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Police union won’t be held in contempt over billboards

The Pete V. Domenici federal courthouse. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal file)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Neither the city nor the U.S. Department of Justice asked for the police union to be held in contempt during an all-day hearing in federal court Wednesday, thwarting the wishes of advocacy groups who had expressed concerns about the union’s opposition to reforms at the Albuquerque Police Department.

But the topic came up frequently as Judge James Browning asked various stakeholders what they thought about the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association campaign asking citizens to tell city leaders that “Crime Matters More” than “endless DOJ oversight.”

The city is in the midst of a yearslong reform process laid out in the Court Approved Settlement Agreement, referred to as the CASA, after a DOJ investigation found officers had a pattern and practice of using excessive force.

City of Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair said the union’s campaign fell flat. DOJ attorneys said they respected the union’s First Amendment right to free speech. And Independent Monitor James Ginger – who writes biannual reports on the process – called the idea that crime is rising because effort is diverted to the reforms “a union canard.”

“We’ve talked about the counter-CASA effect in Albuquerque for years and years, and it is still alive and well,” Ginger said. “This latest process from the union is just another piece of counter-CASA. The union would like us out of town, I’m sure, and remember this monitoring team – as much as we love Albuquerque – would be glad to be done with the job. But we’re not going to give passing scores unless passing scores are earned.”

Nair said that, in the six weeks since the union launched the campaign on social media and billboards, the city has received emails from about 820 individuals. In comparison, she said, when the city asked for input on a recent gas tax measure, 6,600 people wrote in across both sides over the course of three days.

“In terms of what actually happens in the larger context of public input, this was a negligible effort,” Nair said. “I appreciate that they spent, you know, $85 per unique user, but it doesn’t really change the impact. And I believe that seeking sanctions at this point is just going to become a sideshow.”

The union had reported that, as of May 14, almost 10,000 emails had been sent to the city. On social media, it encouraged people to send one every week.

For their parts, APOA president Shaun Willoughby and attorney John D’Amato denied that the campaign or the union was trying to end the settlement agreement or that they are “counter-CASA.”

“Fighting crime in this community and engaging in the reform process are not incompatible,” D’Amato said.

However, in response to questions from Judge Browning, Willoughby acknowledged that he does not believe that the city can be in compliance with the CASA and simultaneously lower crime rates.

“Is it the No. 1 reason for the crime in Albuquerque? No, but it’s a contributing factor,” Willoughby said.

The collective bargaining agreement between the city and the union had been up for renegotiations last summer, but that process was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A city spokeswoman said Wednesday that the two entities are still at the bargaining table and negotiations are confidential while open.

Ginger said that if the city “will actually focus on compliance,” it could be done with the CASA in two to three years.

However, in order to do so, he said the city has to follow the recommendations that the monitoring team has made time and again.

“We’re constantly making the same recommendations over and over and over again,” Ginger said. “Just like this time – 190-plus recommendations. It’s a get-out-of-the-CASA-free card, those 190 recommendations.

“What’s dragging this out, quite frankly, your honor, is a police department not focusing its resources on complying with the CASA,” Ginger added.

Nair pushed back on this idea, saying the city has done a number of things in response to the latest report, which covered the period from August 2020 through January 2021. It has made two new hires for the troubled academy: Jessica Henjy, who started the position of curriculum development manager in May, and Renae McDermott, who will start work as academy commander in July. It also hired Sylvester Stanley as superintendent of police reform and to oversee the Internal Affairs division, the academy and the reforms.

Furthermore, she said, many of the recommendations are easier said than done.

“We also do not have the luxury of believing that moving from reactive to proactive is simple to do or that we need to just buckle down, and that all it takes is to read the report and do what it says,” Nair said. “I’m sure it seems like that from the outside, but there’s a lot of work, and many person hours and millions of dollars that go into these changes.”

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