Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
For years, Mayor Richard Berry had a ready answer when political opponents and others questioned the number of people shot and killed by Albuquerque police.
His administration, he’d say, had moved quickly after a spike in shootings – hiring a national think tank and carrying out some 60 reforms aimed at improving the Albuquerque Police Department.
But on Thursday, federal investigators made it clear: Those changes were nowhere near enough to fix the department.
In some cases, the city’s reforms simply weren’t robust enough, according to a 46-page letter from the Justice Department. In others, the city didn’t carry them out consistently.
And Berry, for the first time, acknowledged Thursday that he had underestimated how much change was needed.
“We haven’t done enough, obviously,” Berry said at one point.
At another: “Today I know about challenges I didn’t know about yesterday.”
His comments come after some harsh language in the findings released by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Federal investigators said APD’s own efforts to change “have been insufficient to ensure consistent accountability.”
Furthermore, federal officials said, the city’s reforms “have not addressed longstanding deficiencies that have allowed a culture of indifference to constitutional policing and insularity to develop within the department.”
Berry had built much of his 60 reforms on recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, which was hired in late 2010 to study APD’s use-of-force policies and training.
But the DOJ pointed out that group didn’t “evaluate whether officers used force appropriately.” Instead, the Police Executive Research Forum looked more broadly at patterns in police shootings and other uses of force.
In at least one case, the city failed to carry out one of PERF’s recommendations – that officers be prohibited from shooting at moving vehicles. That’s the policy of many police departments, the DOJ said.
But Albuquerque’s policy specifically permits officers to shoot at tires in certain circumstances. That’s outdated and at odds with best practices, federal investigators said.
Shooting at vehicles is “generally a poor tactical choice and exacerbates the chances of vehicles becoming more dangerous instruments,” the DOJ said in its letter to Berry on Thursday.
Federal investigators also scrutinized Albuquerque’s mandate that officers use lapel cameras to record interactions with the public – something Berry has repeatedly touted as a transparency measure that’s made the city a leader nationwide.
The Department of Justice said “the implementation has been highly inconsistent.”
The DOJ also noted that Berry had hired a new director at the training academy and commended the director for taking steps in the right direction.
But the Justice Department also said the training too heavily emphasizes the use of force and weapons.
“Much of the training leads officers to believe that violent outcomes are normal and desirable,” the DOJ letter said.
Finally, the letter criticizes Berry’s new police chief, Gorden Eden, for describing the recent shooting of a mentally ill, homeless man as justified. Eden later said his comments were premature.
The Department of Justice said Eden’s comments “demonstrate that more work is needed to change the culture of APD.”
Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the DOJ letter shows the city didn’t rigorously carry out the reforms it touted.
“I think to say that the follow-through on the PERF recommendations was inconsistent is a vast understatement,” Simonson said in an interview. “All you have to do is attend one of those Police Oversight Commission meetings and what you hear over and over again is that officers failed to turn on the cameras, officers failed to upload the video or the devices malfunctioned.”
In Thursday’s news conference, Berry again mentioned the PERF recommendations and insisted his administration did get aggressive about making changes.
But he added: “We realize with today’s report, that’s not enough.”
Chief Eden repeated on Thursday that his comments about the shooting of the homeless man were “premature.”
“This is a road map to success for the department,” Eden said. “I’m actually looking forward to working with the Department of Justice in a very cooperative manner.”
Stephanie Lopez, president of the Albuquerque police union, said officers also are ready to work with the community to carry out the DOJ recommendations.
“Our department looks forward to learning and advancing from the DOJ’s guidance and additional training to make us a better department in the future,” she said in a written statement.