Rob Perry, the city of Albuquerque’s top administrator, was sitting for an on-camera interview with a KRQE-TV reporter and producer when he was asked whether he thought it was the right call to send an undercover officer from the Albuquerque Police Department’s criminal intelligence unit to do surveillance on an anti-APD protest, considering “there’s deep distrust within the community with the Police Department and the administration.”
Perry, who is a lawyer and the state’s former prisons boss, stuck his chin out a bit and said, “I don’t think that the overall community in Albuquerque has great distrust (of APD). It may be that way in your newsroom, but I’m not so sure that the community has that distrust. I think that the overall community has a great deal of trust and support for the Albuquerque Police Department.”
His comment came after a damning report on APD from the U.S. Department of Justice that criticized the Police Department’s training, leadership and use of force, after weeks of public demonstrations and an attempted takeover of the Mayor’s Office, after marathon gripe sessions before the City Council and public opinion polls showing that trust and confidence in the police is falling.
As public relations man Tom Garrity, who was recently hired by Albuquerque city councilors on a $25,000 contract to help shine up their public image in this mess, said of APD when I asked him for his take, “It’s the dog days of summer, and they’re the dog.”
Institutions, just like people, develop reputations through their words and deeds. Are they honest and candid? Will they admit to their mistakes? Do they keep their word?
Can they be trusted?
Since 2011, Garrity’s firm, The Garrity Group, has hired Research & Polling Inc. of Albuquerque to conduct an annual public perception survey to compile information to guide its services to clients. Police officers are one of the 14 careers in which trust is measured. This year’s survey was completed in early March, well before the DOJ report was released and the video of APD officers killing homeless camper James Boyd went viral.
The Garrity survey asked, “On a scale of 1 to 5, with five being very favorable and one being very unfavorable, what is your level of trust of police officers?”
In Albuquerque, that could include the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, New Mexico State Police, the U.S. Marshals Service and other police agencies, as well as APD.
From 2011 (when a rash of fatal shootings by APD officers began) to this year, trust of police in Albuquerque fell in the Garrity survey from 52 percent to 33 percent while distrust rose from 18 percent to 30 percent. (This might be a good place to acknowledge that in the same survey trust in journalists rang in at a dismal 21 percent.)
Research & Polling also conducted two polls for the Journal that gauged confidence in APD. In October, 49 percent of those surveyed said they had confidence in the Police Department. In March, that had dropped to 36 percent.
Those are both very bad swings and they show that, whatever APD’s other problems are, it’s got a fundamental problem with the community it serves.
Garrity doesn’t have APD or Mayor Richard J. Berry as a client, but he had some ideas about how they could turn the tide.
He said “really, genuinely listening to their community” was most critical, along with releasing as much information as possible, as early as possible, from the most informed people and staying in the room until the last question is answered, a media relations technique called “until you drop.”
We haven’t seen much of that. Or of the mayor. Or of the police chief.
“Sometimes you just need to sit and listen. You need to be present,” Garrity said. “Leave the cellphone at home or put it in the back pocket and be present. The community’s grieving, and part of that grieving process is just sitting there and listening and engaging.”
To his credit, APD’s Chief Gorden Eden has publicly apologized for two missteps – rushing to judgment on Boyd’s shooting being justified and telling officers they need to get permission before speaking to the DOJ. And he has acknowledged in public forums that APD has shortcomings and that there’s some mending of fences to do.
Garrity says it’s important to acknowledge failures and be open about steps taken to reform past policies.
And once the DOJ negotiations result in a consent decree and a path forward, Garrity recommends a statement that recognizes fault from both the mayor and the chief. His script: “We got through this as a community. There’s a lot of stuff that went wrong. Here’s what we’re doing to fix that. Here’s how we’re going to go back and earn your trust.”
As tensions mounted, APD added a big gun to its PR arsenal, pulling the respected veteran Metro Court spokeswoman Janet Blair out of retirement in May to manage its communications. Price tag? $95,000 a year.
Blair said she hoped to improve APD’s relationships with the news media and bring about department reforms with “the greatest transparency possible.”
She told me there is work to do to rebuild community trust. “I think that’s job one,” she said.
Blair said she’s trying to publicize positive steps – changes in police academy training and internal affairs.
We all know that the longer negative impressions hang around, the harder they are to turn around.
“The issues have been years in the making, and they’ll be years in repair,” Blair said. “We’re going to have to work for years to overcome this.”