ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The latest report card on the city’s efforts to reform the Albuquerque Police Department is in, and it’s not good.
It says APD has taken several steps backward in training officers on court-mandated policies and holding them accountable when they mess up.
In fact, in some ways the department is further from completing the process than it was two years ago, according to the report.
So why is APD even in this process?
In 2014 — after a lengthy investigation spurred by years of controversial police shootings and use of force — the Department of Justice found that APD officers had a pattern and practice of using excessive force and of violating citizens’ constitutional rights.
The city and the DOJ entered into a Court Approved Settlement Agreement (colloquially referred to as the CASA) that lays out 276 requirements for APD to follow.
The requirements range from creating the Mental Health Response Advisory Committee of community partners to advise APD to a wide ranging re-vamp of how officers can use force against citizens and how they’ll be disciplined if they use it excessively.
Who tracks whether APD is following the reforms?
The city pays an Independent Monitor — Dr. James Ginger, a former police officer and longtime consultant on similar endeavors — and his team who meet with APD, city officials and stakeholders periodically to assess how the police department is doing. The team puts out 300-plus page reports about twice a year assessing compliance.
APD is judged on whether it has the necessary policies in place, whether it’s training officers and whether officers are being held accountable for not following policies. After years of making progress in each level, APD backslid in the two most recent reports.
Report 12 covered February 2020 through July 2020 and was released in November. The most recent report, 13, covered August 2020 through January 2021 and was released on Monday.
The DOJ and federal Judge James Browning use those reports to determine what steps need to be taken.
For example, after the last scathing report, the DOJ and the city agreed to hire an external investigation team to oversee the work of the Internal Affairs Force Division.
So what did Ginger and his team say in this report?
On controlling Use of Force: “Over the years, the monitoring team has made hundreds of recommendations designed to assist APD in its efforts to reform its use-of-force practices, and, in truth, APD has implemented numerous reform processes. Despite that, however, we continue to see out-of-policy uses of force at APD. More importantly, it continues to be apparent that APD has not had and currently does not have an appetite for taking serious approaches to control excessive or unwarranted uses of force during its police operations in the field.”
On discipline: “In short, APD is willing to go through almost any machination to avoid disciplining officers who violate policy or supervisors who fail to note policy violations or fail to act on them in a timely manner.”
How does APD Chief Harold Medina respond?
“I know everyone wants us — the monitor and the DOJ — they want us to move faster and there’s a frustration. It’s just we’re a huge aircraft carrier in terms of police departments and you just don’t make a turn with the aircraft carrier and immediately turn. It takes us time to be able to navigate these changes and put all the processes in place.”
Medina took over APD on an interim basis in mid-September, a month into the reporting period, and was confirmed to be the chief in March, after the period had ended.
And what do the stakeholders say to that?
“I would buy that argument if you had a staff that was willing and ready and able to turn the aircraft carrier around,” said Robby Heckman, of the police advocacy group APD Forward. “I get it, it’s a big organization but when you add the culture to it … the culture’s just eating the reforms for lunch again.”
So where is APD backsliding the most?
One of APD’s biggest problems over the past year had been training officers on policies related to use of force, crisis intervention and more.
“In short, APD failed to perform its training responsibilities in any reasonable and meaningful way despite warnings from the monitor,” Ginger wrote. “There is no subtle way to express the significance of APD’s failure other than to document here that they have again self-inflicted a loss of compliance because of their lack of attention to basic organizational training needs … it is incomprehensible that the leadership of APD would allow such a lapse of momentum.”
How did this happen?
APD Chief Medina tells the Journal many of the trainings were hampered by COVID-19 and the state’s public health orders, which made gathering and contact scenarios difficult.
He said trainings were initially pushed back a month or so in March 2020 but of course the pandemic stretched on and just as things started to stabilize over the summer there was another big spike in virus cases in the fall, shutting down the state again.
“It’s not an excuse, it’s a fact, that needs to be taken into consideration, because there are some things that weren’t feasible,” he said.
Is there anything good in the report?
APD’s Force Review Board — made up of command staff and members of the city’s administration — was harshly criticized in Ginger’s previous report for signing off on inadequate force investigations.
This time, he was much more complimentary, saying it was “transitioning to a more self-actualizing stance, with some members increasingly willing to question the department’s ‘pattern and practice’ issues.”
Basically, it was clear most members were doing their homework and thinking about how to make changes in the department.
Hasn’t the city hired someone else to get the reform effort back on track?
In early March, Mayor Tim Keller appointed a superintendent of police reform to work on bringing APD into compliance.
Sylvester Stanley, a four-time police chief in New Mexico, oversees the reform effort, internal affairs and the academy, therefore freeing Medina to focus on crime-fighting and recruiting. Stanley was hired after this reporting period had ended.
Medina said he expects by the time the next report is out they will both be answering questions on it.