APD’s use of force increased for 5th straight year

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Albuquerque Police Department SWAT team officers arrive at an apartment complex near the Big I in May 2020 due to reports of a shooter. The incident involved SWAT team officers deploying chemical munitions. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A 7-year-old boy was the youngest person Albuquerque police used force on last year when SWAT team officers reportedly mistook an apartment for that of a suspected shooter and the child and his family were exposed to chemical munitions.

In May 2020, Albuquerque police were called to an apartment complex near the Big I for reports that a man wearing a medical mask and a black sweater was firing a rifle out the window.

No injuries were reported but the scare triggered a multi-agency SWAT team response that shut down the surrounding areas for hours.

By midafternoon, police say officers were narrowing in on a man they believed to be the suspect. They saw him walk up the stairs – apparently carrying a rifle – and into an unknown apartment in building 20.

According to the Albuquerque Police Department’s recently released Preliminary Annual Force Report, personnel talked to a man who said he was inside Building 20 with his family. The man reportedly refused to identify himself or confirm he was not the suspect and hung up the phone and didn’t answer calls.

So APD’s SWAT team – mistaking his apartment for the shooter’s – moved in and used chemical munitions on a family of four, according to the report.

APD spokespersons did not respond to questions about whether any officers were disciplined for this use of force.

The suspected shooter was taken into custody.

What is the Force Report?

APD is required to produce a use of force report each year as part of its settlement agreement with the Department of Justice. An extensive DOJ investigation concluded in 2014 that APD officers had a pattern and practice of using excessive use of force. For the past several years, APD has released the annual reports sporadically. The last one – which spanned 2016 through 2019 – was released in October 2020.

In a news release, Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, cautioned that the 2020 report is preliminary and is based on data produced in March of 2021 for the independent monitor overseeing the reform effort. He said the report will be updated once investigators complete their reviews of all 2020 use of force cases.

The report states that when the data was pulled, 334 force investigations were still pending. It said 586 cases had been closed. Of those 586, only 15 were found to be out of policy.

Highlights of the report

• Officers used force in 920 cases against 951 people in 2020. This is an increase over 2019 when there were 768 cases and they have been rising each year since 2016. The report states that at least part of the increase could be due to better reporting.

• As of Jan. 11, 2020, APD began categorizing force as level 1 (causing only slight pain, disorientation or discomfort or pointing a firearm or less lethal weapon at an individual), level 2 (causing injury or intending to cause injury through less lethal weapons and hand strikes) and level 3 (resulting in serious physical injury, hospitalization or death). About 50% – 468 – of all force cases last year were level 2. There were 288 cases of level 1 force and 141 cases of level 3. There were also five shows of force and 18 uses of force in the 11 days before APD switched to its three-tiered system.

• 81% of individuals were unarmed when force was used against them, while 19% were armed with a weapon.

• The oldest person who had force used against them was 88. No details on the incident were included in the report.

• There were four days of protests last year – from May 29 through July 19 – when force was used. The uses of force include pepper spray, 40 mm less lethal weapons, batons and more. Some events included force being used against as many as 60 people, although the report states that the crowd size is an estimate and many people took off and detectives didn’t interview them. Some of the protests had multiple uses of force deployed over the course of the night.

• Officers fired their guns 18 times last year, but a third of those incidents were accidental discharges. The report states that the increase in accidental shootings was the focus of an in-depth analysis and the data suggests that the majority were “a training issue related to manipulating the weapon during the unloading sequence.”

• Two of the shootings were at animals, one was at a person in a vehicle and the remaining nine were at people.

• As in prior years, the Southeast Area Command saw the most incidents of force – 3.2 cases per every 1,000 calls for service. The next highest was the Southwest Area Command, which saw 3 cases per 1,000.

• The number of arrests decreased 17% in 2020, likely due to the public health orders to lessen the spread of COVID-19.

• Overall calls for service have been declining over all six area commands since 2016. The report notes that many cities across the country saw a decline in calls for service during the pandemic, however in Albuquerque calls had been dropping for some time. One explanation for the decline in calls for service is that the amount of time people are waiting for an officer to arrive has been increasing – reaching a peak in 2019 before declining again in 2020 – and residents may be deciding not to call for “relatively low-level issues.”

Preliminary Annual Force Re… by Albuquerque Journal

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