Ousted chief, Mayor's Office trade accusations - Albuquerque Journal

Ousted chief, Mayor’s Office trade accusations

Michael Geier retired from the Albuquerque Police Department as chief Friday, after 47 years in law enforcement. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

On Sept. 4, then-Albuquerque Police Chief Michael Geier told the Mayor’s Office he wanted to reassign his first deputy chief because he was insubordinate and failed to carry out a project aimed at reducing gun violence in Albuquerque by the end of the year.

“I told her I really need to switch him; he’s failed in this endeavor; this is a primary goal,” Geier recalled of his conversation with Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair. “If you’re a deputy chief and you work against something, you might as well be the criminal on the street.”

Geier said he was told he couldn’t do that without the mayor’s approval, and three days later, on Labor Day, he was summoned to a small neighborhood park in the far Northeast Heights for a meeting with the mayor. Geier said he sat on a park bench with Mayor Tim Keller – “he had a hat on and sunglasses; he was very much incognito” – who asked him if he had thought about retiring.

“I knew what’s coming, and I said, ‘No I’m not quite ready. I’ve got a few more things,’ ” Geier said. ” ‘Well,’ he goes, ‘crime is out of control, and that’s on you.’ ”

Over the summer, Albuquerque had been thrust into the spotlight when President Donald Trump held a news conference announcing it would be one of the cities where federal agents would be sent to combat violent crime. Although property crime had decreased over the past couple of years, violent crime and shootings have remained persistently high.

Michael Geier and Mayor Tim Keller at Geier’s swearing-in ceremony as interim chief in 2017. Behind Geier is his wife, daughter and grandchild. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Geier said that shortly after his meeting with the mayor he met with CAO Nair and then the next day he met with both of them and was basically told he had to retire. His first deputy chief, Harold Medina, would be taking his spot in the interim – the same person Geier had complained about being insubordinate.

In interviews with the Journal before he left office on Friday, the soft-spoken Geier blasted the mayor’s administration for constant micromanagement – to the point where he couldn’t even hold his own press conferences and was told what to say at the ones he was involved in – and for putting on what he called “dog and pony show” news conferences. He said the Mayor’s Office set the department’s priorities and dictated staffing structures.

The mayor’s team sees it differently. In multiple statements to the Journal in response to Geier’s criticism, they countered that Geier should be taking responsibility for what happened under his watch. They assert that a lot of people “put in a lot of hours propping up Geier” because he wasn’t doing the job himself.

“It’s sad to see him take the low road on the way out,” the mayor’s team said.

“Unfortunately, he was an absentee Chief much of 2020, rarely at important incidents like officer-involved shootings, critical COVID actions, protests, staff meetings, or press conferences,” Mike Puelle, the mayor’s chief of staff, said in a statement. “Albuquerque needs the Chief to be able to put in the 80 hours a week this job takes, on scene, on camera and side-by-side with our officers who work so hard in the field.”

At a news conference announcing Geier’s retirement a little more than two weeks ago, Keller framed the decision as mutual but said there were many “small distractions” as well as big issues facing the city. He said he saw the need “for increased progress and for a faster rate of change.”

In the statements, Puelle was more blunt about the reason for the change: “The job just wasn’t getting done. Crime is still too high, reforms hit snags and HR squabbles were a distraction. … As a courtesy to Geier and out of respect for his service in law enforcement, he was given the opportunity to retire.”

Geier, who left the news conference early because he couldn’t stomach sticking around for the end, said he was leaving to spend more time with his two young grandchildren, whom he and his wife are raising, and to hand over the reins to someone who is younger and has more energy.

He told the Journal it was true that he missed spending time with his family but that he had also asked if he could stay through the end of the year instead of being forced out immediately. He was told no, and the following Monday, Medina took over as acting chief.

Since then, he said, he’s been having trouble sleeping at night, and keeps going over the events in his head.

“I don’t have that closure; I just feel a little bit that this was unfair,” he said. “I could have been given more time, and I feel like it really was for the wrong reasons that this happened.”

As for the charge that he was an absentee chief, Geier was indignant. He said he put in long hours, was often the last person to leave the office, ate lunch at his desk almost every day – sometimes in 10-15 minutes – and brought work home to spend hours on at night.

“As chief, I had to delegate many duties to my deputy chiefs in their areas of responsibility because my job was so demanding at times,” Geier said. “I even attended meetings, events and such after work hours and on weekends, so it’s pretty ludicrous to even suggest I was an absentee chief. … Ask my family how much time I spent trying to keep up with the never-ending demands of my job as chief. I never took a sick day and did not take a vacation in 2020.”

‘A politician’s aide’

Geier said a big concern of his was that the mayor’s administration micromanaged APD. As an example, he said he was given a “matrix” that listed projects that needed to be carried out and specific deadlines.

He said he wasn’t allowed to call his own briefings without including the mayor and was handed talking points from the administration.

“I’m not a cop anymore; I’m just a politician’s aide is the way I describe it,” Geier said.

The mayor and his staff talk with then-Police Chief Michael Geier and other officers at the scene where bones were found on Albuquerque’s West Side. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis /Albuquerque Journal)

In one particularly galling moment, he remembers being told not to speak to the media until after the mayor arrived when bones were found buried in a West Side dirt lot that was being made into a park. Initially, it appeared to be a huge development in the notorious West Mesa serial killer case that Geier himself had worked on for years after the burial site was found in 2009.

“The chief should be able to say, ‘We’re going to do the press conference,’ ” Geier said. “You don’t even have to be there, Mr. Mayor, unless you want to see what’s out there.”

The bones turned out to be ancient and not connected to the serial killings, but Geier said the episode stuck with him.

“I don’t want to get out in front of the cameras, but if someone knows something about it, that’s the person you want out there,” he said. “That case, I don’t think anyone knows it better than me.”

He also described instances in which the mayor’s communications staff, and his own spokesman, attributed statements to him that he didn’t make.

The most glaring example was a tweet about Jacob Blake – a Black man who was shot in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August.

“The senseless shooting of Jacob Blake once again shows why our community and communities across the nation are seeking justice and change,” the now-deleted tweet read. “On Behalf of APD, I offer my sympathy to Jacob Blake’s family and his children who witnessed this disturbing act. I sincerely hope he makes a full recovery.”

These words, attributed to Geier, set off a firestorm. But Geier said he had not even seen the statement before it was sent out. APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos acknowledged the tweet was sent without Geier’s approval. He said last week that he had sent it to Geier for him to look at, and after not hearing a response, gave the green light to go.

Geier said he sent a departmentwide email clarifying that he had not prepared or approved the statement. He said that he asked Mayor’s Office staffers whether it came from them and that they denied it.

“(Union President Shaun) Willoughby was already wanting to do a no-confidence vote, the APD wife group was ready to hang me, and there was a law enforcement group with 55,000 members that had my picture on it saying it’s not enough that I have bad shootings in my own town, I have to criticize some others,” Geier said.

‘Kind, old grandfather’

In early 2017, Geier retired as chief of the Rio Rancho Police Department after three years on the job.

He had spent 20 years as an officer in the Chicago area and 20 years with APD. He stepped down from the Rio Rancho position for personal reasons related to life changes and his wife’s chronic illness. His son and his son’s wife were separated, and Geier and his wife ended up gaining custody of their two young grandchildren, then ages 6 and 4, the previous May.

Still, when Keller – who was just beginning his campaign for mayor – approached him and asked if he was interested in being chief of APD if he won, he said maybe.

Eleven months later, Geier voted for Keller and when Keller won the runoff election, he took the job as interim chief.

“APD had been beat up really bad, and it was a chance to do the right thing,” Geier said. “I don’t think he’s a bad mayor, he was one of the ones I would have followed.”

Seven months later, after a nationwide search, Geier was appointed permanent chief.

Over the next couple of years, some categories of crime – like auto theft – decreased substantially, but others, including violent crime, remained constant or decreased only slightly. In 2019, the city had 80 homicides – more than any other year in memory.

In Geier’s first six months in office, he drew praise for his commitment to the reform effort mandated by the Department of Justice after an investigation that concluded in 2014 that officers had a pattern and practice of excessive force. The independent monitor overseeing the effort has consistently pointed to mid-level supervisors resisting reforms, but has said overall the attitudes toward the undertaking have been better than under the previous administration.

But at a news conference earlier this month announcing Geier’s retirement, Mayor Keller said the reforms laid out in the Court Approved Settlement Agreement had stalled and he wanted a chief with the time to commit to it in order for it to go faster.

Matt Ross, the mayor’s spokesman, has since said that Geier was resistant to holding people accountable and it was beginning to threaten “the hard-fought reforms at APD.”

Geier, who was a member of APD’s first Crisis Intervention Team in 1997 and later became the team’s supervisor, said he was frustrated by the emphasis on harshly disciplining or firing officers rather than helping them change their ways. He says the coming monitor report will criticize him for having too soft a touch and not disciplining officers more.

“(Independent monitor James Ginger) described me as that kind, old grandfather that gives the wisdom,” Geier said. “… But everyone I’ve worked with, none of them got back in trouble.”

More recently, even before he became interim chief, Medina was put in charge of discipline, and three officers were fired right away, Geier said.

“Some officers are going to be collateral damage,” Geier said.

‘Rumor control’

In November, Geier wrote an email to all APD officers refuting rumors that he planned to retire the next month. The email, with the subject line “rumor control,” said that he knows of at least 12 people in the department who perpetuated this rumor and that it was detrimental to the organization and him.

Throughout the year, Geier said, the rumors escalated, and it was said he had COVID, and then, Alzheimer’s disease.

Then-Police Chief Michael Geier talks about an auto theft sting operation in 2018, with Deputy Chief Harold Medina at his side. Medina has since been made interim chief. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“Two to three weeks before Labor Day, Medina started saying, ‘They’re going to fire you, put me in as interim chief, and do a nationwide search,’ ” Geier said. “So about three to four times, he tells me that. …They didn’t fire me, but they forced me out.”

For his part, Medina said he did not spread any rumors and says he told others to stop. He also said the department continues to be rife with rumors, but he’s willing to send a message from the top that he’s not going to tolerate that kind of behavior.

“I think that’s where a good strong, 24/7, engaged chief is important for the city, for any police department,” Medina said. “I have the personality that there is a little bit of fear that the chief is going to do something if something comes up.”

Medina, a former commander over the SWAT team, bomb squad and K-9 units, acknowledged that he and Geier were very different people, pointing to their lifestyle differences as Geier raises two young grandchildren and Medina’s children are grown.

Medina, who was brought back to APD by Geier in 2017, has responded to almost every police shooting, and more often than not holds the press conferences at the scene.

“I think Chief came in at the perfect time with the perfect philosophy,” Medina said. “You know, I’m very enforcement-oriented; I go a hundred miles an hour, we’re always trying to get things done. I’m implementing new programs. But when we came back, what we needed was that academic person to sit here and get us on academic track to make sure we started moving toward the end of that settlement agreement.”

Gun violence plan

As gun violence continued to increase, many plans were formulated to address it.

Geier said he and a commander created a violence reduction plan that included scheduling regular meetings and brainstorming sessions for officers to talk with their supervisors about patterns in fatal shootings and shootings with injury in their area commands and come up with plans to address it.

But Geier said he felt that Medina never embraced it and didn’t instruct his officers to follow it through. He said the program was delayed in launching by six weeks, and those under Medina’s command had to undergo remedial training on the project again because they still didn’t understand it. He said Medina told him it was too confusing.

“We had a number of discussions over the next several months and it appeared that you made little effort to bring your people on board,” Geier wrote in the memo, dated Aug. 31. “On May 19, 2020, I had to issue Special Order 20-40 in an effort to make up for lost time in our efforts to reduce gun violence. Rather than reductions, APD saw significant increases for over 4 months in this regard.”

Graphs provided by Geier show that between Jan. 1 and last Tuesday there was a 16% increase in shooting murders – from 37 to 43. The goal was 31 or fewer.

Shootings with injury increased 27% citywide – from 152 to 193 – and five of the six area commands saw more or as many shootings with injury as this time the year before. The Valley Area Command – which encompasses Downtown – was the only one to see a decrease; shootings dropped 38% from 34 to 21, which is below the goal. However, Geier speculates, that could be because bars and activities that typically draw crowds and violence have been shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Medina said in an interview last week that for the first time in a long time, the 28-day shooting numbers are showing a little over 20% decrease. He said the seven-day average was down 50%.

In his memo to Medina, Geier said he feels like it’s “almost as if you made an effort to make this program fail” and his behavior has “bordered on insubordination.” He wrote that he intended to move him from the field services bureau.

“I plan on discussing this with Sarita at our weekly update meeting this coming Friday, September 4th,” Geier wrote. “I expect you to handle your new position as a professional so as to renew my faith and trust in you.”

Geier said he left the memo on Medina’s desk and didn’t see him again until after he was told to retire.

“He probably just threw it away,” Geier said. Medina said he never saw the memo.

When asked if the plan will continue now that Geier has left, chief of staff Puelle said, “This is the kind of finger pointing and petty refusal to take responsibility for the department that we want out of the way. We are now optimistic that APD will now be able to ramp up our gun violence reduction efforts.”

Now that he’s retired, 67-year-old Geier said he doesn’t think he wants to take another job in law enforcement, and he is looking forward to spending time with his family. He said overall he’s glad he took the job in 2017, although he wishes it had ended differently.

“I regret I lost time with the family,” Geier said, but he doesn’t regret taking the job as Albuquerque’s top cop. Since his retirement announcement he has received an outpouring of letters and messages thanking him for his service.

“I think it was a good experience,” he said.

Checkered history casts shadow on APD’s acting chief

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