Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Six years into the reform of the Albuquerque Police Department, advocacy organizations are fed up.
Ahead of a hearing this Friday, several of the amici – groups that are not part of the litigation, but who are invited to provide input – sent letters to the federal judge overseeing the reform effort asking for the city to be held in contempt of court and arguing for much more drastic changes.
It is the first time the groups have asked for the city to be held in contempt.
Peter Simonson, speaking on behalf of the APD Forward coalition of advocacy organizations, said the group has considered asking the court to hold the city in contempt before – such as when the previous administration and then-city attorney secretly recorded conversations with the independent monitor – but decided against it.
Now, he said, the situation is desperate, and putting APD under an outside receivership might be the only way for it to reform.
“I don’t see a way out, and I don’t think APD Forward sees a way out for this reform to succeed,” said Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. “It doesn’t seem to be an exit strategy. … Given the systemic nature of the problems that the monitor has identified, it seems to us that the situation is too dire to hope that the department and the city can pull together.”
In response to several questions regarding the amici letters, the possibility of the city being held in contempt or needing to be under a receivership, and what APD has done to address various problems, a department spokeswoman simply replied: “We are in negotiations with the DOJ and will comment in court.”
APD and city officials have previously said the effort had stalled under former Police Chief Michael Geier and he was working against reforms. Geier was told to retire in September; his deputy chief, Harold Medina, was appointed to lead the department in the interim and the city is in the midst of a nationwide search to fill the post.
In his most recent report published in November and covering the period of February through July, the independent monitor overseeing the reforms leveled a scathing indictment of APD’s ability to police itself and hold officers accountable when they improperly use force. Monitor James Ginger is tasked with assessing the department’s compliance with the Court Approved Settlement Agreement that the city entered in 2014 after the Department of Justice found officers had a pattern and practice of using excessive force.
Peter Cubra, an attorney representing another one of the amici groups, said that if Judge James Browning finds the city in contempt – basically that it has not made a good faith effort to comply with the settlement agreement – he could appoint an administrator to oversee APD and give instructions to subordinates in the city government. His letter to the judge echoed APD Forward’s in asking for the measure to be taken.
“That would be a receivership, where the agent of the court could act as the de facto police chief in order to get the existing agreed court order complied with,” Cubra said.
Cubra said that the current administration proposed new procedures for investigating force a couple of years ago and that those were implemented earlier this year. But he said systemic problems remain.
“Not only did this report find things are still out of compliance, but it found both city employees and union employees actively interfering with the implementation of the court order,” Cubra said. “They got a second chance, and they blew it.”
The executive director of the Civilian Police Oversight Agency, Ed Harness, wrote to the judge that he shares the monitor’s concerns about the revamped Force Review Board – a committee of APD top officials that meets once a week to review use-of-force investigations and their conclusions. Monitor Ginger sharply criticized the board for failing to meaningfully review cases and correct subpar internal investigations.
Harness said there have been times when he has thought a use of force was out of policy, but the Force Review Board did not. However, he is allowed only to give his opinion and ask questions, and is not a voting member.
Eventually, when the Court Approved Settlement Agreement has been completed, the CPOA and its board will be the ones filling the role held by the independent monitor.
But Harness is the only one with the CPOA who has access to full investigations and the board members see only an overview presentation. He said he thinks members should be able to get the investigation file, as well, so they can catch errors or missteps.
“They would never be able to reach the conclusions that the monitor reaches because there’s not enough information to reach those conclusions,” Harness said.
Both Simonson and Cubra said their frustrations extend beyond APD. and the city and mayoral administration. They said they are frustrated that the DOJ hasn’t already done more to make sure APD is complying with the settlement agreement.
Simonson, from APD Forward, points out that the monitor has been raising red flags for several reports, but no action has been taken.
“If they are going to be the legal representative of our community, we need them to stand up and react to these kinds of indications,” Simonson said. “That feels to me like this conversation should have started much earlier.”
Cubra said he thinks the lack of action from the DOJ has to do with President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr, who he says have expressed apathy toward making sure police officers don’t violate constitutional rights.
However, he said he doesn’t think the answer is simply to wait for President-elect Joe Biden to take office.
“I have seen over the last 37 years that I’ve been doing these cases, many changeovers of administrations from Republican to Democrat or vice versa,” Cubra said. “It always takes more than a year before the change of administration gets down to the grassroots level of an individual case like ours. That’s too long to wait.”