It’s not that long ago that the administration of Mayor Tim Keller pronounced itself a partner willing to work closely with monitor James Ginger in implementing a reform agreement for the Albuquerque Police Department that, at this point, has seven years and millions of dollars in the rear-view mirror.
While it might be too strong to call it a “love fest,” the mayor in 2018 did have a kumbaya moment in which he pledged to embrace both crime-fighting and reform.
Suffice it to say, things have not gone all that well.
First, crime continues to be rampant. There is routine gunplay in the streets. Many businesses shutter their doors at dusk or no longer accept cash. We have had more than 100 homicides in 2021, blowing away the previous record of 80. APD remains short-staffed, and filling the ranks is an ongoing struggle.
Then there is Ginger, who has APD squarely in his sights. In his most scathing report to date, he accuses APD of “steadfastly refusing to make meaningful reform.”
And that incendiary charge, which raises the specters of obstruction and conspiracy, seems to ignore significant improvements by APD in many areas — 100% compliant in policy creation, 82% in training and 62% in operational.
The monitor was particularly irked by the backlog of more than 550 use-of-force cases that had not been investigated. Ginger is correct that the backlog is unacceptable.
But he goes far beyond stating that fact and writes “given the amount of focus on the problems related to IAFD (Internal Affairs Force Division) investigations in previous monitors’ reports, and the exceptional amounts of technical assistance provided by monitoring team, … we consider this another example of deliberate non-compliance exhibited by APD.”
So, there it is. Ginger is accusing the city and APD of deliberately finding ways NOT to hold cops accountable.
And that claim raised the hackles of Police Chief Harold Medina and City Attorney Esteban Aguilar. “Using that inflammatory, hyperbolic language is improper editorializing in a whole lot of areas,” Aguilar said. “It improperly ascribes intent to the work of our officers, the women and men who are on the ground, trying not only to keep us safe, but also to implement all of the provisions of constitutional community-based policing.”
Medina added “it’s easy for someone” who is “thousands of miles away” to say the problems at APD are intentional, but he emphasized all are working in the best way possible to comply.
A city contingent that, in addition to Medina and Aguilar, included Reform Superintendent Sylvester Stanley and Deputy Chief Cori Lowe told the Journal Editorial Board that Ginger’s blistering report covered the period of February through July and didn’t take into account the new external investigative unit — the External Force Investigative Team — that started work in July. They say the work of that unit, consisting of three teams, plus a beefed-up Internal Affairs Force review operation, has kept the backlog from growing and allows fixes in procedure in real time. “We have failure, 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 and community members who have been engaged in this process,” he said of Ginger’s blast.
More than a year ago, Keller laid blame for the slow pace of reform at the feet of former Chief Michael Geier, whom Keller appointed after he was elected to his first term, then fired in September 2020. Geier said the monitor’s approach was too harsh, made officers collateral damage and hurt morale throughout the department.
Well, that doesn’t sound all that different than Aguilar and Medina sound now — even as they pledge to make constitutional policing work in Albuquerque.
At the same time — and it’s worth noting that the mayor and his Chief Administrative Officer, Sarita Nair, have been noticeably silent on the current combative relationship between the administration and Ginger — the public deserves to know how and when the backlog will be cleared. Even if officers have left or can’t be disciplined, a determination is appropriate.
While that makes sense, the renewed calls for U.S. District Judge James Browning to take the extraordinary step of appointing a receiver for APD do not. It’s a rarely invoked tool, and APD clearly has made enough strides to make it both unnecessary and damaging. We no longer see the streams of abuse from such units as SWAT and the Repeat Offender Project unit that led to high-profile abuses.
As Medina pointed out, we still need police officers on the street and listening to the community at large makes that clear. They need the right priorities, the right procedures and the right training. But it won’t do much good to call a lawyer when somebody is kicking down your door. You want a police officer.
It’s also true that the Justice Department under President Biden has acknowledged the difficulty and burdens imposed by these reform agreements nationally, and implemented new review procedures going forward. According to the city, Ginger isn’t interested in exploring that avenue since there is no requirement for retroactivity.
What is clear is that the situation has reached a critical point. On the one hand, we have more detectives investigating cops than we have on the homicide unit. On the other, some advocates are clamoring for a receiver. Harsh language and accusations are being tossed around in a way that likely will make things worse. It will be up to Browning to decide how to move forward — with options ranging from the extremes of receivership to replacing Ginger.
But we do know this. The citizens of Albuquerque are entitled to policing. And it needs to be constitutional policing. We’ve made progress, and we can get there. But we need to lower the temperature.
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.