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Families react to DOJ findings: ‘Beginning of a new era’

Renetta Torres, left, and her husband, Stephen Torres, react to the Department of Justice's announcement that the APD had an unconstitutional pattern or practice of using force. Their son Christopher, who had mental health problems, was fatally shot in 2011 by a plainclothes detective trying to serve a warrant at the family home. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Renetta Torres, left, and her husband, Stephen Torres, react to the Department of Justice’s announcement that the APD had an unconstitutional pattern or practice of using force. Their son Christopher, who had mental health problems, was fatally shot in 2011 by a plainclothes detective trying to serve a warrant at the family home. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The men shot and killed by police didn’t die in vain.

That seemed to be a common sentiment among both those men’s families and community leaders and activists who gathered Thursday to hear the results of the federal investigation that concluded the Albuquerque Police Department used unconstitutional force.

“My son didn’t die in vain, and none of the other families’ victims died in vain,” Mike Gomez said after the announcement. Gomez’s unarmed son, Alan, was shot and killed by APD in 2011. “If their deaths meant it came to this, so be it for the good of the community so none of the other families have to feel our pain. They won’t have to go through a lifetime of emptiness. If that doesn’t happen to anybody else’s family, which is what this is all about, then this day is going to be the beginning of a new era.”

Despite the conclusion of a sweeping investigation into the department, some family members were concerned that the Justice Department’s recommendations weren’t harsh enough.

“It’s mixed feelings, because I really wanted more enforcement from the DOJ, not just we’re going to negotiate and talk about it,” Gomez said.

Justice officials later explained that an agreement enforceable in court likely will be the end result of negotiations with the city.

Kenneth Ellis II, whose son was shot and killed in 2010, welcomed the Justice Department’s findings.

“The reality is that this is not the end, this is the beginning of a new chapter to my journey,” Ellis said. “But I won’t be able to close my book until the man who murdered my son is indicted and held accountable for his actions. I’m satisfied with the civil portion of it and, like I say, until the criminal findings and some indictments come down, this community’s not going to be satisfied.”

Last month’s shooting of James Boyd, a mentally ill homeless man, was sent to the DOJ’s criminal division for potential prosecution. As for other cases, DOJ officials Thursday said several had been referred for prosecution.

“We have made referrals over time, but those are not the subject of our conversation today,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels, who presented the Justice Department’s findings. “Today, we are really focused on our civil investigation and the systemic, structural reform that we believe the police department needs.”

The DOJ held a private meeting with community leaders and family members of those shot by APD after the morning news conference.

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the group was reassured by the DOJ that it would be included in coming up with a court enforceable order, or consent decree, to ensure that reforms are carried out. The ACLU of New Mexico started petitioning the DOJ for a federal investigation in 2011; other community groups, such as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Task Force, did so as well.

“I think we all feel like we need some outside authority to oversee the implementation of this agreement,” Simonson said. “The agreement hasn’t been drafted yet and they are inviting our input on what that agreement should cover, in detail. I was heartened to hear there was room for us to make those recommendations.”

About 12 people gathered at Civic Plaza in Downtown Albuquerque to listen to the news conference and, soon after its conclusion, they obtained a copy of the 46-page report.

“We’ve been saying that all along,” said Danny Hernandez, 55, referring to the findings. “A lot of people, especially the families of the victims, have been saying this for a long time.”

Ben George, 40, said the recommendations in the DOJ report were not enough. He said Albuquerque residents must demand that officers be charged, the police chief be fired and all footage of officer-involved shootings be released immediately.

A small but vocal group of city residents sat before a Police Oversight Commission meeting Thursday afternoon, and aimed their frustration and anger at a list of people that included the mayor, police chief, City Council and the POC itself.

Many of them took to the microphone and quoted line and verse from the scathing Department of Justice report released earlier in the day.

One person called the mayor and police chief “morally inept”; another said she was concerned about the “militarization of the police”; another said the POC, which only offers resolutions and recommendations, is “useless”; and one person lamented that the millions of dollars the city will spend on settling unjustified police shootings could have been used to fund a mental health facility that might have benefited many of the shooting victims.

Journal Staff Writers Ryan Boetel and Rick Nathanson contributed to this report.

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