With the city still reeling from the police shooting of transient camper James Boyd in the Sandia foothills more than two weeks ago, Mayor Richard Berry on Wednesday asked the U.S. Department of Justice for help restoring public confidence in APD.
Calling Boyd’s shooting a “game changer,” Berry also pledged to push a package of training improvements and other reforms that are not just “lip service.”
Boyd’s shooting as he appeared ready to surrender was captured on video and released by the Albuquerque Police Department. It touched off a national reaction, and has been viewed online more than a million times.
In a three-page letter to the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ, Berry asked the department to begin monitoring local police as his administration launches a series of reforms aimed at helping officers defuse encounters before they turn violent.
He suggested negotiations begin immediately on an agreement to appoint independent monitors who would work with APD’s command staff.
Albuquerque police have shot and killed 23 men since the beginning of 2010, including the mentally ill homeless camper last month, a death that sparked outrage across the country.
“It wasn’t an easy letter to write, and I didn’t take it lightly,” Berry told reporters at City Hall. “… I didn’t feel I could wait longer.”
Berry also asked the Justice Department to expedite its 16-month investigation into whether APD has a pattern or practice of violating people’s civil rights. He hopes the DOJ will transmit any preliminary recommendations it can “at this time.”
The mayor said his new police chief, Gorden Eden, wants “sweeping changes” within APD. Eden, a former U.S. marshal for the district of New Mexico, took office in late February.
The changes include hiring a fourth deputy police chief to oversee how APD carries out any recommendations the DOJ might make. The deputy chief also would oversee supervision of the Internal Affairs Unit and training on how officers use force and de-escalate tense situations.
Berry said Eden also wants every officer in the Field Services Bureau to be trained in “crisis intervention.” Only about 27 percent, or 116 of the 426 officers in the bureau, now meet the standards for certification, he said.
That’s fewer than the 125 officers on patrol in 2011 who had crisis intervention training, when the Police Executive Research Forum issued a report on APD’s use of force.
Berry said the city plans to ensure that all its cadets in the academy this summer, and in future classes, are certified in crisis intervention.
“We need to do more, and we need to take action now,” the mayor said.
As for why he was asking the DOJ for help now, Berry said the length of the federal investigation – it was announced in November 2012 and the results aren’t yet public – played a role.
So, too, did the police shooting of Boyd, the homeless camper in the foothills who had a long history of mental illness and violence against law enforcement. Boyd appeared to be turning away from officers when shots rang out.
That shooting “really was a game changer,” Berry said.
Berry has refused to pass judgment on the officers involved, saying he must wait until an investigation is complete.
While Berry’s letter to DOJ drew positive comments from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, it drew a strong rebuke from the police union.
Stephanie Lopez, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, said the mayor’s request was an “injustice” because the DOJ ought to be allowed to conduct its investigation on its own terms. “I think the mayor was acting on impulse and political pressure,” she said.
Furthermore, the mayor and his chief administrative officer, Rob Perry, “have proven to be part of this department’s problems instead of its solution,” Lopez said.
Peter Simonson of the ACLU said Berry’s letter “is a good first step” toward addressing the excessive use of force.
“It is a shame that the city’s leadership took so long to respond with aggressive action,” Simonson said in a written statement.
He also urged the City Council to move quickly on legislation to “establish meaningful, effective civilian oversight of law enforcement in Albuquerque.”
The chamber said Berry made the right call.
“Your decision to request monitors from the Department of Justice to assist you and the Albuquerque Police Department as you and Chief Eden move forward with other reforms is a good decision, we believe, and we support it,” board chairman Liz Shipley and CEO Terri Cole wrote in a letter to the mayor.
Reforms for APD
Berry said new reforms planned by Eden will include:
• An evaluation system that will track officers’ use of force throughout their careers, including checks on officers from other departments who transfer into APD.
• Additional departmentwide training on civil rights.
• An enhanced training plan for all field supervisors, including sergeants who are on the front lines.
• An outreach effort to improve APD’s relationship with the community.
• Improved training in “de-escalation techniques,” especially for the times when officers encounter people who are mentally ill.
Berry also asked the City Council to work on a plan for overhauling the Police Oversight Commission. Much of Monday’s council meeting, in fact, will be dedicated to discussion of the police department.
The mayor asked the Legislature to craft a Kendra’s Law or similar legislation to help people with mental illnesses. Such laws allow judges to order people to undergo psychiatric treatment.
Berry’s letter asks the DOJ to start work with his administration to craft a monitoring plan. The city would, in all likelihood, pay one or more people to serve as monitors who would work with APD’s command staff to set goals and measure progress toward them, the mayor said.
“It’s an auditing function in a way,” Berry said.
None of this, however, should be seen as a “lack of faith in our department,” the mayor said.
On the other hand, he said, he wants to assure the community that the reforms are more than just “lip service.”