Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The Albuquerque Police Department has a new backlog problem and it means that even if officers are eventually found to have used excessive force they might not be disciplined for it.
That’s because the internal investigators – in a unit that the department says is understaffed and overworked – are routinely blowing past deadlines.
The latest report by the independent monitor overseeing the reform effort found that as of February, about 60% – 381 – of force investigations that were opened over the past year had not been completed yet. Of those cases more than half had already surpassed the 120-day deadline and an additional 59 cases were more than 90 days old.
The city’s collective bargaining agreement with the police union mandates that investigations be completed within 90 days, with a possible extension up to 120.
“The monitor sees this as simply another ploy to avoid the need to discipline officers for behavior violating APD policy, something for which APD has had exceptional difficulties accumulating the supervisory, managerial, and executive will to do,” independent monitor James Ginger wrote in the report.
In order for the police department to be in compliance with the settlement agreement, 95% of the cases have to be completed within 90 days.
The problem was especially stark over the last reporting period – from August 2020 through January 2021 – when a staggering majority of all but the least serious cases were not completed within 90 days.
Officers are required to report any time they use force and all incidents are investigated, not just those that raise red flags.
Only 1% of the 244 cases causing injury and 4% of the 54 cases causing hospitalization or death were completed in 90 days, according to the report.
As of early February, investigators had not finished investigating any cases that had been opened since September.
Cori Lowe, acting commander of the Internal Affairs Force Division, said investigators have still not closed cases from 2020 and are instead prioritizing current cases.
She said she expects the backlog to continue since the division remains short-staffed and is still being trained. However, she said, most of the time when officers use force it is found to be within policy.
“The vast majority of our use-of-force cases are still in compliance with our policy,” Lowe said. “It’s just that they haven’t been investigated to prove otherwise.”
‘Fractured leadership’ at IAFD
This isn’t the first time APD has had an extensive backlog of use-of-force cases.
In 2019 Internal Affairs investigators used a stack of 300 plus cases whose deadlines for discipline had expired to practice conducting investigations. The monitor and the Department of Justice attorneys praised their work in those cases, but cautioned that they might not be as gung-ho when there could be actual consequences for the officers they investigate.
Since then, in early January 2020, APD re-vamped its use-of-force policies and investigation protocol.
In his latest report, Ginger appeared aghast that APD let a backlog accrue again and that he was not informed that cases had been building up and were no longer being investigated.
He points the finger at poor leadership in IAFD. The unit went through three different lieutenants acting as commanders and deputy commanders, he said.
“To show the fractured leadership and lack of prioritization this critical function receives from APD, none of these three lieutenants were still in IAFD 120 days after October 1,” Ginger wrote. “In fact, even the commander seated in the IAFD position at the close of IMR-13 was there as a temporary duty assignment.”
In an interview last week, APD Chief Harold Medina said he saw this change of leadership as positive since it meant the department was doing its due diligence to find the best fit for the job.
Ultimately Commander Lowe, who used to run APD’s compliance division, took over.
Medina said there were several factors leading to the backlog.
Those include: understaffing in the unit, COVID-19 protocols that led to people working from home and not being as efficient or diligent as they should be, and the enormous amount of time that goes into reviewing on-body video footage from every officer involved in the encounter.
Lowe said there are currently 10 investigators on staff with four more being trained. There are supposed to be 25.
As recently as the first half of last year 90% of cases were being investigated within the deadlines, but the monitor had heavily criticized the quality of those cases.
Medina referenced the monitor’s comments when he said, “Just because they were being done doesn’t mean they were being done correctly.”
Medina said they considered a couple of options to address the staffing shortage in the Internal Affairs Force Division, including forcing officers into the unit – an option he decided against since someone who doesn’t want the job probably wouldn’t do good work.
He said the department decided to hire civilian investigators to work in the unit alongside sworn personnel.
There is $965,000 in the proposed budget to hire 11 civilian investigators, nine who will work in IAFD and two who will investigate civilian employees such as those in dispatch and the crime lab.
“We started with this concept back in late December and really started formalizing it in January,” Medina said. “It just takes time for us to be able to accomplish all these tasks that need to be done in order to set up the positions correctly.”
Lowe said APD had received 17 applications and will likely have to advertise the position again.
These investigators are different from the civilian-run External Force Investigation Team, which the city and the DOJ decided will oversee and evaluate the internal investigators. That team will be led by DLG Accounting Advisory Services based in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
The company will be paid up to $2.7 million and is expected to complete the work by May 2022, according to a contract. The contract still has to be approved by the City Council.
In March the city brought on Sylvester Stanley, a four-time police chief in New Mexico, as the Superintendent of Police Reform to oversee the Academy, training and Internal Affairs.
Police union campaign
When the police union unveiled its “Crime Matters More” campaign last month, it said officers were terrified of being fired for doing their jobs and afraid they would be disciplined just because a suspect said “Ow” while being handcuffed. The union’s campaign asks community members to tell city officials that they are tired of “wasting millions of dollars on endless Department of Justice oversight” and instead want officers to focus on fighting crime.
Although the department is prohibited from disciplining officers for the use of force if the deadline has passed, officers could be disciplined for a myriad of infractions that are spotted through the investigation, like not turning on their camera, not wearing a seat belt or eating in their vehicle.
In 2020 a little more than half of the 187 completed offshoot investigations resulted in investigators finding officers to be out of policy, Lowe said.
Regardless of whether investigations are completed or discipline is imposed, Shaun Willoughby, the president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, said the process takes time away from the officers being on the streets. He said 50% of his workload is spent representing officers in use-of-force cases and he was in between two cases when reached by the Journal on Thursday.
Plus, he said, he’s seen cases where an Internal Affairs investigation found no wrongdoing, then the Force Review Board made up of command staff took another look at it and found it deficient so they ordered more investigation and discipline. He said he has filed several complaints with the labor board about the department disciplining officers after the deadlines.
“The one constant that I have seen over the years of this process is that we’re constantly in a state of backlog,” Willoughby said. “It would behoove everybody in the conversation to identify how to best move forward with any backlog this department is faced with simply due to the constant area of change and constant low staffing that we’re experiencing.”
Robby Heckman, a member of the advocacy group APD Forward, said the union’s concerns about discipline don’t jibe with the monitor’s findings.
“I don’t understand the logic of the officers being so scared of discipline,” Heckman said. “That would imply to me that the department is meting out discipline quite a bit … the community reads the monitor report and that’s certainly not the impression I get.”