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After a six-month search for the next chief of the Albuquerque Police Department, the city administration decided it needed both an insider and an outsider.
With that in mind, interim Police Chief Harold Medina was selected to serve in the role going forward.
And Sylvester Stanley, who has served as a police chief four times in New Mexico and most recently was chief of the Isleta Police Department, was appointed to the newly created position of superintendent of police reform.
The Police Department’s responsibilities will be divided so Medina can focus on fighting crime, recruitment of officers and building morale and Stanley can oversee the academy and the Internal Affairs division and work with the Department of Justice on the reform effort. He will also handle discipline of officers.
The dual announcements, made Monday, mark the culmination of a nationwide search. Medina had been first deputy chief and took over the department in an interim capacity in September after the mayor asked Michael Geier to step down. His appointment will go to the City Council for approval.
In a meeting with the Journal’s Editorial Board on Monday, Mayor Tim Keller and Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair said they came to the decision of splitting responsibilities between two people after extensive community input about the qualities needed in the next chief of police.
“I think we heard and we understand that, you know, it really takes both an insider who knows what’s happening and knows what we’re doing and knows where to go, and an outsider to strike the right balance on changes that are needed,” Keller said. “… You’ve got to fight crime, and you’ve got to do police reform.”
Both Medina and Stanley will report to Nair, and Stanley will also be deputy CAO.
Councilors in favor
Multiple city councilors contacted by the Journal on Monday said they would vote to confirm Medina, including Council President Cynthia Borrego.
Borrego had been part of a three-councilor panel that had informal discussions with all three chief finalists, and she said Medina’s Albuquerque know-how set him apart. The two out-of-state candidates – Clinton Nichols, chief of police in Commerce City, Colorado, and Joseph Sullivan, a retired deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department – offered limited insight into the community, she said.
“I was a little disappointed, honestly,” Borrego said. “I think the mayor made the right decision (with Medina), and I will be supportive of that decision.”
Pat Davis, meanwhile, said Medina “has earned the right” to do the job, having capably served as interim chief and demonstrated an understanding of departmental and city challenges.
“I think it’s the right choice,” Davis said.
The councilor is also supporting the restructuring effort that will shift APD reform efforts to a separate executive-level employee. Davis, a former police officer, said it makes sense to bundle discipline, training and other reform priorities under someone who can focus on that instead of day-to-day operations.
“That makes a police chief’s job a whole lot easier,” Davis said.
Borrego said she, too, likes the idea of having someone to shepherd the city through the DOJ reform process.
But Councilor Trudy Jones remains skeptical. She said Monday that the city has in recent years announced many initiatives meant to improve public safety and that she questions the follow-through and the effectiveness. While property crime has fallen in the past few years, violent crime rose in 2020, and the city has had a high number of homicides to start 2021.
Jones said that everything within APD has come to feel like a “moving target” but that the new superintendent at least sounds good in theory.
“It’s worth a try at this point in the game,” she said. “We can’t get any worse.”
Shaun Willoughby, the president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, said the union supports Medina as chief and agrees that it’s important to have someone who understands the community, the department and its history and culture. As for the new position, he said he is “cautiously optimistic” and willing to work with everybody even though he doesn’t think the city can both fulfill the court-mandated reform process and fight crime.
“I think Medina may understand this and our new deputy CAO will definitely learn this, the Albuquerque Police Department has some pretty significant issues right now,” Willoughby said. “Morale is lower than I have ever seen it. I have police officers that are below five years actively looking to get out of New Mexico, we have retirements. … There is significant work to be done internally to assure the rank and file that they can be successful in the profession that they’ve chosen as police officers.”
Peter Simonson, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the members of the police reform coalition APD Forward were disappointed in the appointment of Medina.
“It’s not at all due to anything about him personally, but strictly the fact that he comes right out of the culture that has promoted this systemic inability to hold officers accountable,” Simonson said. “There seems to be a lethargy or apathy within the department to take investigations, accountability and discipline seriously, and it’s been our position all along that the culture will only change with a leader from the outside.”
However, Simonson said, they do feel more hopeful about the superintendent position even if they don’t have an opinion on Stanley himself.
“It’s our hope that will strengthen the investment of the 11th floor in the reform process and avoid the situation like what took place last (year) escaping their notice – that the disciplinary system was essentially unraveling,” Simonson said.
‘Unique skill set’
The administration had been looking to hire a director of public safety who would oversee the reforms at APD, as well as Albuquerque Fire Rescue, and the office of emergency management, but Nair said they realized that position would mainly need to focus on the Police Department.
She cited other cities, including New Orleans and Seattle, that have similar positions to the superintendent role and said Stanley has a “unique skill set” to bring to the job.
“He has a long history of working with the federal government for example and is well known to DOJ people because of his role in Indian Country,” Nair said. “He has a good track record of holding officers accountable but also of understanding their needs when it comes to training and the lifelong journey of becoming a police officer.”
Keller said they expect Stanley to serve in the position in an interim basis for the next six months or through the end of the year and help the city set up the role and conduct a narrow but nationwide search for someone with monitoring experience.
Stanley was born and raised in Tennessee and enlisted in the Army at 17, according to a bio provided by the city. After he was discharged from the Army he worked for a police department in Kansas and then moved to New Mexico to join the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office in 1982. He worked his way up through the ranks to captain when he retired in 2002 and has run unsuccessfully to be sheriff.
Stanley – one of only three African Americans to be police chief in New Mexico – served in the role at the Isleta Police Department, Gallup Police Department and Jicarilla Police Department.
At a news conference Monday afternoon, Stanley said it’s no secret that the department has struggled to prevent and correct mistakes and hold people accountable for misconduct.
“From the outside looking in at the Albuquerque Police Department I like many other New Mexicans have watched for years and felt that the traditional department management models just might not be able to get the job done during these tough times,” Stanley said. “… This institutional change gives us a path forward to move the needle on both reform and crime fighting.”
Worked his way up
Medina joined APD in 1995 and worked his way up through the ranks to commander before leaving the department in 2014. He was chief of police at the Laguna Pueblo and returned to APD as deputy chief in 2017 when Keller took office.
Last fall, Medina was the target of criticism both from his predecessor and others in the community, who worried about a shooting he did as an officer and his presence as the ranking officer at the scene of one of the city’s most controversial shootings.
On Monday he touted his background as a street cop as well as the initiatives he has pushed since taking over as interim chief. He said the department just made its 1,000th arrest as part of its “anti-crime” operations.
“We need to create the culture that not only does the Albuquerque Police Department police constitutionally but that we’re proactive and out there to make sure the community is safe and getting individuals the resources they need, whether it’s incarcerating an individual or getting them into the diversion program that is needed to address underlying issues,” Medina said. “It is all for nothing if we don’t assess what we need to do better.”
Keller said Medina will be evaluated on whether crime goes down, reforms step up, 100 new officers join the force each year, his community policing initiatives, and “that we all feel safer in Albuquerque.”
He said Medina, as interim chief, has already made a lot of good changes and has been in line with what the city needs. He commended his work on fighting violent crime, community policing and transparency.