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Editorial: Mayor’s proposal for restructuring APD is worth trying

“It’s worth a try at this point in the game. We can’t get any worse.”

– Albuquerque City Councilor Trudy Jones

Mayor Tim Keller is proposing splitting oversight of the Albuquerque Police Department between a chief of police and a newly created position of superintendent of police reform. While some might consider the veteran city councilor’s reaction to be an exaggeration, she really isn’t far off the mark – if at all.

Albuquerque is plagued with violent crime that we have not been able to rein in, from murder to brazen shoplifting at gunpoint in big-box stores. And it has a police department that, according to the federal monitor, was on the brink of “catastrophic” failure in its reform mission and was doing such a bad job that a judge just approved a bevy of new investigators to oversee Internal Affairs investigations.

Meanwhile, the department is still understaffed despite recruiting efforts to gain ground on retirements and departures. And that’s a dynamic that could get worse. The head of the police officers union says morale is at an all-time low, with officers under the five-year service mark looking to leave. That would hamper efforts to get the department up to desired staffing levels. Having enough officers to do the job is only fair to the men and women of APD who answer calls for service and investigate crime – and to the Albuquerque residents who call them.

So no, Jones is actually right on the money. And the mayor’s plan definitely is worth a try.

Keller, who is expected to seek reelection this year, rolled out his new vision for APD last week by announcing that after a national search, he was sticking with interim chief Harold Medina as the permanent replacement for Michael Geier, who was fired last year. Medina’s selection wasn’t really a surprise. He has come up through the ranks and worked closely with Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair both as a deputy chief and as interim. To his credit, he has significantly improved transparency in what APD does and how it does it.

The new wrinkle was the superintendent of police position, which will be filled on an interim basis by Sylvester Stanley, who served 20 years in the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office before retiring in 2002. He subsequently has served as a police chief on four other occasions in New Mexico, most recently as chief of the Isleta Police Department.

Medina and Stanley will report directly to Nair.

The mayor’s thinking on this new structure is sound, and he wisely shelved his earlier idea for a public safety czar who would oversee APD and Fire and Rescue, which seems to be working just fine. But there are inevitable challenges lurking in these uncharted waters.

The mayor told the Journal Editorial Board that Stanley’s purview would include the Police Academy, the costly and difficult reform agreement with the Department of Justice, and the disciplinary process for officers. That would leave Medina free to focus on the city’s crime problem and department morale. This kind of sweeping structural change makes sense at this point given the lack of progress in both areas.

When it comes to the expensive and long-running reform effort, Stanley, one of only three African Americans to be a police chief in New Mexico, said it’s no secret the department has struggled to prevent and correct mistakes and hold people accountable for misconduct under the traditional management model. The mayor said the current plan is to conduct a narrow national search for a permanent superintendent, preferably one with experience monitoring a police reform agreement.

Reaction on Medina’s appointment was mixed. Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said members of the reform coalition were disappointed with his appointment as permanent chief – not because of 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.”

But multiple city councilors told the Journal they would vote to confirm him, which they did unanimously Monday. Councilor Pat Davis said Medina “has earned the right” to do the job, having served capably as interim and that “I think it’s the right choice.”

Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, said the union supports Medina as chief and agrees it’s important to have someone who understands the community, the department, and its history and culture. He said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the new superintendent for reform. But he added that with rock-bottom morale and younger officers looking to get out, “there is significant work to be done internally to assure the rank and file that they can be successful in the profession they’ve chosen as police officers.”

Those comments are of particular concern given the efforts to staff the department adequately. Keller said last week the force is now in the high 900s, and his goal remains 1,200.

So there is no shortage of challenges. But this new approach deserves a chance.

Stanley succinctly summed up the reason for the new structure: “This institutional change gives us a path forward to move the needle on both reform and crime fighting.”

That’s the right goal, and it’s the one Albuquerque residents and the men and women who police our streets deserve. It will be the administration’s job to make sure it happens.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.