APD officers leaving force cite DOJ settlement

APD Sgt Michael Jones holds a briefing in the parking lot of Grace Temple missionary Baptist Church in the early afternoon before officers head out on patrol in the International District in Southeast Albuquerque. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Across the board — Albuquerque police chief Harold Medina, the police union president and some city councilors — say officer dissatisfaction has its roots with the settlement agreement that the city signed with the U.S. Department of Justice.

In 2014, the DOJ concluded a lengthy investigation by finding that Albuquerque police officers have a pattern and practice of using excessive force. The city subsequently entered into the Court Approved Settlement Agreement laying out areas where it needs to reform.

Medina told the Journal in a recent interview that exit interviews with Albuquerque police officers who leave before they reach retirement show a primary reason for their departures is that “they’re very fearful of the DOJ and the discipline that has come down through the DOJ process.”

And Medina said the settlement agreement is impacting the amount of time officers can spend fighting crime on the streets. It dictates an often time-consuming use-of-force investigative process and requires adequate staffing for Internal Affairs force investigations, he added.

In general, staffing at APD has been on an upward trajectory over the past five years, but more officers have left in the past year than in previous years.

Medina said the discipline concerns were “valid for a period of time because discipline was really high.”

“I didn’t agree with how it was rolled out,” he added, noting that the disciplinary policy was revised in July.

At that time APD adjusted the way it disciplines officers for minor infractions — a change Medina said distinguishes misconduct from mistakes.

Albuquerque Police Officers Association president Shaun Willoughby and other officers interviewed said officers were “getting suspended left and right” for minor infractions.

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, defends the settlement agreement.

He said sometimes it is difficult for officers to adjust to a new regimen of discipline “when they are being held accountable for policy violations when in the past they hadn’t been.”

He called the agreement “tremendously” important, and said it dictates policies on use of force as well as administrative rules.

“What this reform is trying to accomplish is to raise the level of professionalism inside the department,” he said. By reforming use-of-force practices, “that’s going to have multiplier effects throughout the department, including protecting the community from crime.”

Internal affairs investigations

Albuquerque City Councilor Brook Bassan, whose District 4 is in the Northeast Heights, said in an interview that she has spoken with constituents who “have given up calling 911, 311, or even 242-COPS.”

“The public is crying out why aren’t you protecting us better, yet we have a consent decree where you can’t do your job (as an officer) because we’re going to investigate every single movement you make.”

Medina acknowledged the challenges of complying with the agreement and responding to calls given APD’s current staffing.

For example, after a use-of-force incident on a call in the Foothills Area Command in early May, the subsequent Internal Affairs investigation tied up the entire swing shift of five officers, some who had to stay as witnesses to the incident. The call that began in the early evening finished about 3 a.m. the next morning, dispatch records show.

“I think the community would be very upset to know” that even a relatively minor use of force such as forcing a suspect’s hand behind his back can trigger an investigation, Medina said. “And just imagine, we just lost that officer, the backup officer and a supervisor for five hours while they do a level one force investigation.”

Even a show of force, such as an officer pulling out a Taser to try to get a suspect to comply, triggers nearly as lengthy an internal investigation even if the Taser is never fired, Medina said.

The settlement agreement also requires that the department have adequate staffing to conduct internal force investigations. And all uses of force are investigated, not just those that generate complaints. In 2020, there were 920 uses of force — ranging from those that cause passing discomfort to fatalities.

“It kills me that I had to assign six more individuals to (use of) force investigations but the settlement agreement said we had to,” Medina said.

Willoughby said the six officers assigned to force investigations came from Field Services Division — the men and women in uniform dispatched to answer calls on city streets. “This disaster is catching up with the APD,” Willoughby said. “They are robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

On Labor Day, the wife of an APD officer who was one of four officers injured in a shootout Aug. 19 with a robbery suspect issued a public statement calling APD staffing “a joke.”

“When my husband was on duty at the time of the shooting, there were only five officers on patrol in my husband’s squad in the Foothills area,” said Tryna Verbeck, wife of officer Mario Verbeck, who was critically injured.

“There are more officers doing non-police work than responding to calls.”

Staffing shortage

Medina issued a written response to Verbeck’s statement, saying he has expressed concerns to the independent monitor hired to oversee compliance with the DOJ agreement.

“The pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction where officers do not feel supported, or that they can do their jobs effectively and safely in all situations,” he stated.

“At the same time,” Medina added, “we can’t simply move every officer to patrol the streets.”

In an interview with the Journal, Medina said there is no wiggle room when it comes to the settlement agreement. “I don’t have the authority to defy a court order,” he stated in the written response to Verbeck’s statement.

Over the past seven years the city has struggled with compliance in different aspects, and more recently dipped overall in terms of how it was doing in completing the DOJ agreement.

In May the independent monitor overseeing the reform effort took the city to task for having an “aversion” to discipline.

Regarding staffing, the department hit a low point of 821 officers at one point in 2016 and since then says it has been adding more officers than have left each year. But the current number of sworn officers is 939, far below the 1,140 authorized strength funded in this year’s city budget.

Medina recently asked a private consultant to reassess APD’s staffing levels by considering the hours consumed by each Internal Affairs force investigation, the homicide numbers and the city’s crime rate.

Medina laments the loss of some departing officers, but adds that “without a doubt there are some people leaving that it’s probably a good thing if we’re going to get the department reformed.”

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