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The Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association has launched a campaign urging the public to tell city leaders that “crime matters more” and that “they want to focus on the growing crime problem, instead of wasting millions of dollars on endless Department of Justice oversight.”
The city has been under a settlement agreement with the DOJ after a federal investigation found in 2014 that officers had a pattern and practice of using excessive force and violating citizens’ constitutional rights. The investigation was spurred by numerous shootings of people who did not seem to pose a threat. Many of those cases also resulted in high-dollar settlements from lawsuits.
The APOA’s campaign cost $70,000 and involves billboards around the city and testimonials on TV, radio and social media from former Albuquerque Police Department officers “explaining how hard it is to just succeed,” said Shaun Willoughby, the union’s president.
The push includes providing an email template for people to tell leaders they believe in police reform and think APD has made progress but they are “tired of living in a city filled with murder, theft and violence.”
“I’m urging you to fight for this city, stand up to the DOJ, and help us save the city we love, before it’s too late,” the template states.
The campaign comes about seven months before the mayoral election in which crime has already emerged as the biggest issue. Willoughby said the union has not yet considered who it’s going to endorse.
Willoughby stressed that the union is not trying to get the city to end the reform process, but it is asking “for the city of Albuquerque to stand up and support Albuquerque police officers and support common sense reforms that allow our officers to succeed.”
“We’re talking about the bureaucracy of police officers being taken off the street because somebody that was not used force on said ‘ow,’ ” Willoughby said. “And how that impacts this community, our ability to respond to the community and this community’s ability to control crime. Your Albuquerque police officers are terrified that they will lose their job for simply doing their job and it’s not fair.”
In order for the reform process to come to an end, the city has to be in “full and effective compliance” with the Court Approved Settlement Agreement for two years. In the most recent report from the Independent Monitor, the city was at 100% primary compliance – which refers to the creation of policies; 91% secondary compliance – regarding training of officers; and 64% operational compliance – regarding whether officers and supervisors are acting according to procedures and being corrected when they don’t.
Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and a member of the advocacy group APD Forward, said they have seen a lot of benefits of having the DOJ oversight over the past six years.
“We have a much better system for moderating interactions between law enforcement and people who are mentally ill, people who are living on the streets,” Simonson said. “We now have a (SWAT) unit that is operating according to tactical plans, that is much more organized and professional than before the DOJ came to town. We now have a Use of Force policy that probably stands among the better, more rigorous policies in the country.”
But, he said, more work is needed.
“The only unfortunate thing is that so far the department has failed to demonstrate that it can hold officers accountable when they violate internal policies and the union bears a portion of the blame for that…,” Simonson added. “They have found ways to undermine various measures that are required under the consent decree and they have found ways to undermine accountability itself. This is just another example of that.”
Much of Willoughby’s ire seemed directed at the city attorneys – “you don’t need enemies when you have friends like the city attorney” – who he said aren’t supporting officers at the federal court hearings held periodically throughout the year.
“We believe that our community deserves better from this police department,” he said. “We believe our community deserves better from this consent decree process.”
The city attorneys who have been working on the reforms did not respond to questions, but APD Chief Harold Medina said in an interview on Monday that he was pushing back against the DOJ himself. He said Willoughby and union leaders are not always in the room so they might not see what’s happening.
For example: in his last report, Independent Monitor James Ginger repeatedly brought up a case he said “bordered on sadistic” in which an officer could be seen on video shutting a vehicle door on a handcuffed suspect who was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Ginger criticized every level of APD for failing to identify this as a use of force and failing to discipline the officer for it.
Medina said he forwarded the case to the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office and was told there was no basis to charge the officer. He said he then sent that finding on to the DOJ “pushing back basically saying, ‘the monitor says this, the DA’s office says this, have DOJ criminal review it and if it’s as bad as stated, and let’s get this resolved.'”
He also said in 2018 the city gave officers “one of the best (compensation packages) we’ve had in years,” and that police have been getting more new equipment than at any other time in his APD career.
Medina acknowledged that the Internal Affairs process is cumbersome and investigations take time and manpower away from the field. He said he’s brought this up to the DOJ, is trying to find ways for it to be more efficient and is trying to hire civilian investigators to staff the IA division since few police officers want to take on that role.
However, Medina said everything takes time, and policy revisions in particular need to be reviewed by multiple parties before they can be implemented.
In any case, he said, the DOJ isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“Whether it’s me the chief, or somebody else is the chief or this mayor or another administration, they better understand they have to contend with DOJ and they can’t terminate this,” Medina said. “It’s not a contract. It’s a court order.”
Journal staff writer Jessica Dyer contributed to this report.