Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
In the starkest possible terms, the independent monitor overseeing the Albuquerque Police Department reform effort said he found the department has “failed miserably in its ability to police itself.”
In his most recent report, released last week, monitor James Ginger said he found field officers failing to report use of force, detectives in the Internal Affairs Force Division “going through the motions” in their investigations, the Force Review Board allowing subpar work and the then-chief of police signing off on it.
He also criticized deficits in the academy’s training regimen and APD for allowing union representatives to inject themselves into internal investigations.
Mayor Tim Keller’s administration has blamed former Police Chief Michael Geier for the failures, but at an Oct. 6 hearing – which technological hiccups prevented the public and the press from attending – Ginger said the issues were deeper, adding, “We are on the brink of a catastrophic failure at APD.”
“If this were simply a question of leadership, I would be less concerned,” Ginger said, according to a transcript released Friday. “But it’s not. It’s a question of leadership. It’s a question of command. It’s a question of supervision. And it’s a question of performance on the street. So as a monitor with significant amount of experience – I’ve been doing this since the ’90s – I would have to be candid with the Court and say we’re in more trouble here right now today than I’ve ever seen.”
The 356-page report is the first assessing the current administration since it made significant changes in how it handles use of force – including reinstituting its Force Review Board, made up of top APD officials, the City Attorney’s Office and others, and revamping its use-of-force policy and investigation protocol. It covers the period from Feb. 1 through July 31.
For Robby Heckman, a member of the community coalition APD Forward, it provides a window into what’s going on inside the department – rather than just what the administration is saying it’s doing. And, he said, it’s disturbing.
“What’s described in this monitor report are the exact behaviors and things that were described in the DOJ findings letter,” Heckman said. “People suffering from mental illness being treated improperly. … It’s going to take creating systems that actually hold officers accountable. That’s just not happening. We’re six years in, and it’s not happening, the culture is eating the reforms for lunch.”
The monitor’s reports track the city’s compliance with reforms laid out in a Court Approved Settlement Agreement after Department of Justice investigators found APD officers had a pattern and practice of excessive force.
During the most recent reporting period, APD maintained 100% primary compliance – which refers to the creation of policies – but slipped to 91% secondary compliance – regarding training of officers – and 64% operational compliance – regarding whether officers and supervisors are acting according to procedures and being corrected when they don’t.
It’s the first time both secondary and operational compliance has decreased overall – 2.2 and 3 percentage points, respectively – from the prior reporting period.
Earlier this year, the mayor said the city intended to try to begin self-monitoring of about a quarter of the settlement agreement, but city officials scrapped that plan in August.
In September, when then-Police Chief Geier was told to retire, Mayor Keller and his staff said that the reforms weren’t moving fast enough and that Geier was resistant to holding people accountable.
Sarita Nair, the city’s chief administrative officer, doubled down on that last week, saying the report confirms that officials were right to replace Geier.
“After making big strides for the first two years, the reform effort had stalled out and the former chief was actively working against reform,” Nair said in an emailed statement. “These findings are simply unacceptable at this stage. We took swift action right at the top of the department and got to work cleaning up what was left behind. Any real reform effort will be long and challenging, but the department is back on track with a renewed energy and commitment to getting this work done.”
In a series of interviews before he left office, Geier acknowledged that the monitor criticized him for being “allergic to discipline” and for not firing certain officers. Geier said he thought the monitor’s approach was too harsh, made officers collateral damage and hurt morale throughout the department.
For his part, interim Police Chief Harold Medina said now that he’s the city’s top cop there will be “no more sweeping counter-CASA culture under the rug at APD.”
“We’re at a point in the reform process where we have to make the tough decisions about holding people accountable if we are truly going to change the culture at APD,” Medina said in a statement. “Mayor Keller did that when he addressed the number one criticism in this monitoring report: He replaced the failed leadership at the top of the department.”
Medina said he is taking discipline seriously, empowering the officers who embrace change, and – referencing his termination of Cmdr. Angela Byrd last month – said he took “swift action to address the failed leadership at the training academy.”
“I am building trust with employees at every level to get their buy-in, while also setting expectations about our collective duty to improve the way we do business,” Medina said. “… Most important, I am returning our focus to fighting crime. I want our officers to understand we can fight crime and meet the requirements of the settlement agreement. Nobody is holding us back. The public supports APD, as long as we keep the community safe and commit to a new era of constitutional and accountable policing.”
Levels of failure
Again and again throughout the report, Ginger returned to one case he said was a prime example of how accountability failed at every rung in APD.
Late one night in mid-January, days after APD’s new use-of-force policy took effect, officers arrested a man suspected of breaking into a car and stealing a dog at a motel and, in a separate instance, stealing a garbage can.
Three officers used physical force to handcuff the suspect – who was in an emotional crisis and uncooperative – and then carry him to a waiting patrol car. Emergency medical services were requested to the scene as the man babbled nonsensically, lying face down in the back seat of an APD cruiser, handcuffed, with his shoulders and head partly out of the vehicle.
That’s when, according to the monitor’s report, an officer who is not identified “flung the door toward the ‘closed’ position” while the suspect was moving around, causing the door to strike the man’s head. Next, the report says, the officer slowly pressed the door closed on the man’s upper body and later, while putting him on a stretcher, grabbed his head and pushed it down so his chin touched his chest.
Ginger said the officer’s use of the door – which he said “bordered on sadistic” – was not reported and was not called out by investigators who reviewed the body camera footage. He said the IAFD investigators interviewed the suspect at the hospital when he was barely conscious and appeared unable to speak.
Then, when the case was handed to the Force Review Board – “whose sole purpose is to oversee the system, compensate for mistakes and provide a safety net to ensure such misconduct is not missed at any level of subordinate review” – the board didn’t find anything amiss.
“(The FRB) failed in its mission and execution in providing a meaningful review that should have revealed the actions of the officer against a handcuffed person experiencing a mental health crisis,” the report says. “The capstone in this case study of a multi-level organizational failure in accountability is the former Chief of Police affixing his signature to the findings of the FRB’s lack of due diligence and meaningful findings.
“After six years of ‘reform’ at APD, after six years of acute and intensive technical assistance and assessment from the monitoring team, after six years of exhaustive (and critical) reports from the monitor; after six years of ‘effort,’ this knowable and egregious case floated through (several) levels of review at APD … (on-scene officers; on-scene supervisory personnel; ‘upstream’ area command supervisory and management personnel; video review unit personnel; IAFD; and FRB) and all … of those levels managed to ‘not see’ a clear and (convincing) incident of deliberate excessive use of force against an individual obviously suffering a crisis.”
What’s more, Ginger said, a union representative ended up hijacking an interview with the officer.
He said the representative “took control of the interview” by narrating the video being played for the officer and suggesting what an officer “actually meant to say” in response to a question rather than what the officer actually said.
“When internal fact-finding processes such as Internal Affairs can routinely permit officers and union representatives to hijack internal fact-finding, and no one notices except the monitoring team, there are serious, meaningful, and near terminal problems with leadership at internal investigative commands,” the report says.
An APD spokesman would not identify the officer or say whether he was disciplined or terminated but he did say the above case “is being investigated and the conduct has been sent to the (District Attorney) to determine whether the conduct was criminal.”
In response, a spokeswoman for the DA’s Office said the office had not received the case from APD.
“However, we have reached out to APD, and they have assured us that the matter will be referred to the District Attorney’s Office once their investigation is complete,” spokeswoman Brandale Mills-Cox said.
Asked how interim Chief Medina will boost accountability within the Internal Affairs Force Division and the Force Review Board, APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said officials are evaluating how to ensure that use of force is identified and reviewed throughout an investigative process.
“Supervisors must open investigations when people are not doing their jobs effectively,” Gallegos said in a statement. “The former APD chief was actively resisting this type of accountability, and it will take some time to clean up the mess he left behind. Chief Medina has opened investigations of high-ranking Commanders because they failed to close cases properly and expects the entire chain of command to hold their subordinates accountable when investigating uses of force. The Department has experienced a steep learning curve with regard to the Force Review Board, however, the Board routinely identifies and addresses department-wide concerns with training, tactics, equipment and supervision.”
One of the areas that shows the biggest drops in compliance – in some cases going from being in full compliance in the last report to primary compliance in this report – has to do with behavioral health training and protocol about when officers who have more training in crisis intervention should be called to a scene.
Ginger noted that a training that is given to cadets at the academy used to be two hours long and now is just shy of 30 minutes and no one seemed to know where the materials came from.
He said the Mental Health Response Advisory Committee – a coalition that was created by the settlement agreement – raised concerns about the quality of the training video.
“We note here that this curriculum did not go through proper MHRAC review processes until after it was developed and distributed to officers via PowerDMS, nor did the Academy staff collaborate or consult with the Crisis Intervention Section on the creation of this curriculum,” Ginger wrote.
However, he said, the 40-hour trainings the Crisis Intervention Team does with all field officers remains strong.
In his closing summary, Ginger said the department is at a crossroads and needs to change its direction to succeed.
“At this point, we assert that the issue is leadership,” Ginger wrote. “The next chief at APD needs to step up, speak out, set and meet reform goals, and ensure that the management team supporting him, or her, are pulling together to ensure reform. Until that happens, change will be difficult to make. Reform will be difficult to implement. Effective, constitutional policing will remain elusive.”