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In contrast to previous hearings, the adjective “optimistic” or sometimes the more tempered “cautiously optimistic” were a recurring refrain at a federal court hearing on Tuesday regarding the latest developments in the yearslong case reforming the Albuquerque Police Department.
“What I will say – from our observations of the DOJ team – is that we see that there are champions of reform within the Albuquerque Police Department. I believe that now there are more folks than there have been in the past …,” said Paul Killebrew, deputy chief over the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. “We also see that those champions of reform are growing and developing the next generation of leaders at APD. So, those are all promising developments.”
But “it’s fragile. We need to make sure that these trends continue,” he added.
In recent months, APD has had some wins when it comes to reforms.
Last month, the city reached an agreement with the DOJ to suspend the monitoring of about a quarter of the paragraphs in the Court Approved Settlement Agreement – nicknamed the CASA. Those paragraphs had all been in operational compliance for more than five years.
Mayor Tim Keller announced the development at his State of the City address.
And the latest report by the independent monitor overseeing the effort, released in May, highlighted gains APD made from August 2021 through January 2022. APD has achieved its highest levels of compliance, with 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.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Chief Administrative Officer Lawrence Rael said “there is an end in sight to this reform.”
“We are now beginning to see that the morale in this department is starting to lift,” he said. “That the work that the department has done from every level of the department – from the chief’s office to the rank-and-file officer in the field – that the reform is taking place and taking hold. That’s really important. It’s good for Albuquerque and our community. But it’s especially important for this department to continue to move forward.”
‘Gentle pressure relentlessly applied’
A total of 276 paragraphs in the CASA dictate what reforms APD must make, ranging from how it investigates officers using force to the creation of a Mental Health Response Advisory Committee and a Civilian Police Oversight Agency. An independent monitor and his team evaluate the city’s progress in twice-yearly reports and present their findings in court hearings before U.S. District Court Judge James Browning.
In prior reports, monitor James Ginger had been scathing in his assessment of APD – criticizing the quality of use-of-force investigations and what he called a “counter CASA” attitude among lieutenants and sergeants.
In late 2020 and early 2021, the Internal Affairs Force Division essentially stopped investigating new cases, creating a backlog of 667 cases where, even if an officer was found to have violated policy, discipline was not possible.
In July 2021, the city brought in the External Force Investigation Team (EFIT) to oversee and train Internal Affairs Force Division detectives. Since then, no new cases have been added to the backlog and all cases have been completed within the required deadlines.
EFIT is now also investigating cases in the backlog. Of 20 cases that have been investigated so far, all were found to be within policy, according to EFIT’s administrator.
All parties at Tuesday’s hearing – DOJ attorneys, city administration, the monitoring team and interested community groups – seemed to agree that EFIT was having a beneficial effect on APD.
However, they stressed it’s a temporary solution and there is some concern for what happens after the contract is completed.
Shortly after the latest report was released, Chief Harold Medina told the Journal that the city has a goal of completing the CASA requirements in two years.
In court, the DOJ attorneys and Ginger agreed that this was possible.
Ginger – saying “I hate to throw water on the parade” – cautioned that, after the city gets into full compliance, it has to maintain that standing for two years.
“That, in my experience, has been when things are the toughest …,” Ginger said. “I know APD has put a great deal of effort into this process, they’ve hired a great deal of external talent, which is has made a big difference in this process. But that gentle pressure relentlessly applied is what will carry them over the finish line. And I want everybody to be cognizant of that.”
Deadly fire clouds hearing
Hanging over the hearing was the death of 15-year-old Brett Rosenau in a house fire during a SWAT standoff earlier this month. The case occurred after the reporting period, but many of the speakers referenced it and expressed condolences to his family.
The cause of the fire is still being investigated, but Medina has acknowledged that gas canisters SWAT team members launched into the house may have started it.
While Peter Cubra, an advocate for police reform, said the deadly fire – along with 10 instances this year where APD officers shot at someone, eight where that person was hit – continues to trouble him, the city attorney and the attorney for the union pushed back, saying not all the facts were in yet.
City needs ‘durability and stability’
In the spring of 2021, Mayor Keller nominated Medina as chief of police and a department outsider, Sylvester Stanley, as superintendent of police reform – a newly created position that oversees the reform effort, the academy, internal affairs and officer discipline.
Stanley retired at the end of the year and deputy chief Eric Garcia has been filling the position on an interim basis while the city conducts a search. In April, the city announced it had selected a candidate, but, a little over a week later, it rescinded her nomination.
The position is not required in the CASA, but Killebrew stressed that it was important for the city to have “durability and stability.” Numerous speakers – including the amicii groups and the judge – raised questions about the position.
In response to questions during Wednesday’s news conference, Rael said the city is evaluating the structure of the job and could be changing its function to “provide more long-term sustainability.”
Automatic video downloads
APD’s progress on the reform effort has apparently already had a beneficial effect on recruiting and retaining officers.
The department has experienced 23% fewer officer retirements, resignations and terminations so far this year than it had at this time in 2021, according to an APD spokesman. There are now 885 officers on the force, he said.
And Medina told Judge Browning there had been an uptick in applicants from other police departments since the mayor announced a portion of the CASA would be self-monitored.
He also explained the department is experimenting with changes to handling investigations into the lowest levels of force. A pilot program in two area commands has taken such investigations out of the hands of field supervisors and assigned trained investigators so as to not over-tax sworn personnel.
After realizing that a third of all investigations involve officers not turning on their lapel cameras or downloading videos, APD got new technology that automatically starts downloading when an officer is at a city facility.