Civilians fill in for sworn officers at Albuquerque Police Department - Albuquerque Journal

Civilians fill in for sworn officers at Albuquerque Police Department

The Albuquerque Police Department’s Internal Affairs Force Division is staffed by a mix of sworn and civilian personnel who are tasked with investigating most uses of force.. (Chancey Bush/ Albuquerque Journal)

As the Albuquerque Police Department has struggled with recruiting and retaining officers over the past several years, it has turned toward a new strategy: hire civilians instead.

Police Chief Harold Medina said he sees the approach as “the forefront of the wave of the future,” adding that similar-sized departments across the country are also struggling to bolster their ranks.

“We should always try to strive toward growing the number of sworn individuals but it’s just not happening right now,” Medina said. “The civilians are giving us some relief and helping our sworn officers.”

Civilian staff are now doing internal investigations as well as assisting with criminal investigations.

For instance, they make up the Digital Intelligence Team — which was created in the past couple of years to assist detectives in combing through social media and analyzing phone data and video. They are also filling positions in the Auto Theft Unit as bait car technicians, in the crime lab gathering video and other digital evidence, as crime scene specialists and in the Shield Unit, which was created in 2017 to help officers prepare cases for trial.

The department has also recently hired four civilians to do reconstruction of fatal crashes to assist sworn staff. The civilians are being trained and are expected to start at the end of June, APD said.

The union, however, said hiring civilians for such jobs was a “desperate attempt” “to try to provide some level of service to the city” and that it’s not going to be successful.

“We’re growing our civilian staff and our sworn staff is becoming more and more depleted …,” said Shaun Willoughby, the president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association. “We think that this is very, very dangerous for the police department. The police department needs to be primarily focused about growing the ranks of the Albuquerque Police Department.”

Outside perspectives

In mid-2021 — following blistering criticism from the Independent Monitor overseeing the city’s progress with court-ordered reforms — APD started hiring civilians to investigate officers’ use of force.

APD is mandated to have 25 investigators in its Internal Affairs Force Division, but few officers wanted to fill that role.

Currently, IAFD is about split, with 18 civilians and 19 sworn staff — which a spokeswoman said ensures both perspectives are represented. They are being trained by the External Force Investigation Team out of Florida, an effort that has won praise from the DOJ and the Independent Monitor.

The Albuquerque Police Department is mandated to have 25 investigators in its Internal Affairs Force Division, but few officers wanted to fill that role.
Currently, IAFD is about split, with 18 civilians and 19 sworn staff. (Chancey Bush/ Albuquerque Journal)

Besides freeing up sworn staff to work in other areas, Medina said civilians bring a different perspective to the work.

“It’s not always a cop doing the investigation,” he said. “We do have outside people that do not have 25, 20 years of relationships with everybody that they’re investigating.”

Advocates for police reform like the hiring of civilians, too — Peter Simonson, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and a member of the APD Forward coalition, called it “one of the few bright spots in APD’s journey.”

“Not only have they helped the department fill investigator positions that uniformed officers have been unwilling to take, but we believe they may break down some of the ‘Blue Wall’ syndrome that has contributed to weak investigations and lack of accountability within the department,” Simonson said.

He said that it’s critical for investigations into an officer’s use of force to be “thorough, impartial and completed in a timely manner” — something APD had historically struggled with.

“Their failures have led to a backlog of over 660 use of force investigations, and undoubtedly resulted in countless improper uses of force going unaddressed,” Simonson said. “APD’s failures have cost the city more than $10 million in consulting fees to teach the department to conduct investigations the way professionally run departments do in other parts of the country.”

Willoughby said he thinks APD did its due diligence trying to incentivize sworn officers to join IAFD before it ultimately began hiring civilian staff instead. It’s the other positions he takes issue with.

“The department really didn’t have any wiggle room. They were mandated to staff that to a certain level, and I really don’t think they had very many options …,” he said. “I’m telling you, like, the answer to all their questions and problems is making what should be a sworn police officer a civilian job and it’s going to blow up in this police department’s face — in my opinion.”

Optimizing staff, resources

Both times Tim Keller ran for mayor — in 2017 and in 2021 — he set the goal of increasing the number of APD officers to 1,200.

After years of missing the mark, he now says “we’re moving past this concept of an ideal number of officers.”

“The recruiting pipeline is so small right now in America, and in New Mexico, you just can’t fund it to happen. We’ve always funded it and we’ve tried hard, but you’re just not going to hit numbers like 1,500 officers – that that’s just naive,” Keller said in a meeting with Journal editors and reporters. “I think that’s a big step for us as a department. We’re not going to sit and wait for those kinds of numbers so the question is: how do you replace that crime fighting effectiveness?”

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, right and APD Chief Harold Medina have both spoke in favor of adding civilians to the police force. Keller says “civilianizing desk jobs” helps keep “forces in the field who are actually fighting crime.” (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The answer, Keller says, is maximizing the number of officers who are fighting crime by increasing technology — like automated speed enforcement, ShotSpotter and license plate readers — and the hiring of civilians to do desk jobs.

“We’re basically saying that we can meet what we need over the next few years in terms of forces in the field who are actually fighting crime,” Keller said. “But the only way to do that is taking technology, civilianizing desk jobs … and by retaining the officers we have.”

Certain duties will never be civilianized, Medina said, such as responding to certain calls for service, especially those involving violent crimes, and putting cases together and presenting them to court.

“In the end a sworn detective will always be the one putting the final touches together and getting the case over the finish line,” he said. “Officers will always be the first responders to a fight in progress, or burglary in progress, apprehending somebody in a stolen car.”

Medina said opening up roles to civilians also allows people to join APD who want to join law enforcement but don’t necessarily want to be a sworn officer.

“I think it really enables us to diversify our police force and to bring in people who may not want to — or be able to — go through the full academy but still definitely have a huge value to the organization,” Medina said.

One of APD’s most recent civilian hires is actually a re-hire.

Jerry Arnold had been a detective in the Auto Theft Unit until he was fired in September following an internal investigation into a shooting. Arnold had shot at, but missed, an unarmed auto theft suspect last year and investigators determined that his use of force “was not reasonable, necessary, proportional, minimal or within department policy” and he didn’t have a clear view of what was unfolding.

He is now working as a Bait Vehicle Coordinator in the Auto Theft Unit.


More from investigative reporter Elise Kaplan

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