There’s a new plaque on the wall at police HQ. The empty frame recognizes the Albuquerque Police Department’s “De-escalation Officer of the Month,” a testament to an ingrained, problematic culture the U.S. Department of Justice targeted nine long years ago.
Following a monthslong study of APD’s record-setting 18 officer-involved shootings last year (involving 33 officers, 10 of which were fatal), the department reviewed every case, from initial dispatch records to lapel videos to reports from the Force Review Board. Top brass looked for trends and suggested ways in which officers could have done better, even when a police shooting was within departmental policy.
APD is proposing several common-sense reforms based on what the working group gleaned. We’d give kudos except they seem a long time in coming.
The reforms include training on subduing or disarming someone before resorting to gunfire, rendering first aid, using weapon scope magnifiers to better see what a person is holding, and pairing up veteran officers with less experienced counterparts. Considering APD has been under multimillion-dollar DOJ oversight for almost a decade, it’s disturbing these fundamental reforms are only now being unveiled.
DOJ came to town after officers shot and killed a schizophrenic man camping illegally in the Sandia Foothills; eight years later officers shot and killed a man armed with a nail file, another with a cellphone, another with a key fob, another with a rock. And they didn’t even try to render first aid to save at least two others after shooting them. While each case is unique and has its own challenges, you have to wonder why these “new” protocols and policies were not implemented sooner.
Several of those shot by police last year were apparently having mental health crises. New teams of civilians in the city’s Community Safety Department trained as behavioral health responders are supposed to answer calls involving mental health issues or homelessness, suicides, welfare checks and similar incidents. And yet APD had a record-setting 18 officer-involved shootings last year, up from 10 in 2021. DOJ oversight came after the agency reviewed 20 fatal shootings by Albuquerque police between 2009 and 2013 and determined the level of force used wasn’t justified in the majority of cases.
Yet all these years later less-lethal force was used in only three of APD’s 18 police shootings last year, indicating a lingering reluctance to switch to Tasers, beanbag shotguns, 40-millimeter impact launchers or canine deployments — all of which the department has had for years.
The new policies ask police to step back and look at the “totality of the circumstances,” not just a person’s momentary actions, when deciding force levels. And they include parsing of terminology, such as using “imminent threat” instead of “immediate threat” to signify “a dangerous or threatening situation” is about to occur. And this may exemplify where the breakdown in implementing much-needed reforms has happened over the years: Beat officers facing split-second life-or-death situations aren’t likely to big-picture it or consult a dictionary.
APD plans to do a similar review of officer-involved shootings every six months. It would be better if it issued a written analysis after each officer-involved shooting in a timely manner and posted the analysis online instead of waiting for an omnibus report and dog-and-pony photo-op every six months. That way problems can be identified before they become patterns.
Chief Harold Medina says he wishes people talked more about de-escalation success stories. When the unfilled frames of those new De-escalation Officer of the Month plaques are filled with photos of officers, that may happen.
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.