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DOJ: APD violating citizens’ rights with excessive force

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For updates throughout the day on city and community reaction, click here.

The Department of Justice has found the Albuquerque Police Department has established a pattern and practice in the use of excessive and fatal force that violates the Constitutional rights of those shot or harmed by police officers.

In a 46-page letter of findings to Mayor Richard Berry, the DOJ reported, “We have determined that structural and systemic deficiencies — including insufficient oversight, inadequate training and ineffective policies — contributed to the use of unreasonable force.”

The Department of Justice reviewed 20 fatal shootings by Albuquerque Police between 2009 and 2013 and found that in the majority of cases the level of force used was not justified because the person killed by police did not present a threat to police officers or the public. The DOJ also reviewed the use of nonlethal force involving significant harm or injury to people by APD officers and found a similar pattern of excessive force by officers against people who posed no threat and was not justified by the circumstances.Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels said in an interview the findings were “pretty disturbing” and that public trust of the department has been eroded.

“A lot of the most troubling incidents involved mentally ill people,” Samuels said.

But the Justice Department said that whether it decides to seek a monitor to oversee changes in the department would depend in part on how willing APD was to make changes. Berry recently called on DOJ to begin negotiations for monitoring of the police department.

Samuels said that there was a “culture of acceptance of the use of excessive force” within APD that stems from “systematic failures” that are department wide.

In some cases, Samuels said, the reckless actions of officers put themselves in a position where force was needed.

The letter thanks city, police administrators  and rank-and-file officers for cooperating with the DOJ investigation.

Among the findings:

–Albuquerque police officers too often use deadly force in an unconstitutional manner in the use of their firearms where there is no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to officers or others. Instead officers used deadly force against people who posed a minimal threat and the conduct of officers heightened the danger and contributed to the need for force.

— Albuquerque police officers use Tasers on people who are passively resisting, unable to comply with officer orders because of their mental state or posed only a minimal threat to officers.

–The use of excessive force by APD officers is not isolated or sporadic. The failure to implement an objective and rigourous internal accountability system has led to force incidents not being properly investigated, documented or addressed with corrective measures.

–A significant amount of force cases reviewed were found to involve persons with mental illness and in crisis. The department’s policies, training and supervision were found insufficient to ensure officers properly responded to people they encountered with mental illness or in distress.

“A disconnect exists between officers and residents about the perception of overly aggressive conduct by officers. We observed that many officers were dismissive of community concerns. For instance, many officers complained that the media generated the complaints about their perceived aggressiveness in citizen encounters. Some officers complained that citizens were the ones who were aggressive towards them. This perception persists even though the data suggests otherwise. These concerns suggest an unwillingness to embrace community policing. This rejection of one of the basic elements of community policing contributes to the department’s pattern or practice of unjustified force.”

(page 40-41 DOJ letter)

The DOJ letter cites the fatal shootings of Andrew Lopez and Dominic Smith in separate incidents in 2009 as examples of excessive force on unarmed men. Later examples include the shooting deaths of Alan Gomez outside a relative’s home in May 2011 and January 2010 shooting death of Kenneth Ellis which led to an $8 million civil settlement with the city.

“We understand policing is a tremendously difficult job and the majority of officers do their jobs without violating constitutional rights,” Samuels said.

But according to the DOJ letter, the culture of accepting the use of excessive force, both fatal and nonfatal, is created by the department’s failure to properly report excessive force incidents, thoroughly investigate those reports and properly discipline officers. Proper training and guidance were contributing factors to the fatal shootings and Constitutional violations in the nonfatal use of excessive force.

Federal officials made it clear that the recent shooting of James Boyd in the Albuquerque foothills by police is not part of the department’s civil findings and is being investigated separately as a criminal case. A police video recording of that shooting went viral on the Internet and ignited large street protests in Albuquerque.

Key recommendations

Samuels said the findings and recommendations released this morning are the start of discussions with Mayor Richard Berry’s administration on how to fix the problems with APD.

The DOJ findings do not recommend a monitor or special master to oversee implementation of the lengthy list of remedial actions DOJ believes APD needs to make.

Mayor Berry has already asked that independent monitors be appointed and a new deputy police chief was hired this week to work with a DOJ monitor to help implement changes in the department.

“We have used these remedies in other cities and found they work,” Samuel said. “We hope they are willing to work with us.”

Whether DOJ seeks a monitor or goes to federal court to seek an appointed special master to oversee changes in APD depends on how receptive Berry’s administration is to making the changes the DOJ wants.

“We have found monitors are critical to make sure the changes are successful,” Samuels said.

Justice Department officials said APD has taken some positive steps to correcting problems but that those first steps need a lot of work.

For instance they point to the department’s use of lapel cameras as an important innovation for police in Albuquerque, but the police department fell short in training, policy guidance and discipline on when and how the cameras should be used in dealing with the public.

Another program to reduce police use of force, the formation of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), also drew praise from DOJ officials but they point out that the department again fell short in how and when the team trained to deal with mentally ill people is used.

“Innovations the department has made are undermined by the lack of clear guidelines,” one DOJ official said. “When is the CIT called? Who is in charge of the scene?”

The DOJ recommends a nearly complete overhaul of the department’s use of force policies including a prohibition against shooting at motor vehicles and requiring the reporting of all use of force incidents, including the use of choke holds.

Other sweeping recommendations include the reconstruction of APD’s Internal Affairs unit and policies governing it. The DOJ, for instance, wants all department employees to be required to report alleged or perceived misconduct to a supervisor or Internal Affairs for review and an easier system for the public to make complaints.

DOJ recommends that incidents where force is used, whether fatal or not, should be treated as crime scenes were evidence is gathered and witnesses sought out for statements. The DOJ wants all use of force incidents to be reviewed by supervisors but not supervisors who were involved in the incident or ordered the use of force.

DOJ wants the department to re-emphasize community policing after it found that department’s leadership had not made it a priority resulting in a department culture that is hostile to forming partnerships with community groups.

Federal investigators found that the department’s training is too heavily focused on weaponry and scenarios where officers use force and that officers do not get enough training in how to de-escalate situations.

The DOJ letter calls for an overhaul of the Police Oversight Commission, where investigators found the current and past review officers to be more closely aligned with the department than the community.

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