To paraphrase Winston Churchill in the autumn of 1942 after the British victory in Egypt, the latest U.S. Department of Justice report isn’t the end of oversight of the Albuquerque Police Department but may be the beginning of the end.
After years of scathing reports that APD has steadfastly opposed recommendations, the court-appointed independent monitor overseeing the reforms writes he saw — “perhaps for the first time” — a serious willingness to identify and correct behaviors. It was a marked improvement after eight years of DOJ oversight that has burdened the department to the point of keeping cops off the street.
Independent Monitor Report 15 — yes, the 15th — says APD has attained its highest levels of compliance yet. The department was 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 respective increases of 20.7% and 12.9% over the previous reporting period.
APD has been at 100% primary compliance, meaning all the required policies and procedures are in place, since the 10th report in October 2019.
The latest report from independent monitor James Ginger was such a departure from previous reports that Police Chief Harold Medina has set a goal of full compliance with the Court Approved Settlement Agreement in two years. APD has made significant gains in curtailing uses of force, investigating excessive uses of force with an Internal Affairs Force Division, and eliminating backlogs that let rogue officers skate because deadlines had passed. Even Ginger notes APD has greatly improved the quality and accuracy of its investigations, improved police-community interactions and put new leaders in place at its police academy.
But there’s a flip side to all this. While DOJ oversight was absolutely warranted to root out a cowboy culture with a pattern and practice of abusing use of force, in the eight years since arriving the feds’ heavy hand has also damaged department morale and endangered public safety by making APD shift too many personnel from crime fighting to paper-pushing.
“We have more cops investigating cops on this department than we have investigating any criminal element,” Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, told KOAT-TV in 2019. To say we missed the sweet spot on reform is an understatement. The DOJ’s oversight of APD has been a case study in how to drive police officers — bad and good — out of the profession.
That said, crime fighting might be finally getting back on track. APD recently reported of the 47 homicide cases in the city this year, 23 have been solved, as well as 13 homicides prior to 2022. “This is one of the rare times we are arresting more people than new cases are coming our way,” says Deputy Commander Kyle Hartsock, who credits advances in technology, better investigative training and working with prosecutors for the surge of homicide clearances. Tips from the public have also been a factor.
In 2021, the clearance rate was 53%; it was 60% in 2020 and 65% in 2019.
APD had faced multiple high-cost lawsuits in such cases as the death of homeless schizophrenic camper James Boyd, and while it’s clear progress has been made the department must remain vigilant about ensuring all members of its force follow the new procedures. Specialized units have been created to answer calls where mental health may be an issue, as well as when social services are more appropriate than police response.
Predictably, even in the face of a much improved report No. 15, Ginger doesn’t want to give up the job that’s paid him more than $10 million. He says any optimism for ending the DOJ oversight “should be tempered by recognition of administrative and cultural obstacles that persist.” Medina believes those issues can be addressed. Calls for Ginger to stay should be tempered with his $1 million-plus-a-year city taxpayer-funded check. Sending him packing could be the single greatest reform to APD today.
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.