Just three weeks into the job as police chief, Gorden Eden released video of Albuquerque police shooting a homeless man as he turned away from them.
Eden called the shooting justified and cited a Supreme Court case on fleeing suspects.
The video of the shooting went viral, triggering widespread criticism and igniting street protests that were broken up with tear gas. Eden faced calls to resign for describing the shooting as justified, and he later apologized.
For many, those comments were a defining moment that continues to dog Eden, even as he approaches six months as the new chief.
It was a turbulent start for the man hired by Mayor Richard Berry to help fix the Albuquerque Police Department – a department already under federal investigation because of many charges of excessive force. The Department of Justice concluded its investigation by finding that APD has long had a pattern and practice of violating people’s civil rights through the use of force. Now, the city and DOJ are negotiating a consent decree outlining reforms.
After his initial misstep, Eden seemed for a while to have regained momentum, but he has still shown a tendency to stumble. Just last week, he told a shocked City Council that he was planning to delay a cadet class of new officers because of budget constraints – even though the department would have had only 940 officers at most and is budgeted for 1,000. The mayor, who was in Mexico City to open a new trade office, quickly countermanded the cadet decision two days later, after he returned, saying that, of course, the city had money for 1,000 officers.
The mayor and other supporters of Eden say the chief handled the early criticism well by admitting his mistake and moving on. They say it shouldn’t obscure the steps he is taking to improve the department.
Eden, for his part, says he’s willing to confront his mistakes.
“Part of establishing trust with anybody is acknowledging when you make mistakes,” Eden said. “I’m embarrassed by (the justified shooting comment), but I also am quick to admit that it was a mistake for me to make that determination.”
Berry said he believes Eden “has a heart for reform. … I believe he cares deeply about his department. I believe he cares deeply about his community.”
Eden is “not the best media guy out there,” the mayor said. “I’ll be the first to admit that, and he probably will, as well.”
His critics say it’s more than that. In May, Eden promoted an officer once accused of burning part of a man’s ear off with a stun gun. In June, Eden banned officers from speaking to the Department of Justice without permission, leading to his second apology as he described it as miscommunication taken out of context.
His department also sent an undercover officer dressed as a protester to a protest on police shootings. It didn’t help that the officer had shot a suspect in the past.
“I think he lost a tremendous amount of credibility and trust early in his tenure as the police chief with his comments and statements,” City Council President Ken Sanchez said. “And trying to restore that confidence, I believe, has been very difficult for him to do.”
Mike Gomez, whose son’s shooting by police in 2011 resulted in a $900,000 settlement with the city, said Eden isn’t up to the job.
“A leader is a spokesman,” Gomez said. “We need someone who can communicate to the community and he can’t do it.”
“This is my city”
In late February, Eden took on what might be the toughest job in city government, managing City Hall’s largest department as it undergoes reforms mandated by the Department of Justice.
Eden left his job as the cabinet secretary for public safety under Gov. Susana Martinez to take over the police department in his hometown. He describes himself as a third-generation native New Mexican who grew up in the South Valley.
“This is my city. Albuquerque is my home,” Eden said. “This is where my family is, and it’s important for me to have a city and a city government and a city police department that is respected and trusted. That’s what made me put in for it.”
Berry selected Eden as chief over two other finalists – both from Texas – who worked their way up the ranks at larger metropolitan police departments. Eden, by contrast, has spent most of his career in state and federal government, not on a city police force.
City Councilor Rey Garduño, a Democrat, said he hates to think Eden’s appointment was political, “but it sure points to that. It’s strange that we’d go on a national search,” then just pick someone out of the Martinez administration, he said.
Before joining APD, Eden served as the public safety secretary under Martinez and as U.S. marshal for the District of New Mexico under President George W. Bush, both Republicans. Berry is also a Republican.
Eden’s supporters say politics had nothing to do with his appointment and that his résumé speaks for itself.
Berry said he liked that Eden came from outside APD but still had experience and familiarity with Albuquerque. Eden was also a state police officer early in his career and worked at the Center for Public Safety at Northwestern University.
“I thought it was important to bring someone in who was outside APD, yet still had a connection to our community,” Berry said.
Eden, who’s 59, makes $158,000 a year.
Eden and Berry say there are already improvements to police recruitment, training, use-of-force reporting and community outreach.
Officers are no longer allowed to use their personal weapons on duty and they are now prohibited from shooting at moving vehicles – both problems flagged by the Department of Justice earlier this year.
Police have added a mentoring program for young officers, Eden said, and the city is moving toward ensuring every officer receives crisis-intervention training that teaches techniques for de-escalating tense situations. For the first time in years, the city administration and police union have a contract in place for officers.
Among other changes:
• To address recruiting, APD hired Edit House Productions, a Rio Rancho firm, in March. The firm recruited New Mexico State Police officers when Eden was cabinet secretary.
Edit House is recruiting more and better recruits to APD, Eden said. A police academy class that started in June with 44 cadets had 37 still enrolled – 84 percent – when Eden sat down for a recent Journal interview . In prior APD recruiting classes, he said, 35 to 40 percent had dropped out six weeks into the academy. “We’ve actually seen an increase in the number of people that are going through the process,” Eden said.
• APD has changed the way it reports and investigates nonlethal use-of-force incidents, Eden said. In May, police put in place a more comprehensive use-of-force report and required supervisors to do an immediate investigation any time an officer uses force.
Supervisors detail the reason the officer encountered the suspect, what the suspect did, why the officer used force, what de-escalation techniques and what type of force were used, and where the suspect was hurt, among other information. Sergeants, lieutenants and commanders also have to complete reports on the incident.
Eden said he doesn’t think the new reporting system will change officer response or make the police department less proactive.
“It’s not a burden on the officer who uses force,” Eden said. “It is the responsibility of the supervisor to do an adequate, on-scene investigation.”
Eden has kept a lower profile with the media in recent months.
He fielded questions during news conferences for the first month he was chief. Since the news conference following the fatal officer-involved shooting of Mary Hawkes in April, Eden hasn’t spoken much at news conferences, especially those centering on officer-involved shootings. Instead, deputy chiefs have usually taken questions.
Eden said he stepped aside to give his deputy chiefs more experience.
“I felt it was important … to make sure we do everything we can to prepare them for future promotions – commanders, majors and deputy chiefs,” he said.
Eden said he also has given more officers approval to speak publicly during emergencies. He said lieutenants and above can take questions in the field, during arrests, disasters or other emergencies.
“We have more than just one person who is available to talk to media,” he said.
There have been three officer-involved shootings since the beginning of May and Eden wasn’t the one to brief the media during news conferences on any of them.
City Councilor Trudy Jones said that, while Eden’s work as chief is generally strong, he’s not at his best when it comes to public speaking and news conferences. “I would much rather have a police chief with good performance … than someone who is very glib and light on his feet with the press,” she said.
Eden’s performance has drawn mixed reviews.
Peter Simonson, executive director for the ACLU in New Mexico, said Eden’s decisions have been both “positive and worrisome.”
He credited the chief for standardizing firearms and meeting with community leaders to discuss problems within the department. But he said the shooting of James Boyd, the homeless man killed by APD officers early in Eden’s tenure, was an “obvious problem” and the ACLU is still concerned with APD’s military-style tactics.
Just this month, APD revealed that it was getting rid of one tactical vehicle – a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP – but that it had already acquired another one, a Rook, which looks like a small tank without the gun, and has plans to buy yet another armored vehicle.
Simonson said Eden’s tenure as chief will be judged by the steps he takes after the city and the Justice Department negotiate a consent decree aimed at reforming the department.
“In my interaction with him, he’s been very positive and willing to discuss the issues that plague the department,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, I’m not interested in who the person is who carries out reforms. I’m just interested in … reforms within the police department that make a difference in the streets of Albuquerque.”
The Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association said the union was originally skeptical of Eden’s appointment.
“I think we started out rocky, looking at him being appointed to the position. He had a lot of law enforcement history, but not a lot of law enforcement experience,” said Stephanie Lopez, president of the APOA. “But I see him as doing his very best to make things better.”
Eden has held large briefings with more than a hundred officers at a time and given them the chance to ask questions of their chief, which has led to a slight improvement in morale among the rank and file, she said. Berry said Eden is passionate about putting in place reforms that make a real difference in the department, not doing things that are just “window dressing.”
“I know he’s doing everything in his power to build both community relationships and to make sure the department is as good as it can be,” Berry said.
Eden said he’s up to the task. “If I wasn’t the right guy for the job, I think the mayor would have already taken care of that,” he said.