There was a period of time in the previous mayoral administration when the city of Albuquerque would rarely settle a lawsuit filed against its police department.
The downside was that legal bills would stack up and that plaintiffs in cases in which liability was clear were still forced to run the legal gantlet. The upside was that the public was able to get an official accounting in sworn testimony in open court of what had happened, officers who had misused their authority were exposed, along with systemic problems, and officers who had been wrongfully accused were given public vindication.
Considering the Albuquerque Police Department is on a federally mandated mission to repair its relationship with the community in the wake of numerous shootings – and in recent years has paid tens of millions in settlements and/or judgments over alleged police misconduct – it’s important the city opt for transparency and accountability in pending lawsuits against its force.
The rationale under then-Mayor Martin Chávez’s no-settlement policy (though there were exceptions) was that going to trial would discourage frivolous claims, eliminate backroom deals and “nuisance” settlements, and put police misconduct into public view. Those were good goals, but the policy was carried to the extreme. As APD awaits a federal judge’s approval of its settlement agreement with the Department of Justice, there are certain cases in which those goals are worth pursuing in the legal system.
One example is the case from March involving the fatal police shooting of a man who allegedly threatened others, then fired a gun near responding officers. Police have a clear version of what happened leading up to the shooting of Alfred Redwine, 30. They say Redwine fired first. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have two others, that Redwine was unarmed and only had a cellphone to his head when he was shot, or that he had a gun pressed to his head in a “suicidal gesture” and never threatened officers.
Given the disparity at a crucial time for APD, it’s a conflict that needs to be sorted out in court as part of the process of rebuilding public confidence in APD.
No taxpayer wants to fork over their hard-earned cash to fight a lawsuit, but the public has got to be able to depend on APD to protect it, and the police officers who put their lives on the line daily have got to know their reputations will not be tarnished with payouts for false accusations.
The city should take the Redwine case and others like it to trial.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.