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A tumultuous year at APD comes to a close

Mayor Tim Keller

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

In retrospect, Mayor Tim Keller says he wishes he’d known earlier about the serious problems the Albuquerque Police Department was having with its reform effort.

“I think what we have learned is how deeply challenged some of these areas are, including self-monitoring,” Keller said in a wide-ranging interview in December. “For us at a senior level, we were led to believe – that things were much improved, and it turns out they weren’t as much.”

The city has been in the midst of reforming its Police Department for the past six years in accordance with a court-approved settlement agreement after a Department of Justice investigation found that officers had a pattern and practice of using excessive force.

Although more recently it has seemed like the department was making good progress – enough so that Keller said at his State of the City address last January that his administration was seeking to self-monitor parts of the settlement agreement – by summer it was clear that things were not nearly so rosy.

The independent monitor overseeing the reforms found that in the first seven months or so of 2020, APD “failed miserably in its ability to police itself” and said in court that “we are on the brink of a catastrophic failure at APD.”

Michael Geier

Even before the monitor’s report was published in November, his criticisms were well known, prompting the mayor to ask Police Chief Michael Geier to retire in September.

Interim Chief Harold Medina

The retirement started a bitter back-and-forth between Geier and the administration, including Harold Medina, who stepped into the chief’s job on an interim basis.

Now, entering the new year, the city is in the midst of searching for not just a new chief of police, but also a chief of public safety to oversee the new hire. The city hopes to have the police chief position filled by March but doesn’t have a time frame for when it wants to have a chief of public safety in place.

Keller acknowledged that both are hard to recruit for given the position the city is in with crime and the reform effort as well as the fact that policing is not a popular career now and qualified people are leaving law enforcement.

Plus there’s no guarantee the pick would have a job in 2022.

“Basically, no matter who it is, and what combination, they’re going to have one year to prove themselves,” he said. “Because either I’ll be gone – hopefully not, but you know, it’s an election year, so it could be a new mayor, in which case they probably change people – or I’ll be going into the second term, and I will have a very clear opinion on whether or not those folks should stick around.”

Making progress

But the year hasn’t been all bad for APD, Keller said.

“There was this vision that we’ve got to hire more officers,” he said. “And we have been able to hit our commitments on that – my goal was 100 every year. And we were able to do that, even despite the pandemic.”

The department has 974 officers at last count, and an APD spokesman said 51 cadets are expected to graduate in March.

Keller said APD made technological strides when it got a ShotSpotter gunshot detection device, which it began using over the summer. The device is set up in areas with most gun violence and alerts officers within 60 seconds of shots being fired.

Also, Keller said, although other cities across the country have had increases – in some cases quite dramatic increases – in violent crime during the pandemic, Albuquerque has stayed relatively constant or even seen a slight decrease in some categories.

However, the violent crime rate remains above the national average, and one of the areas that have remained stubbornly high is shootings resulting in injury or death.

Interim Chief Medina said there is some reason for hope there too. Whereas in August there were more than 30% more shootings than during the same period the previous year, now there are 18% more – meaning the trend is on the slow decline.

He credits the decrease to his “anti-crime operations” that involve officers rounding up people wanted on warrants.

“Hopefully, having a full year of this going on with these operations, we’ll be able to start effecting some changes in the shooting rates and keeping the community safe,” Medina said. “But we’re also seeing our property crimes continue to decrease – we were very successful in those first two years. I think it’s really important that we’re able to bring this vision of being a proactive Police Department that works with the community to fruition and make sure that this is the direction of the Police Department.”

Medina said one of the biggest challenges with taking over the Police Department came in the first couple of weeks when the Journal wrote an article about shootings he had been involved in during his career and the strong criticisms leveled against him and the administration by his predecessor.

He has applied for the permanent post and says he hopes that at this time next year the department will have reduced violent crime and institutionalized initiatives he started to hold APD accountable – including monitoring of chief’s overtime assignments, improving the quality of investigations, and the community ambassadors outreach program. Abuse of overtime was once again in the spotlight this year after the highly paid former APD spokesman Simon Drobik resigned amid an internal investigation into his overtime. The investigation eventually found he was “gaming the system,” APD said.

“There’s going to be long hours next year and expectations that we will work as many hours as needed, as administrators, to ensure that our officers feel supported and the community feels that the leadership is in charge of the Police Department,” Medina said. “And that we continually are working to reduce crime and make the citizens in Albuquerque safe.”

The city is working with Department of Justice attorneys on a plan to bring in outside experts to investigate use of force by officers to further its compliance with the reforms, a proposal Medina said he supports.

Community partner

In the search for the city’s next top cop, the mayor’s staff and a hired consultant have conducted more than 40 virtual meetings with community groups and interested parties and received more than 2,200 responses to an online survey seeking feedback.

Alicia Manzano, a city spokeswoman, said five themes emerged from those meetings. She said the community expressed a desire for a chief to have an understanding of behavioral health issues, and a commitment to de-escalation, racial equity, transparency and community policing.

“I think by and large, the community really wants to have someone that is a partner,” Manzano said. “And we look forward to seeing who emerges in that role to be that partner.”

About 39 candidates have applied for the position, chief of staff Mike Puelle said, although not all meet the qualifications. The city expects to close the posting soon, but candidates may still trickle in.

In contrast to the heavily publicized chief search, the chief of public safety job posting hit the city’s website with no fanfare a couple of weeks ago – catching some city councilors off guard.

That position will oversee APD, Albuquerque Fire Rescue and the Office of Emergency Management and report to the city’s chief administrative officer. This would be a civilian post, according to a city spokeswoman.

Spokeswoman Jessica Campbell said the administration doesn’t have a deadline for hiring a chief of public safety “as we continue testing the water to see if there is a candidate up to the task.” She said that as of Wednesday, seven people had applied.

Previous administrations have had a similar position called director of public safety, and Keller had explored the idea in the past and on the campaign trail. He said now the time is right because he can pick a chief of police and a chief of public safety who will work well together at the same time.

He said the chief of public safety will take on some of the responsibilities formerly handled by the police chief.

“This Police Department is in a situation where I think it’s almost impossible for a singular chief to do everything they need to do,” Keller said, citing challenges coming from staffing shortages, the CASA, and high levels of crime. “There’s one obvious thing you can pull out that is a different skill set which is the associated compliance, accountability, all of the discipline. You can look at a separate leader looking at that, and then the other person really working on pushing crime down.”

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