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In a marked departure from his recent findings, the independent monitor overseeing the Albuquerque Police Department reforms wrote in his latest report that he saw – “perhaps for the first time” – a serious willingness to identify and correct behavior that is counter to the effort.
Also for the first time, the chief and his top brass have articulated an end date to the process.
In an interview Thursday, Police Chief Harold Medina said their goal is that the department will be in full compliance with the Court Approved Settlement Agreement in two years. The agreement made between the city of Albuquerque and the Department of Justice in 2014 lays out the requirements for reforming APD after DOJ investigators found officers had a pattern and practice of using excessive force.
“We may not meet that goal, and we could get criticized later that we didn’t meet our goal,” Medina said. “But we’re going to set the goal … . We’re going to believe in ourselves and we’re going to try our best. If, two years from now, we recognize we need one more period, well, you know what, it’s a whole lot better than anybody else has done.”
In the latest reporting period – which spans from August 2021 through January 2022 – independent monitor James Ginger found APD has attained the highest levels of compliance yet, and improved over recent years in which it had backslid. Independent Monitor Report (IMR) 15 was released Wednesday.
“APD has shown significant performance increases in training effectiveness, and performance in the field has improved somewhat,” Ginger wrote in the report. “In the monitor’s experience, training nearly always leads the way in organizational development and planned change processes.”
APD is now at 99% secondary compliance – regarding the training of officers – and 70% operational compliance – regarding whether officers are following policies and being corrected when they don’t. That’s a 20.7% and 12.9% respective increase over the previous reporting period.
The paragraph involving supervisor training is the only one still lacking in secondary compliance.
APD has been at 100% primary compliance since the 10th report, in October 2019, meaning all of required policies and procedures are in place.
The monitor had been harshly critical of the department in 2020 and 2021, saying it was failing to police itself and conduct thorough investigations into officers’ use of force.
The Internal Affairs Force Division (IAFD) allowed a backlog of 667 cases to form, meaning that, even if investigators found officers hadn’t followed policies, they couldn’t be disciplined because the deadlines had passed.
That changed in July 2021 when an outside group called the External Force Investigation Team (EFIT) was brought on to train APD’s force investigators and ensure cases were being investigated within 90 days. Since EFIT started its work, no new cases have been added to the backlog. A federal judge has signed off on a plan to allow the EFIT to continue its work and also to review the backlog cases.
Medina said the latest monitor’s report was “great news” and he was very happy about it.
“I think that it goes to show that, you know, sometimes you’ve got to give a team a little bit of time to transition and to change,” Medina said, referring to the EFIT and IAFD teams.
Both Medina and Ginger pointed to new leaders at the police academy who were hired in the spring and summer of 2021. Medina also said he thought the department had done a better job recently of delegating aspects of the reform effort to different staff.
“One of the things that always hurt us is the lack of resources, and you run out of time in the day,” he said. “The way this has been developed by the administration is giving specific tasks and not overloading people so that they’re able to accomplish more.”
As for gains in operational compliance, Deputy Chief Cori Lowe said that, after the monitor provided a draft report, APD provided feedback on paragraphs it thought should be considered in compliance according to the settlement agreement. She said the monitor took that into account, thought about it and gave them more paragraphs in operational compliance.
“We will continue to stand up for our department where we think it’s necessary and, you know, to explain ourselves,” Medina said. “We don’t want to be confrontational about it … but it is imperative that we explain ourselves and they take into account our explanations.”
While the tone of the latest report was much softer than in previous ones, Ginger cautioned that critical issues remain.
“Supervision continues to be a significant problem with APD’s compliance efforts,” he wrote. “Further, APD’s disciplinary practices continue to show artifacts of disparate treatment, indicating that personnel at times receive dissimilar discipline instead of based on offense and prior history, which should be the touchstone of effective discipline.”
He said that the quality of writing and accuracy of investigations has improved greatly since EFIT came to town, which, in turn, streamlines reviews of use of force and investigations by upper level staff.
“However, optimism should be tempered by recognition of administrative and cultural obstacles that persist,” Ginger wrote. “Eventually, EFIT will pass oversight responsibilities back to APD, which will test APD’s ability to sustain the obvious progress made with day-to-day external oversight.”
Barron Jones, senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, reiterated this sentiment and pointed out that APD was able to improve so much because it had outside help. ACLU is a member of the APD Forward coalition of advocates for police reform.
“While we really appreciate and applaud the progress made during this reporting period, we do want to highlight that this progress came after a huge amount of additional resources had to be put into APD so they could bring up the use-of-force investigations,” Jones said.