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A ‘Stain’ on APD

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The city’s top law enforcement official on Wednesday publicly acknowledged that APD is facing “serious problems” with many of its officers, who have put “a stain on the department.”

Public Safety Director Darren White’s comments followed an unusual, hourslong meeting at police headquarters that was called by White and Police Chief Ray Schultz for all of APD’s 120-plus officers with the rank of sergeant and above.

Schultz told his supervisors to warn officers that misconduct won’t be tolerated.

In an extensive interview with the Journal, White noted the department has been wrestling with a spike in officer-involved shootings, offensive remarks posted by officers on social networking websites, outside investigations into the possibility that APD officers have been involved in a stolen-truck ring and a city councilor’s call for a federal investigation.

“We are confronted with misconduct and allegations of misconduct that has led to a perception among many in the public that we have forgotten who we work for,” White said.

“I don’t think I’d say there’s a cultural problem at APD, but there are a number of folks – and it’s more than just a few – who don’t live up to the values and ideals of the majority of the hard-working men and women on this department. They are putting a stain on the department that, left unchecked, could create long-lasting problems.”

The size and scope of Wednesday’s meeting prompted APD to enlist the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department to help take calls for service for nearly two hours.

“I decided to call a meeting of all sworn supervisors as a result of the continued poor decisions made by members of the department,” Schultz said. “It’s imperative that supervisors and managers of the Albuquerque Police Department hold their employees to the highest standard. That goes from the most basic thing like being a good driver to the more serious offenses like making biased remarks on social media.

“I made it very clear to them that there are people in our community that are questioning the conduct of our officers. We have to win their confidence back, and that is the responsibility of the supervisors.”

White said he told the assembled supervisors: “We’re not talking just about comments posted on the Internet. If you engage in any behavior that brings discredit to this department, you should expect to be terminated.”

Police officials expect to announce as many as 60 changes to APD’s policies, procedures and training in the coming days and weeks. Forty of those will be based on recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum, which was paid $60,000 to study the spike in officer-involved shootings over the past year and a half. The other changes are based on internal reviews.

Shootings, comments bring scrutiny

Public discontent and media scrutiny began to grow last summer, as APD was on its way to an unusually high number of officer-involved shootings. There were 14 of them by year’s end; nine were fatal.

Things got worse in February with the first of four fatal officer-involved shootings in 2011. APD Detective Byron “Trey” Economidy shot Jacob Mitschelen three times in the back after a traffic stop. News stories quickly followed about the way Economidy described his occupation on his Facebook page: “human waste disposal.”

“That was a turning point,” White said Wednesday. “And it didn’t get better from there. It got worse.”

Comments made by other officers on social networking websites surfaced, including a disparaging remark about the death of Mary Han, a prominent local civil rights attorney who had often sued APD.

Economidy and Jerry Hicks, the officer who posted the comment about Han, were disciplined. And APD implemented a comprehensive social media policy that spelled out the department’s expectations.

The court system also has come down hard on APD.

The city was ordered to pay out more than $4 million for a 2009 officer-involved shooting, and the judge harshly criticized the department’s training. And just this week, the city agreed to pay $950,000 to the door-to-door magazine salesman who spent over a year in custody, and once faced a potential death penalty prosecution, for a December 2007 murder committed by another man.

The city did not admit any wrongdoing in the wrongful arrest case.

Levi Chavez case

The current running just beneath the surface as APD has faced court judgments and a public outcry over the shootings has been the Levi Chavez case.

A former APD officer, Chavez, was charged in April with the 2007 death of his wife, Tera Chavez. Tera Chavez was found in the home, dead of a gunshot wound from her husband’s APD-issued pistol.

According to a wrongful death lawsuit filed against Levi Chavez by his wife’s family, Tera Chavez was trying to report to authorities that her husband and his “cop buddies” had staged the theft of Levi’s truck.

APD criminal and Internal Affairs investigators are looking into how a vehicle identification number plate from a truck once owned by Detective Pete Dwyer ended up on the truck Chavez had reported stolen, which was seized in Mexico in February after a traffic stop.

The truck owned by Dwyer, a former Albuquerque Police Officers Association president and auto theft detective, was totaled in a 2008 crash on I-25 and had been sold at auction by his insurance company.

White said Wednesday that the state Insurance Fraud Bureau is investigating the theft of Chavez’s truck and the possible involvement of other APD officers.

“We are cooperating fully with them,” he said.

After a Journal story about the VIN situation, numerous offensive posts Dwyer had made on social networking websites surfaced, prompting Chief Schultz to put him on desk duty pending an Internal Affairs investigation. Postings on his Twitter account included a swastika, and comments about pistol whipping and an offensive joke about Muslims.

Another APD Internal Affairs investigation is looking into why four APD officers went to the Chavez’s home the night Tera’s body was discovered and destroyed key evidence.

“With the shootings, the social media stuff, the court judgments and the Levi Chavez case – and all the issues surrounding that – it all starts to chip away at the reputation of what is a very good law enforcement agency,” White said. “Some of this started years ago, and it has slowly been eroding for a long time.”

At Monday’s City Council meeting, City Councilor Dan Lewis suggested a federal investigation may be needed at APD. Family members of people shot by police officers have repeatedly appeared before the council – and did so again Monday night – to decry the shootings and demand everything from more accountability in the department to a change in the administration.

White said he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“But we did discuss it at (Wednesday’s) meeting, and it is a very real possibility,” he said. “I don’t know if all the things that have already happened will result in a federal pattern and practice investigation. But if things don’t change – and fast – it probably will.”

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

Photo Credit – Journal File
Cutline – Former Albuquerque Police officer Levi Chavez, center, leaves his murder arraignment in the Valencia County District Court in Los Lunas. Chavez was charged with the 2007 death of his wife in April.

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