Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Although the Albuquerque Police Department continues to make significant gains in the court-ordered reform effort, there have been more shootings by officers this year than during any other – including the years when a Department of Justice investigation found that APD had a pattern and practice of excessive force.
The increase in shootings dominated Tuesday’s hours-long hearing in federal court held via Zoom.
The hearing was held to review the most recent report by the independent monitor overseeing APD’s progress with the Court Approved Settlement Agreement which is meant to curb excessive force. The monitor had found APD had leaped upward in compliance over the past year, reversing a downward trend.
The city and the DOJ also recently inked an agreement for the city to self-monitor and self-assess about a quarter of the 276 requirements in the agreement.
Under the guidance of an outside team, the Internal Affairs Force Division is meeting deadlines in investigations, and overall uses of force have decreased by more than 30% over the past couple of years, according to the monitor’s 16th report, which covered Feb. 1 to July 31.
Furthermore, fewer uses of force are being found to be out of policy.
But there have also been 18 shootings by officers this year, 10 of which were fatal. Last year there were 10, four of which were fatal.
In his statements opening the hearing, Alexander Uballez, the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, said his job “will not be complete until there’s a substantial reduction in police shootings and fatalities.”
Echoing the concerns of other members of community coalitions, Daniel Williams of APD Forward said members of his group had been hoping to hear “concrete actionable steps that the city has taken” to address the increase in shootings by officers but were disappointed.
In his closing remarks, Paul Killebrew, the deputy chief of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, acknowledged the frustrations and said that the DOJ wants to see how the city, APD and the various mechanisms set up by the CASA – including the Civilian Police Oversight Agency, the Mental Health Response Advisory Committee, and the Force Review Board – respond.
“You see a spike in officer involved shootings and it feels like we’ve set back the clock by 10 years,” Killebrew said. “The increase in officer involved shootings is unacceptable.
“It’s clear from what we’ve heard today that it is inconsistent with the community’s values. … So we need to see action from the Albuquerque Police Department and from the groups that I listed out before. From where we sit this is an ongoing crisis. This is an ongoing problem.”
For her part, Taylor Rahn, an attorney on contract with the city, urged the court and the public to wait before passing judgment.
“We recognize that concerns about the number of individuals who are suffering from some type of mental health issue during the use of force encounter is a pattern that the community is concerned about…,” Rahn said. “The city will not jump to any conclusions and will allow all of the processes that are in place for independent review of individual incidents, officers and patterns to run their course.”
Police Chief Harold Medina pointed out that the settlement agreement is meant to assess whether policies are in place to reduce an officer’s likelihood of using deadly force, whether officers are trained in those policies and whether they are being held accountable when they violate them.
Over the past 18 months two shootings have resulted in an officer being fired for violating policies.
Medina said he’s already asked the executive staff and academy directors to see if there are missed opportunities for trainings or other tactics that could be used instead of deadly force.
“We will never 100% take out human errors, and we will always have officer misconduct,” Medina said. “This process was started for us to identify the officer misconduct and address the misconduct. … I don’t know if there’s ever been a period of time before in the Albuquerque Police Department when individuals were held as accountable. We will continue to hold individuals accountable. We will continue to monitor our policies. We will continue to monitor our training.”
One of the systems that is in place to watch out for misconduct, including excessive force, is apparently in turmoil.
The Civilian Police Oversight Agency is about to lose its newly-appointed executive director, who has served less than six months.
Deirdre Ewing’s last day will be Friday. She was confirmed to the position by the City Council in June, replacing interim executive director Diane McDermott.
McDermott took over when longtime director Ed Harness took a job in another state last year.
Dan Giaquinto, a member of the monitoring team, said the office had to act quickly to “reverse the downward trajectory” of civilian oversight in Albuquerque by fully staffing the agency and board.
“As APD marches towards compliance, CPOA must march in the same direction,” Giaquinto said. “They really need to do it now.”
CPOA board chair Patricia French said the board is moving forward in a positive manner and its members are committed to its mission. She said seven of nine board positions have been filled.
“During the short time that she’s been with us, I will say that she’s been responsive to the board,” French said, referring to Ewing. “She has helped us move forward in an effective and efficient manner in our serious use of force and officer involved cases.”
And Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Martinez – described by her successor as “a major force in bringing about the CASA” and “a relentless advocate for constitutional policing and this community” – has withdrawn from the case as of Friday.
Several stakeholders – including the attorney for the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association who said he “did not always agree with her opinions” – expressed disappointment in Martinez’s departure.
“We were dismayed to hear how the change in staffing was so abrupt. … We just hope very sincerely that’s not an indication of the department’s investment in community input in this process…” said Rachel Biggs, of the Mental Health Response Advisory Committee. “We’d like to note that we see that as a big loss to the process with Ms. Martinez leaving the case.”
In response to questions from the Journal, Scott Howell, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said Martinez is still with the office and remains in the civil rights division.
Martinez did not respond to calls from the Journal.
Howell said he could not comment on internal staffing decisions but pointed to a letter Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Aja Brooks sent to the amici groups in which she says she works “directly with Mr. Uballez, which allows Mr. Uballez to have a more direct hand in ensuring its success.”
Brooks will take over the community outreach and engagement role, and Chief of the Civil Division Ruth Keegan will assume primary responsibility for the litigation.