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APD: No more personal weapons for officers

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The Albuquerque Police Department will require officers to use only department-issued firearms, reversing a policy criticized by the Department of Justice that allowed officers to use personal weapons as long as they had been certified to use them.

Officers received a memo Thursday that stated the department is in the process of getting new handguns, including Smith & Wesson 9 mm and Glock 9 mm handguns. The memo said that officers will be required to carry those weapons while on duty.

An Albuquerque Police Department standard-issue Smith & Wesson 9 mm handgun sits holstered during graduation of the 110th police academy cadet class Thursday. APD Chief Gorden Eden issued a memo, which was given to officers Thursday, that will prohibit the use of personal weapons by APD officers. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

An Albuquerque Police Department standard-issue Smith & Wesson 9 mm handgun sits holstered during graduation of the 110th police academy cadet class Thursday. APD Chief Gorden Eden issued a memo, which was given to officers Thursday, that will prohibit the use of personal weapons by APD officers. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The DOJ report, issued last month, said that part of APD’s “aggressive culture” was that officers were buying expensive, high-powered guns for use on duty and viewed them as “status symbols.”

Police Chief Gorden Eden, reached briefly by phone, confirmed the order will prohibit officers from using personal weapons on duty, but said it had nothing to do with the DOJ report. He pointed out that the report did not explicitly recommend that officers not use personal weapons.

“We’re trying to make the department uniform,” said Eden, who became chief in February. “It’s part of our total reform of the department.”

Eden said the order applies not only to handguns, but also to rifles and all other firearms officers use. He said all weapons, equipment and tools – from flashlights to Tasers to bulletproof vests – will now be standardized across the department.

Stephanie Lopez, the Albuquerque Police Officer Association president, blasted the change as a “knee-jerk” reaction to the DOJ report that could put officers at risk. She said some veteran officers have been using personal weapons for more than a decade and a change to an unfamiliar weapon could be dangerous in a dynamic, life-threatening situation – especially if an armed criminal has a more powerful weapon.

APOA vice president Shaun Willoughby said some officers prefer weapons with slimmer handles or longer barrels, or lighter weapons, than those issued by APD.

Eden said the transition to the new handguns might not occur for another two or three months and he could not estimate how much it might cost. He did say that one of the gun manufacturers had tentatively offered a trade-in program for the weapons officers currently use.

Lopez said the standards for use of personal weapons are strict, including that officers achieve at least 90 percent accuracy during both night and day training.

She also sharply criticized the APD leadership for not consulting the union before enacting the change.

“We’re very saddened by it. I think it’s unfair for the administration to do that in the fashion that they did,” she said, adding that officers are resigning from the department at a high rate because they feel they’re being ignored by department brass. “… ‘You can like it, or you can leave’ is the message being sent to the officers right now.”

Eden said eliminating personal weapons for officers was something he had been considering since he became chief. He said his staff selected the two handgun models after a comprehensive review and that officers will get to choose between them.

He said the new weapon rollout was not subject to a bidding process because of an “existing agreement” between APD and the manufacturers.

The full May 5 order, which Eden signed into place, states:

“The department is in the process of acquiring new Smith and Wesson 9 mm and Glock 9 mm handguns. Once the new handguns arrive, all officers will be required to carry a department issued handgun while on duty. There will be a transition class that will accompany the issuance of the new firearm, followed by a day and night qualification. The S.O.P. (Standard Operating Procedure) will be updated at a later date to reflect this change.”

The Department of Justice criticized the practice of allowing officers to carry their personal weapons in a 46-page report it issued April 10 that found that APD had a pattern of using excessive force.

“Officers see the guns as status symbols,” the report reads. “APD personnel we interviewed indicated that this fondness for powerful weaponry illustrates the aggressive culture.”

In addition to the DOJ report, officers have been criticized in the past for their conduct with personal weaponry.

Officer Byron “Trey” Economidy shot and killed Jacob Mitschelen in February 2011 with a .45-caliber Kimber handgun that he was not qualified to use. Economidy was disciplined for violating the policy and then-APD Chief Ray Schultz required a department-wide review of officers’ qualifications for the weapons they were carrying.

Also, an attorney on behalf of James M. Boyd, a homeless man who was shot and killed in the Sandia foothills in mid-March, filed a tort claims notice against the city that claimed that one of the officers who shot him had installed a sound suppressor, or silencer, on his duty weapon.

“The city’s permissive policy on private weapon use amongst officers has contributed to a culture of gun fetish that led to the unlawful death of James Boyd,” the notice reads.

The department is beginning negotiations with the DOJ to enter into a court-enforceable agreement on what reforms will be required.

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