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APD use of force highest at Walmarts, report says

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Officers working “chief’s overtime” assignments at Walmart are using force nearly three times more often than those at all other locations combined, according to a report from the Albuquerque Police Department.

A recent report from the Force Review Board looked at 3½years of data and found that 65 of 6,259 – or 1% of – chief’s overtime shifts at Walmart involved force of some kind – ranging from shows of force to serious use of force. In contrast, 24 of the more than 30,000 shifts at other locations involved force.

Three Walmarts in particular had the highest volume of force events, with 80% of the 65 uses of force occurring at the stores on Carlisle, San Mateo and Eubank.

And now the interim chief of police is questioning whether the city should change the way it bills businesses to account for the manpower and hours it takes to investigate these cases.

Chief’s overtime is a program in which private businesses or organizations pay for officers to be stationed at their establishments. Walmarts around the city make up 15% of the total shift assignments, with other retail stores, movie shoots, sporting events and houses of worship making up the rest. An APD spokeswoman said the city receives between $57 and $72 an hour for each shift, depending on the rank of the officer.

APD investigators found that policy was followed in 98% of the cases in which force was used during these assignments, according to the report.

The department defines use of force as empty-hand techniques such as hand strikes, knee strikes and kicks, use of an electronic control weapon such as a Taser, use of a baton, pepper spray or less lethal weapons. Show of force includes cases in which an officer displays a weapon at a suspect.

Interim Police Chief Harold Medina said it takes hours for Internal Affairs Force Division detectives to investigate force events, and the businesses that have the most incidents are not billed any more than those that have none.

“It generally takes, at the minimum, about 20 hours just to review video and get a use-of-force case ready to be presented at (the Force Review Board) or to close it out as being investigated,” Medina said. “And that’s a lot of time that’s being utilized on an assignment that has private interests at stake.”

He said he has asked his interim chief of staff, Cmdr. Cecily Barker, to look into it and make a proposal by the beginning of next year on how the department can modify chief’s overtime payments. However, he said, it’s too early to say what that proposal might entail.

“I saw this report, and immediately I was, like, hey, we’ve got to evaluate to make sure that we’re charging enough for chief’s overtime,” Medina said. “This is a (Department of Justice) type of report that we get because of our settlement agreement, but I think we have to always as the administration of this department, look at these reports and see how it is impacting areas outside of the settlement agreement, how can we make adjustments to run more efficiently.”

Overall, between 1% and 5% of incidents in which officers used or showed force occurred during chief’s overtime assignments over the past four years. In 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, there were 18 use-of-force events during chief’s overtime out of a total of 768 total.

The report did not give details on what type of force was used.

After looking at the report, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico expressed concern that force was being used during these assignments.

“The high number of use-of-force incidents at Walmart suggests that police are more inclined to use physical restraint when it comes to protecting private property,” said Barron Jones, senior policy strategist at the ACLU of New Mexico. “The bottom line is that use-of-force incidents have been steadily climbing for the last four years. They should be going down, not up. It’s been six years since the department was mandated to make reforms by the Department of Justice, and we are deeply concerned that after all this time, they have failed to make the most minimally necessary changes.”

Medina said force is used at those locations because they have a high number of shoplifting incidents and officers are already at the scene when the crime occurs. They are arresting suspects themselves rather than taking over from a security guard.

According to the Annual Use of Force report released in October, between 4% and 5% of arrests by APD officers involve force.

“I think the key here is these rates at the Walmart really are focusing around interactions that could potentially lead to the use of force, such as, like I said earlier, them making an arrest, the officer dealing with an active situation that’s occurring and the fact that because they’re already on scene, there is zero response time,” Medina said. “So they’re likely to get to a situation that is still active, for example, like the domestic violence fight.”

He said he recognizes the value of having an officer privately funded on site at a business rather than having to dispatch an on-duty officer after the fact but wants to keep evaluating the program through his tenure.

Last month, after a recent investigation found the department’s former spokesman was abusing the overtime system, Medina said the chief’s overtime office will audit 30% of all forms to make sure officers are working what they say they are.

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