy a $2,400 Apple laptop computer and $200 Apple TV box that didn’t appear to have any work purpose and wrangled himself a “significant” pay raise without the chief’s approval by lobbying Nair. The department is facing an internal affairs investigation into Ross as well as a special audit for ongoing questionable overtime practices.

The FBI reports Albuquerque has a crime rate about 194% higher than the national average. When the coronavirus hit this spring, Albuquerque stopped dispatching officers to property crime calls, instead asking victims to call and leave a message. None of this is reassuring to locals. None of this looks good in economic development or tourism pitches.

As the Keller administration begins its search for Geier’s replacement, career law enforcement candidates should be sure to pin down how much authority they will really have. And the administration should step back and recognize that while it oversees the department, it is the new chief and his or her staff who have the public safety training and experience to lead our law enforcement officers.

The results – or lack thereof – of the last three years prove that, and that Albuquerque needs a crime-fighter who is front and center.

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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