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Editorial: Albuquerque residents, police officers need timely feedback on reforms

Being on “the brink of a catastrophic failure” is a pretty bad place to be.

And no doubt shocking to the people of Albuquerque to find ourselves there with the federal Court Approved Settlement Agreement designed to ensure constitutional policing by the Albuquerque Police Department, especially when you consider that we are six years and more than $25 million into it.

The city entered into the agreement after the Department of Justice concluded APD had demonstrated a pattern of excessive use of force.

Despite several much more upbeat reports along the way from the federal monitor, Dr. James Ginger, one could reasonably conclude we’ve gone from substantial progress to impending doom in the last 18 months.

The administration of Mayor Tim Keller and his interim chief, Harold Medina, are quick to blame ousted chief Michael Geier for the downward spiral. Medina told the Journal Editorial Board last week that Geier became reluctant to impose necessary discipline – sending the wrong message to officers on the street.

“The chief stopped listening to his deputy chiefs and started to go his own way,” Medina said.

Ginger, who said APD was “allergic to discipline,” says the problems are deeper. “If this were simply a question of leadership, I would be less concerned,” he told the court in a hearing last month. “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.

“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.”

While initially portraying Geier’s ouster in September as his decision to retire, the mayor and his chief administrative officer later – after Geier refused to go quietly – said the reform effort had stalled and that was one reason the chief had to go.

When it comes to Geier, it wasn’t always that way. Keller, who is just finishing up three years in office, cut short a national search, saying Geier was the perfect guy to be chief. And in a report last year Ginger said he was pleased with Geier’s efforts and personal involvement.

So what changed?

For starters, we are now in the hardest part of the reform effort. Policy development and training are either done or well on the way to being done. Now, it’s compliance with the training and new policies on the street. Also, we’ve had to deal with the pandemic and a recent survey of officers who said morale was in the tank.

In any case, according to Ginger’s most recent report, field officers were failing to report use of force, detectives in Internal Affairs were “going through the motions” and the high-level Force Review Board that examines serious cases for training, policy and compliance flaws was allowing subpar work. In summary: APD has “failed miserably in its ability to police itself.”

Is all this unduly harsh? The department has done some good work in the CASA effort but City Attorney Esteban Aguilar Jr. says the goal here is to be a “national model for constitutional, community-based policing” and by necessity that requires focus on things that need to be corrected.

One case Ginger highlighted was a man in an emotional crisis who was subjected to an unnecessarily high level of force – bordering on sadistic – that was cleared by every level of the APD review process, including the Force Review Board. One change now in effect that could prevent a recurrence is a system where officer video is reviewed and included in the review process as it moves up the chain.

Seems like a no-brainer, and a six-year slow learning curve.

Is there blame to go around? Yes. This ball has been in the Keller administration court for nearly three years now. Geier was his guy. It was just four months ago that the mayor and Geier were touting a new “Accountability Report Card” dealing with officer compliance with on-body camera policies.

And Medina is Keller’s guy. He makes no bones about laying the problems at Geier’s feet. Geier, meanwhile, says Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair was trying to micromanage the department and Medina was working constantly to undercut him.

Sounds like one of those “brink of catastrophic failure” scenarios all by itself. Certainly not a formula for effective management at a time of trying to deal with a pandemic and implement CASA.

And does the union that represents police officers have too much clout and is able to “hijack” IA interviews, as Ginger claims?

And how about Ginger? Shouldn’t he be having more timely conversations or perhaps shorter summary reports for APD to act on before dropping a bombshell once or twice a year – something Medina and Aguilar said they hope to arrange. Ginger’s getting paid plenty. Perhaps the focus should be on timely information that could lead to fixing problems.

Medina is correct when he says that to get to where we want to be it will take culture shift. He says we get there through extensive training and appropriate discipline when policies are violated.

“As other officers see what happens when standards aren’t followed that’s when you get culture change,” he said. The expectations have to come from the top.

No argument there. But he acknowledges the other side of that coin: While requiring police to use minimal force necessary and showing “we are not reluctant to administer discipline,” officers need to not be afraid to do their jobs.

It’s a tall order. And when can we expect to know whether we’ve pulled back from that catastrophic brink? Not for a while, according to Medina and Aguilar. They say the next report from Ginger – which isn’t expected be released until well into 2021 – will cover several months while Geier was still at the helm and before a full-on press to change use of force in the field began.

But given this stark assessment, it’s not fair for the residents of Albuquerque or officers on the street to wait months for what essentially is a report that’s somewhat dated by the time it’s made public. This most recent report covered the time period of February through June.

People deserve to know what’s happening closer to real time – APD has been remarkably slow with its own “report cards” to the public – before we learn we are on the brink. Or that we’ve gone over it.

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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