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A veteran officer who has been policing the streets of Albuquerque for decades. A Colorado police chief who navigated two federal reform efforts. A former Philadelphia deputy police commissioner known for building bridges between law enforcement and the local community.
After a monthslong search, these three men are being considered for next chief of the Albuquerque Police Department.
Fielding such questions as how they would fight crime, their thoughts on the yearslong reform effort being overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice and ways to boost officer morale, the finalists introduced themselves to about 150 people who tuned in to a 1½-hour webinar Saturday.
“Without going into too much detail, last summer it became clear that we did need a change in leadership at our police department,” Mayor Tim Keller said during the online event. He added there was “great care” along with “some urgency” to the search as the city had never before changed the department’s leadership in the middle of a term.
The city announced its search for a new top cop after Michael Geier was forced to retire by Keller in September, having served two years and nine months in the position.
The administration sought input from dozens of community groups and thousands of residents in an online survey as the search narrowed from 25 qualified applicants to three: interim APD Chief Harold Medina; Clinton Nichols, chief of police in Commerce City, Colorado; and Joseph Sullivan, a retired deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department.
City spokeswoman Alicia Manzano said they are aiming to make a final decision by March.
Experience a plus
Nichols touted himself as a one-stop shop to help APD through its reform effort by leaning on his past experience and tackling crime using a data-driven approach, while prioritizing good communication.
“A police leader does not need to choose between reform and crime-fighting,” he said. “Having one take a back seat to another, quite frankly, is nonsense in my opinion.”
As far as the APD reform effort goes, Nichols said, the hard work of writing up policies and making them operational “is already done” and the next step is gaining compliance.
Nichols said he would be guided by his experience going through U.S. Department of Justice reform efforts – in Commerce City and Las Vegas – that each resulted in a more than 90% compliance rate and led to the former being the first in Colorado to adopt body-worn cameras.
“I can tell you it isn’t a pretty process, but it certainly can be done,” he said.
To address crime, Nichols said he would give immediate attention to Albuquerque’s property and violent crime – particularly homicides – which “need some work.”
He said he would take an analytical approach and, instead of relying on the “widely driven” National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS, he would focus on crime patterns in specific neighborhoods to identify problem areas and the ways to solve them.
“It is important for any police department to take a lot of small bites of a very big apple,” he said. “Crime is something that impacts everybody on a personal level and so making sure we are resolved to reducing the level that most people are impacted by is extremely important.”
To be transparent as chief, Nichols said, his policy is to communicate “early and often” on not only the department’s achievements but also its failures. Additionally, he said accurate crime reporting and transparency on police efforts to tackle crime are “essential” to building credibility with the community.
Passion for policing
Sullivan said he would take a hands-on approach to fighting Albuquerque crime – particularly involving guns and drugs – increase manpower and work closely with the independent monitor to make sure the department reaches compliance.
“I have a passion for policing and I would love to bring that to Albuquerque if I was invited to do so,” he said.
Sullivan identified gun violence as the “top of the list” of issues in Albuquerque and he would make gun violence initiatives a priority to get illegal firearms off the street.
“If you focus on that you take away the opportunity for gun violence to occur,” he said, adding that he would want to have a meeting with his command staff after every shooting incident to determine the cause and prevent any further violence.
Sullivan said he would implement an “aggressive” recruitment program that values diversity to help bring in more officers and bolster investigative units by making sure they have the most up-to-date training and technology.
Sullivan said he believes the APD reform effort got sidetracked by the pandemic and getting it back on track is “critically important.”
He said he would temporarily have Internal Affairs review all use-of-force cases until supervisors better learned the review process. Sullivan said he would also personally oversee all discipline and regularly reach out to the monitor to talk and get advice.
Sullivan said he would use his experience in Philadelphia during the widespread Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 to handle similar demonstrations in Albuquerque.
He said it comes down to defusing tensions with police, working in plainclothes or basic uniform and being open and honest with the demonstrators.
“We were willing to walk all night long as long as there was no violence and no damage to our city,” he said. “We never used gas, we never had to use impact rounds, we used patience. … If you come dressed for a fight, you’re likely to get a fight.”
Make better cases
Medina said, as someone who has been with APD since the late ’90s, he has the hindsight to take the department forward, reduce crime in Albuquerque and complete the reform effort.
“How can you change a culture if you had not lived and been a part of that culture?” he said. “I have already begun the transformation process for the Albuquerque Police Department, and I am asking for the time to complete it.”
Medina said he would fight violent and property crime by building up the efficiency of investigative units to make better cases. He said he would seek to stop the “revolving door” of the justice system by working closely with the District Attorney’s Office and federal partners.
To build better relationships, Medina said, he would develop a culture at APD that elicits community engagement at every level of the department.
“We will continue to reach out to make sure that all segments of the community have their voice heard with APD,” Medina said. “The success of these relationships will rest on the department being transparent with the public.”
Medina said the issues in the reform effort are systemic. He said there needs to be measures taken to boost the quality of use-of-force investigations while making sure those who break policy are held accountable.
“The narrative has to change,” he said. “The focus cannot be that we are disciplining officers but rather we are protecting the integrity of all the great officers of this department.”
Medina said he would also build morale at the department, an issue he called “complex and unique” to Albuquerque, and one he knows from years of experience.
“You must know the history to fully understand why we are at the point that we are as a department today,” he said.
Medina said he would have open meetings with officers every Friday, called Chief’s Corner, as well as a monthly breakfast with a supervisor and their officers.
“It is imperative not only internally and externally that the chief be viewed not only as engaged,” he said, “but also as having a passion for the work being done in the community.”