Editorial: DOJ reform process ready for a do-over - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: DOJ reform process ready for a do-over

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

– Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina

Struggling with a frightening epidemic of violent crime and an understaffed department that has lost more than 100 officers already this year, Medina and his boss, Mayor Tim Keller, argue it’s time to make some modifications to the way the settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the monitor who oversees it is working on the mean streets of Albuquerque.

Where the present annual homicide total has already eclipsed the previous annual record. Where we have clerks at sandwich and smoke shops shooting people who hold them up at gunpoint. A city where we have a 65-year-old woman who was robbed in a park saying in a public post she bought a gun for the first time, and a German shepherd dog, and signed up for a home security service.

Medina and Keller both believe we need constitutional policing. And we do. But at the core of that we need policing. Period. On a Sunday evening in early June, an APD dispatch supervisor sent an urgent message to the only lieutenant on duty: No officers were available to respond to calls in the city. Response times in general are unacceptable. So is police presence.

The police union says too many officers face discipline for minor infractions. Medina says too many are tied up for hours on investigations for even minor use of force. He said a major reason cited in exit interviews by officers who leave before retirement is they are “very fearful of the DOJ and the discipline that has come down through the DOJ process.”

Officers who could be on patrol or working property crimes are assigned to internal affairs. Despite bonuses and other efforts, APD is at least 200 officers short of its budgeted level of 1,140. APD had 369 patrol officers in July – down 74 from 2016. There are other factors. Officer shortages are a national problem in the age of “defund the police” and a new civil rights act in New Mexico making it easier to sue cops in state court.

Northwest Albuquerque City Councilor Cynthia Borrego is right when she says “crime is unacceptable in Albuquerque. People are living in fear.” And her opponent in next month’s election, former Councilor Dan Lewis, is right when he says people want to see “patrol cars and badges.”

So yes, Medina and Keller are right when they say it’s time for changes – a need emphasized last week as U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland rolled out plans for future monitoring that would cap expenses, impose time limits and scale back oversight as progress is made.

But it’s also important to remember the historical context that led to APD’s settlement agreement and monitoring.

There is no question the Albuquerque Police Department was in desperate need of reform in 2014 when the Department of Justice hammered it for a “pattern or practice of use of excessive force, including deadly force.”

And there is no question impetus for change had to come from the outside. APD was simply not capable of addressing its own abuses. The “cowboy” culture embraced by too many in the department, especially in specialty units like SWAT and the infamous Repeat Offender Program (ROP), simply ran too deep. It was too ingrained.

A few of the most outrageous examples:

• The fatal shooting of mentally ill James Boyd in the Sandia Foothills in March of 2014. Dozens of officers were dispatched for a standoff for what amounted to homeless camping.

• The shooting of Kenneth Ellis III, an Iraq War veteran, in 2010 after a standoff in which Ellis was holding a gun to his own head.

• The shooting death of Lt. Col. Armand Martin by SWAT in May 2014 after a six-hour standoff at his Ventana Ranch home. Police had responded to a domestic incident but Martin, 50, was alone in the house after officers arrived. He suffered from depression and told officers he just wanted to take his medicine and go to sleep. Officers fired flash bangs and tear gas into the home. Martin came out firing two pistols and was shot dead.

This list could go on, but you get the point. A “cowboy” culture. Excessive force coupled with structural and systemic deficiencies including insufficient oversight, inadequate training and ineffective policies.

The argument Medina and Keller are making now boils down to this: Seven years and more than $26 million into the DOJ monitoring process, we have made significant progress and need to modify the oversight in a way that both guards against the kinds of abuses outlined above and lets us put enough officers on the street to respond to crime and empower them to discourage criminal activity.

Keller says his administration has been talking to the DOJ in Washington for several months and will ask for some relief. “We want to make reforms that are actually meaningful to our local communities rather than out-of-state consultants,” he said. “I believe 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.”

History would show that’s easier said than done, but Medina sums up what the focus should be: “We need the local flexibility to ensure we can balance fighting crime while protecting the rights of all citizens.”

And it will take some changes for that to happen.

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.

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