It hasn’t been unusual for the federal monitor overseeing implementation of the reform agreement governing the Albuquerque Police Department and the union that represents its officers to take verbal potshots at one another. And it hasn’t been unusual for James Ginger, the court-approved monitor, to have harsh words for the upper echelon at APD.
It is, however, unusual to see much in the way of public pushback against Ginger from the administration of Mayor Tim Keller. But there was a bit of that in last week’s hearing before U.S. District Judge James Browning.
So this would be a good time for the mayor to give a full public briefing on exactly where his administration thinks we stand on complying with the agreement, which is keeping cops off the street by allocating officers to its implementation and also costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
The city entered the agreement in 2014 after a Department of Justice investigation found a pattern of excessive force and unconstitutional policing. Without question, APD had too many examples of out-of-control officers, chain-of-command failures and disregard for civil rights.
There is no question APD has made significant progress in use of force. Abuses by units such as the SWAT team and the massive overreaction that led to the death of homeless camper James Boyd appear to have been dealt with. Specialized units are called more often to cases where mental health may be an issue. Yes, there continue to be officer-involved shootings, unavoidable in a city with a major crime problem where drug dealers say they need an arsenal because it’s a “dangerous place.” Each shooting must be thoroughly and fairly investigated.
The question now is, almost seven years and more than $26 million into the reform effort, how close are we to getting a clean bill of law-enforcement health? Based on last week’s hearing, the answer appears to be “not very close.”
Ginger, who city records show has been paid about $10 million from fiscal 2016-2021, told the judge if the city would just buckle down, focus on compliance and follow his recommendations – this report had 190 of them – it could happen in two to three years. “What’s dragging this out, quite frankly, your honor, is a police department not focusing its resources on complying with the court-approved settlement agreement (CASA),” he said.
Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair took issue, saying the city responded to Ginger’s latest report, covering August 2020 to January 2021. Accomplishing many of the recommendations, she said, is not as simple as just buckling down and doing what the report says. “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.”
In the wake of a campaign by the Albuquerque Police Officers Association pushing “Crime Matters More” than “endless DOJ oversight,” Ginger said the idea crime is rising here because effort is diverted to reforms is a “union canard.” In response to a question from Judge Browning, APOA president Shaun Willoughby said, “Is (CASA) the No. 1 reason for the crime in Albuquerque? No, but it’s a contributing factor.”
The city tab is a lot more than just the millions paid to Ginger. Personnel expense for implementation from fiscal ’16 through ’21 is projected around $11 million, as more resources are directed to compliance – something not lost on those who patrol streets. “We have more cops investigating cops on this department than we have investigating any criminal element,” Willoughby told KOAT-TV in 2019 – in a story on parking spaces once allocated to property crimes but now assigned to internal affairs, force investigations and performance review, all DOJ-mandated units.
No one should oppose constitutional policing, but there must be a balance. Do we really need to be investigating officers for uttering a profanity on the radio or eating in the patrol car, as city officials have confirmed is now part of the process?
Keller has been in office nearly four years, and with election season approaching this would be an excellent time for a public accounting on CASA and it’s impact on policing by the city’s chief executive. City residents, buffeted by seemingly endless crime and dueling narratives from the monitor, police union and CAO deserve some honest answers.
Because based on Ginger’s comments, the light at the end of the CASA tunnel is a pinprick. At best.
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.