Editorial: Mayor needs more input before picking APD's next leader - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Mayor needs more input before picking APD’s next leader

“There was always this idea there was some magical person who could be all things to all people and be a new police chief in Albuquerque. People would say (the chief would) have to have done all the DOJ reforms, and they’d have to be respected by front-line officers and they also have to be from outside Albuquerque but they also have to know Albuquerque. The amazing thing about this is the closest person to that is Chief Geier.”

– Mayor Tim Keller, June 13, 2018

Keller made those comments at a news conference announcing his decision to remove the title of “interim” in front of Michael Geier’s name after a compressed national search that took just six months, rather than the initial one-year projection, to find a chief for the Albuquerque Police Department. There was no need to drag things out, the mayor told reporters back then, because Geier checked all the boxes.

So much for the magic. It’s long gone in a city that’s plagued by violent crime and a police force operating under a Department of Justice oversight agreement that has no end in sight – and is once again in need of a new chief.

Earlier this month, after two years and nine months in the job, Geier was shown the door by Keller and Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair. The departure was initially billed as a voluntary retirement where everybody made nice – a day earlier Nair had even chastised a city councilor who had asked during the council meeting whether the chief still had the administration’s support.

It’s now turned into something of a free-for-all.

The voluntary retirement cease-fire lasted until the day after Geier’s last official day on the city payroll, Sept. 18. Then, the chief, who had kept an unfortunately low profile during this tenure whether by choice or, as he claims, by orders from a mayor who does love the cameras – had a lot to say.

Geier, who had a 45-year career in law enforcement that included stints as an officer in the Chicago area, as an APD commander and as chief in Rio Rancho, says the Keller administration micromanaged the department and put a higher priority on dog-and-pony press conferences than on real crime-fighting. Geier says he wasn’t allowed to call his own briefings without including the mayor and was handed talking points by the administration. “I’m not a cop anymore; I’m just a politician’s aide, is the way I describe it,” he told the Journal.

The outgoing chief says the man Keller named as interim chief to succeed him, Deputy Chief Harold Medina, worked against him on key initiatives including one dealing with gun violence. Geier told the Journal he had recommended to Nair that Medina be moved out of his position for insubordination. Instead, it was Geier who was out the door and Medina moved up to the top spot as interim chief.

Nair said this was not a quick decision – that the administration had had concerns about Geier’s job performance since early this year and had met with him multiple times over the summer.

Keller told the Journal it had become clear to him this was the time to make a change. “As mayor, it is my job to hold my team accountable. I offered Geier an honorable retirement, and while he has taken the low road on the way out, full of sour grapes and new-found complaints, I will not follow suit.”

The mayor’s chief of staff, Mike Puelle, however, showed no such reluctance. He said Geier wasn’t putting in the work, that he was rarely at important incidents like officer-involved shootings, protests, staff meetings or press conferences. “The job just wasn’t getting done,” Puelle said.

The back-and-forth goes on, but the end result doesn’t change. The department needs another chief to oversee a department with roughly 1,000 officers in a city with a big-time crime problem.

While the city has posted the job and begun its search – and it’s worth noting Keller’s pick is subject to City Council approval – Medina would seem to be a front-runner. After all, it appears he’s been angling for the position for some time and is openly lobbying for it now.

But his record with APD throws up red flags.

Medina shot and killed a 14-year-old boy in the sanctuary of a West Side church in 2002. The boy had a BB gun in his hand and Medina says the incident haunts him to this day. “That’s why it’s imperative you have a police chief that knows what people go through on both sides,” he said. The boy’s mother says learning Medina has been named interim chief was like “ripping the scab off the wound.”

Medina was the ranking officer on the scene of APD’s fatal shooting of 25-year-old Iraq War veteran Kenneth Ellis in 2010 – one of the department’s most controversial that ended with a jury awarding the family $10.3 million. Ellis had been holding a gun to his own head when another officer shot him in the neck.

Geier and Medina clashed on APD’s controversial handling of protests that turned violent concerning the Oñate sculpture at the Albuquerque Museum. The outgoing chief says he told Medina to have uniformed officers – like bicycle cops – at the scene as a deterrent but that his directive was ignored. Medina says he was concerned that having officers there in riot gear would escalate tensions – so APD officers stayed behind the building until things went south. The administration points out that Geier was not at the scene.

Keller has been lavish in his praise of Medina, saying that “in just the last few weeks, this change at the top has reinvigorated our crime-fighting and reform efforts.”

From the outside it looks as though Medina already was the power at APD and Geier had been marginalized. And Medina may, in fact, be the right person for the job – especially if there is a preference for an “insider.”

But the city needs to move carefully. It should do a bona fide national search – which won’t be any easier given the micromanagement allegations, Geier’s messy departure, the appearance Medina may be the chosen one, a mayoral election coming up next November and a global pandemic.

Those are good reasons the City Council should consider playing a bigger role, even though it’s the mayor’s appointment subject to council approval. Why not have a council listening session or two that allow the public, the business community, activists and others to express their frustrations on crime and lawlessness in the city? And give officers a chance to explain why more than 80% in a recent survey said they felt the mayor didn’t support them? (Geier didn’t fare much better at 62%, and the City Council was worse at 96%.)

Chief of police is perhaps the most critical job in the city of Albuquerque. If this city is to ever reach its potential, we must get on top of the crime problem. And we can’t afford another pick where the seemingly perfect candidate is told to hit the road after less than three years on a job that’s a long way from being done.

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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