DOJ unveils changes to how future consent decrees are monitored

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

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The Department of Justice is taking steps to ensure that future consent decrees laying out police reforms will be monitored differently than those that are already underway.

The changes will not automatically impact the city of Albuquerque’s court-mandated reform effort, although Mayor Tim Keller said his administration “will approach the U.S. District Court in New Mexico to ensure the same standards are applied to (the Albuquerque Police Department’s) settlement agreement.”

At the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual meeting on Monday, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that monitoring teams hired by cities to oversee a consent decree will now be subject to – among other things – budget caps, termination hearings after five years, assessment tools and standardized training. The teams will be barred from monitoring more than one city at a time.

The changes were born from a review undertaken by Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the use of monitors in civil settlement agreements and consent decrees with state and local governmental entities.

“The department has found that – while consent decrees and monitorships are important tools to increase transparency and accountability – the department can and should do more to improve their efficiency and efficacy,” said Attorney General Garland. “The Associate Attorney General has recommended – and I have accepted – a set of 19 actions that the department will take to address those concerns.”

Gupta said consent decrees have been vital tools in upholding the rule of law and promoting transformational change.

“The department must do everything it can to guarantee that they remain so by working to ensure that the monitors who help implement these decrees do so efficiently, consistently, and with meaningful input and participation from the communities they serve,” she added.

According to a news release, within the next 90 days, Gupta and Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke in the Civil Rights Division will begin working with stakeholders to develop a set of monitor training materials and tools.

In Albuquerque, police and city officials praised the changes.

The city signed its Court Approved Settlement Agreement with the United States in 2014 after a lengthy DOJ investigation found officers had a pattern and practice of using excessive force on citizens. The investigation came on the heels of several high-profile shootings that resulted in large settlements.

Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, said the Keller administration has been meeting with DOJ officials for months and working with the Major Cities Chiefs Association “to outline several concerns about (the) existing process used by the DOJ to monitor the Albuquerque Police Department.”

“For example, the Keller administration highlighted the exorbitant cost paid by Albuquerque taxpayers for the work of out-of-state monitors who oversee APD’s reform process,” Gallegos said.

As of February 2021, Dr. James Ginger, who, along with his team, oversees the reform effort and evaluates the city’s progress on the Court Approved Settlement Agreement, has been paid $7.5 million since 2015.

He is barred from talking to the media and did not respond to requests for comment. DOJ attorneys involved in the settlement agreement also did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, Keller said he appreciated the Attorney General for listening to the city’s concerns and for “making changes to reflect the realities we’re facing.”

“In this city, we want to make reforms that are actually meaningful to our local communities rather than out-of-state consultants,” Keller said. “I believe that Albuquerque has what it takes to do that while supporting our officers, tackling crime and making our city safer for people from all walks of life.”

Gallegos did not respond to questions about which reforms Keller was implying were not meaningful to the community.

Barron Jones, a senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said “we all want to see the day when the monitor is no longer needed, and when our police department is the professional and trustworthy department the community deserves.”

“But, of course, that day is not here yet,” he added.

As for cost, Jones pointed out that, prior to the settlement agreement, the city was routinely paying out high-dollar settlements in lawsuits against the police department for excessive force. In the years leading up to the DOJ’s investigation and the settlement agreement, the city had spent at least $28 million on officer misconduct lawsuits. City attorneys have said that, since the reforms began, they are no longer seeing the same kinds of lawsuits.

“What we do know is the reform process is very costly; it costs money to bring departments into compliance with constitutional policing,” Jones said.

Furthermore, he said he worries that, if there were time limits on how long a city could be under monitoring, those who want to resist the effort would just “wait it out.”

The administration’s comments about the monitor and the reforms he is pushing are in contrast to those made months ago.

As recently as February, City Attorney Esteban Aguilar defended Ginger against those who said he was “changing the goalposts” or “prolonging the process for his own financial gain.”

“He’s an officer of the court, he represents the judge, and he is the eyes and ears. So he has a responsibility to accurately portray that information and communicate that,” Aguilar said at the time.

Gallegos also did not respond to questions about whether the city’s view of the monitor has changed.

“Nobody has suggested we are done with the reform process,” he said instead. “Chief (Harold) Medina has emphasized that a lot of progress has been made, but not necessarily acknowledged in monitoring reports. Nevertheless, Chief Medina has been candid about the need for continuous reform of our processes to ensure culture change is here to stay. Chief Medina has also highlighted many areas where the monitoring process has stifled his ability as Chief to put more resources toward fighting crime.”

In a statement, Medina said APD has made “tremendous progress” in changing the culture in the department.

“But the public also deserves a fully staffed police department that has the resources to focus on fighting crime,” he said. “The pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction where officers do not feel supported. We need the local flexibility to ensure we can balance fighting crime while protecting the rights of all citizens.”

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