Scope magnification to better see a person who may be holding a phone or something other than a gun. Training on subduing or disarming someone with hand-to-hand combat before resorting to bullets. Pairing up veteran officers with less experienced counterparts – who were disproportionately involved in police shootings last year.
Those are some of the actions proposed by the Albuquerque Police Department to possibly cut down on deadly force used by officers after a record-breaking year with 18 police shootings.
The changes came after a monthslong review of the 2022 cases by a working group of APD leadership: Deputy Chief of Compliance Cori Lowe, Internal Affairs Deputy Director Zak Cottrell, IA Force Investigations Commander Scott Norris, Field Services Deputy Chief Josh Brown, Investigative Bureau Deputy Chief Cecily Barker and Police Reform Bureau Deputy Director Jimmy Collins.
For the process, Lowe said the group looked over each police shooting, from the initial dispatch records to lapel videos and reports from the Force Review Board for those cases that landed there.
Even when a police shooting was within policy, according to an APD review, the working group suggested ways in which officers could have done better.
“We went case by case and we tried to figure out what was similar between all of them … and what trends that we saw from each of our individual aspects,” she said. “Then we had to try to bring it down and say, ‘OK, what exactly is important for this specific particular topic?'”
Lowe added, “These were the biggest priorities for this go round.”
During a briefing Thursday, APD Chief Harold Medina said the department plans to do a similar review every six months. He added, “It’s great we started it last year but, in retrospect, I wish we would have done it six months earlier.”
“The Albuquerque Police Department is going to have to figure stuff out on its own when the Department of Justice leaves, and it’s going to be a community expectation,” he said. “This is one of the first major steps we’ve done in making sure that we have the system in place that we’re taking into consideration … and how we want to function as a police department.”
Of the 18 police shootings last year, 10 were fatal, three resulted in injuries and officers missed their target in five of them.
In some cases, those shot by police in 2022 were wielding something other than a gun or knife, including a phone, key fob and landscaping rocks. Several of those killed by police were having an apparent mental health crisis.
Four of the officers had been involved in prior shootings and one officer has been involved in five total police shootings.
At least one of the actions announced Thursday, a revision of APD’s less lethal force policy, was reported by the Journal in January.
Less lethal options include Tasers, beanbag shotguns, 40-millimeter impact launchers, or canine deployments. Less lethal force was used in three of the 18 police shootings in 2022.
The policy changes included terminology shifts that clarify when officers could, for example, use a Taser on someone. The new policies ask police to look at the “totality of the circumstances” when deciding to use less-lethal force, and not just a person’s momentary actions.
APD also changed “immediate threat” to “imminent threat” to signify “a dangerous or threatening situation which is about to occur or take place.”
On Thursday, Lowe said the revised less lethal training will begin in April with 20 hours of classroom and 20 hours of reality-based training.
She said the latter will employ what they learned from the case review, with scenarios for identifying a weapon or threat identification and changing weapons.
Lowe added, “From handgun to less lethal, or vice versa, or transitioning to no weapon at all, depending on the individual’s actions.”
The review found several shootings could have benefited from a supervisor on scene. In some cases there was a supervisor present – and sometimes multiple supervisors – but they were not filling that role for the officers.
To that end, Lowe said APD wanted to revise the policy to include the types of calls that require a supervisor and those that don’t.
Along with supervision, Lowe said they want to focus on mentorship.
The review found most officers who fired a gun in a 2022 police shooting had six years of experience or less. Lowe said that was “not a surprise” given that those officers work in the field and are often on the night shift, when most shootings occurred.
Lowe said, in the future, APD will try to staff a more experienced officer with them to “help with the decision making and growth as they move through their career.”
She said they also want to give police more equipment, like magnifier optics and ballistic shields, which can protect officers if they have to change positions when someone is armed.
The magnifier, Lowe said, can help police stay at a distance while also giving them “a better opportunity to see what the person is armed with.”
“So from a long distance, they can be able to see if it’s a firearm, if it’s another type of weapon, or no weapon at all,” she said.
The review found two cases where a magnifier would have helped, including the fatal shooting of Collin Neztsosie, who was reportedly pointing a phone like it was a gun.
She said protocol for clearing scenes is another thing APD wanted to address but hasn’t fully ironed out. Lowe referenced a case where the “primary suspect” was detained before officers got into a shooting with another person at the scene.
She said police need to be able to clear scenes for evidence and investigation but the working group has been trying to figure out the “best course of action when this kind of incident occurs.”
The last one Lowe mentioned was an emphasis on first aid training.
In at least two 2022 cases, an investigation found officers did not try to save the person’s life after shooting them. Both cases were fatal.
“There was a couple of issues where officers really did need to render aid sooner than they did, or at all,” Lowe said.
Medina said one thing that is forgotten is that these cases affect the officers. He said APD has come a long way in caring for its own since he started in 1995. He said he was given a total of 10 minutes counseling after fatally shooting a teenage boy who pointed a BB gun at him.
“It is very difficult for an officer to go through this,” Medina said. “… It will leave something in their mind and in their heart for the rest of their lives.”
Medina said he wished people talked more about the success stories, where officers de-escalate and don’t end up shooting someone.
“Our officers each day risk their lives, have encounters with armed individuals, and we have a fabulous outcome,” he said. “But it’s unfortunate that that’s not always recognized. And that’s not always what’s going to grab the lead story in any media outlet.”
Medina could not provide numbers for those scenarios but said the department is rewarding individual officers for their work. He said they just announced a new one: De-escalation of the Month Award.
On Thursday afternoon, the plaque emblazoned with “De-escalation of the Month Award” hung on a wall at police headquarters.
The frame, where the winner’s picture would go, remained empty.