Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
As Use of Force investigations continue to be a sore spot at the Albuquerque Police Department, there are now about 553 cases – 83% of a burgeoning backlog – where even if an officer is found to have used force improperly he or she cannot be disciplined.
In his latest report covering February through the end of July, the independent monitor overseeing the APD reform effort roasted investigators, supervisors and leadership for the backlog, saying that for the past two reporting periods there has been “a virtual shut down of use of force investigations” in the Internal Affairs Force Division.
Out of 216 level 2 use of force cases – those resulting in injury or expected to cause injury – opened during the reporting period, only seven had been closed as of when the report was written and only one was closed within 90 days as is required by the settlement agreement. For the 91 level 3 cases – resulting in serious injury or death – only two were closed.
“Given the amount of focus on the problems related to IAFD (Internal Affairs Force Division) investigations in previous monitor’s reports, and the exceptional amounts of technical assistance provided by the monitoring team relating to IAFD processes, we can only conclude that this new backlog was intentional, and yet another canard designed to ensure that officers are not disciplined for known policy violations,” James Ginger wrote in the report. “We consider this another example of deliberate non-compliance exhibited by APD.”
By and large, city and APD officials – including Police Chief Harold Medina and superintendent of police reform Sylvester Stanley – don’t dispute the data, but they do take issue with the way it’s presented. The police department has been in the midst of reforms since 2014 when a Department of Justice investigation found officers had a practice of using excessive force against residents.
“Using that inflammatory hyperbolic language is improper editorializing in a whole lot of areas,” said City Attorney Esteban Aguilar. “It improperly ascribes intent to the work of our officers, the women and men who are on the ground, trying to not only keep us safe, but trying to implement all of the provisions of constitutional community based policing.”
Aguilar also pointed out that many of the fixes APD is trying had not yet taken effect when the reporting period ended.
For instance, the city and the DOJ agreed that APD should bring in an outside team of investigators to oversee force investigations. The idea was launched as a way for the city to stave off being put in receivership for non-compliance with the Court Approved Settlement Agreement laying out the reforms. A stipulated order establishing the team was filed in February and then it took a number of months to request proposals and choose a contractor, Aguilar said. He said he does not anticipate the backlog continuing to grow now that the team is in place.
“We have failures, you know, we still have … 37% operational compliance to attain, so we do have a long way to go,” Aguilar said. “But we’re not at the beginning of this process. And, I think it does a disservice to the work of the department, but also the work of the community members who have been engaged in this process, and who have been actually asking for meaningful change as well, because we’ve been walking with them step by step throughout this process.”
Last fall, APD Forward – a coalition of police reform advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico – was one of the stakeholders to ask for the city to be held in contempt of court and to be put under a receivership.
Barron Jones, a senior policy strategist with the ACLU, said after reading the report, it’s clear that APD still has a lot of work to do.
“Unfortunately it’s more of the same,” Jones said. “While we recognize the department’s efforts to improve training and that the performance metric unit is up and helping folks analyze trends we believe that the crux of the reform lies in the department’s ability to address bad behavior, or out of policy violations. That doesn’t seem to be happening yet during another monitor report.”
Jones said right now it’s unclear what APD Forward will do in response to the report.
Although Ginger was incensed by the use of force investigation backlog – which he pointed out at 667 was more than double a previous backlog APD worked through from 2018 to 2020 – Medina said it was expected since the solutions, namely the External Force Investigative Team, weren’t yet in place.
Medina said it’s easy for someone who is “thousands of miles away” to point at APD’s problems and say it’s intentional, but in fact everyone is working to comply in the best way they can.
“It’s a matter that we don’t know how to do stuff to their liking, or to their standards,” Medina said. “I think that’s been a problem from the very beginning is that instantly when APD fails, they’re tagged by the monitoring team, DOJ, as ‘Oh, APD is resisting this.’ No, you guys are all here because APD sometimes doesn’t know how to do this stuff. And that’s what we should be doing is if we’re doing it wrong, correct us more quickly, and give us the lag time to put the fixes in place.”
Other things of note in the Monitor’s Fourteenth Report:
— After backsliding during the previous monitoring period, APD has regained compliance in a handful of paragraphs, for a slight overall increase.
APD stayed static in primary compliance – regarding the development of policies – and secondary compliance – regarding training of officers on those policies – with 100% and 82% respectively. In operational compliance – whether officers are following policies and being corrected when they don’t – the department reached 62%, which is a 3 percentage point increase over the previous period.
“These data depict an organization that is willing to ‘chip away’ at the margins, completing expeditiously tasks that improve efficiency – and even effectiveness – but steadfastly refusing to make meaningful reform to processes involving use of force, excessive use of force, the processes of police-community interactions on the street, supervision, command, and discipline,” Ginger wrote.
Deputy Chief of Compliance Cori Lowe said there were a few paragraphs that APD officials requested the monitor re-evaluate after they read the draft report.
“We thought that we were in higher compliance levels than what we were given,” she said. “And in all fairness, the monitoring team did take those into consideration and did move a few paragraphs into higher compliance and what he originally had.”
— As in the previous report, the monitor praised the Force Review Board, made up of APD command staff and others, for “strong attendance and engagement.”
“We continue to see referrals generated to address policy, supervision, tactic, equipment, and training deficiencies,” the monitor wrote. “In some cases, FRB made requests for internal affairs investigations for misconduct they identified during their deliberations.”
However, Ginger cautioned, the backlog of use of force cases could negatively impact the effectiveness of the FRB and the long-term influence it has over officers in the field.
— The training academy, which had received low marks in the prior report, has made “meaningful progress” this year, including by completing the 2021 Firearms training cycle, Ginger wrote.
“APD Recruitment staff continue to develop strategies and concepts for recruiting new police officers during the Pandemic,” he wrote.
“In addition, at a time when interest in the profession is down significantly nationwide, the APD Recruiting unit has managed to increase interest in APD by utilizing digital platforms to reach an applicant pool that now includes at least 43 states.”