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Rebuilding the Blue Line

Reforms, police shootings and manpower at the Albuquerque Police Department will be a major focus of the final two years of Mayor Richard J. Berry’s tenure in the city’s top job.

Reforms, police shootings and manpower at the Albuquerque Police Department will be a major focus of the final two years of Mayor Richard J. Berry’s tenure in the city’s top job. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

As he enters his last two years in office, Mayor Richard Berry faces a challenge unlike any other he has encountered at City Hall – rebuilding the largest police force in New Mexico.

Some of the trouble predates his administration.

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Justice described a “culture of aggression” among Albuquerque police officers in a 2014 report – something that took root before Berry won the mayor’s race in late 2009.

But other problems have surfaced on his watch:

  • Staffing in the Albuquerque Police Department has fallen 25 percent over the past 5½ years, driven in part, Berry contends, by legislative action that prohibits “double dipping” by retired officers who want to return to work but draw their pensions, too.
  • An investigation by the state auditor found “probable violation” of state and city laws in the awarding of a no-bid contract to Taser International Inc. for camera equipment.
  • A court-appointed monitor overseeing reforms in the police department described APD’s policymaking as “disjointed and disorganized,” while acknowledging some progress elsewhere.

Berry, for his part, says he intends to leave APD in better shape than he found it – that Albuquerque, in fact, has a chance to be a national leader in “meaningful” police reform, as similar efforts get underway in departments from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore and Chicago.

The mayor acknowledges some mistakes – such as imposing new college requirements on police cadets at one point, which may have hurt recruitment – but said he has worked hard to improve the department.

“I take this incredibly seriously,” Berry said in an interview, “and I have spent midnight after midnight trying to figure out how to do this properly, how to be measured and thoughtful and effective.”

Whether he succeeds will shape his legacy as mayor. Berry says he will leave that judgment to the people of Albuquerque.

‘Violated’ trust

Six years ago, barely a month into his first term, Berry got the news that would dominate much of his early administration.

The city faced a $50 million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year as the Great Recession choked city revenue and costs climbed, according to a financial forecast released Jan. 11, 2010.

It was the kind of challenge that routinely kept Berry at City Hall deep into the night.

To help avoid layoffs and service cuts, Berry – a Republican, but with bipartisan City Council approval – reduced employee pay almost across the board.

It triggered a confrontation with Albuquerque’s police union, fueling rancor that lingers today.

Officers didn’t just oppose the pay cuts: They said they were entitled to raises under a multiyear contract signed in the previous administration.

The debate helped put Berry almost immediately at odds with the union representing police officers.

“What you have is a rank and file whose trust has been violated,” Shaun Willoughby, acting president of the police union, said in a recent interview.

Another clash focused on “union time” – the practice of union leaders continuing to draw their city salaries even when they devoted their full workday to union work. Berry demanded an end to union time, and officers eventually agreed to use donated vacation leave to cover it.

The pay cut and union time were among several early confrontations between the police union and the Berry administration.

An anonymous survey of retired officers – ordered by the City Council last year – found that a lack of support from city officials, and concerns about leadership and support within the department were the main reasons officers said they retired.

“Rank-and-file police officers, they will tell you they have no trust, no faith in Mr. Berry as mayor,” Willoughby said.

Berry, meanwhile, often peppers his interviews and public statements with praise for the hard work of officers and says he never lost faith in them. He holds a regular “Friday’s hero” news conference to highlight the work of police and firefighters.

His administration, he said, is undertaking “some of the most robust reform efforts in the history of our city” at the same time as it works to support its officers – something he says can be a tough line to negotiate.

The city cannot “lose sight that our officers are out there every day doing great work, and that they’ve got families and they’ve got careers,” Berry said, “and we want to honor them for their service.”

As for leadership, Berry said he has been encouraged by the “early feedback” from the Department of Justice and others about the work of Police Chief Gorden Eden, whom Berry appointed in 2014.

The 2010 pay cut was a difficult decision, Berry said, but a necessary one to avoid laying off police officers and others.

“It’s not my job to be popular or cozy with union bosses,” he said.

A smaller department

The size of the police force has shrunk under Berry.

The Albuquerque Police Department had 1,099 officers in June 2010 – the summer after Berry took office and just before pay cuts went into effect. Staffing remained above 1,000 officers for at least two years after that before steeper reductions hit the department by summer 2013.

Albuquerque now employs 823 officers. Thirty-eight police cadets are in an academy class scheduled to graduate in March.a01_jd_17jan_APDofficers

A staffing analysis completed as part of a settlement with the Department of Justice recommends the city employ at least 1,000 officers, depending on work schedules.

Berry says other factors beyond his control influence APD staffing.

The state government, for example, made changes to the public-employee retirement system – including the pension rules for municipal police officers – in 2010. One change prohibits retired government employees from returning to work to draw a paycheck and a pension at the same time, a practice known as double dipping.

Berry has been unable in recent years to win approval from the Legislature to make changes aimed at encouraging retired officers to return to work on a limited basis. He is proposing a new, scaled-back bill this session that has the support of several other mayors and law enforcement agencies across the state.

‘Ostrich in the sand’

City finances dominated much of the early news in Berry’s first term.

But an entirely different challenge unfolded soon after he took office – a spike in the number of people shot by police officers.

Just two days after the dire financial forecast in 2010, Albuquerque police pinned a black Corvette into a 7-Eleven parking spot near Eubank and Constitution. The driver inside handed police a knife and said he was high on meth, according to an officer.

Soon, he began pacing back and forth with a gun to his own head. A detective shot once and killed him. The man had “twitched” and stepped toward police, the officer said.

The shooting of Kenneth Ellis III, an Iraq War veteran, led to a nearly $8 million settlement after a court ruled that a reasonable officer wouldn’t have fired.

Other shootings would also lead to outrage and multimillion-dollar awards.

In 2011, a mentally ill man was shot and killed in his own backyard after plainclothes officers jumped the fence to serve a warrant connected to a road rage allegation. A judge later said officers’ testimony about what had happened wasn’t credible, and she awarded more than $6 million to the family of Christopher Torres.

In 2014, in a shooting captured by officers’ body-worn cameras, police fired at a homeless camper, James Boyd, as he turned away from them, with one bullet hitting him in the back. Chief Eden, in a news conference later, described the shooting as “justified” – a comment that drew scorn. (Eden later apologized.)

The city reached a $5 million settlement, and the officers now face murder charges.

A month after the Boyd shooting, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the results of an investigation into APD – that Albuquerque police had a pattern of violating people’s rights through the use of force. The report described a “culture of aggression.”

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, describes Berry as slow to respond to “the escalating crisis inside APD.”

“Early on,” Simonson said, “as the shootings were rising in number, we were basically met with the response that it’s not APD’s fault: It’s the growing number of mentally ill and homeless people on the streets. There seemed to be no outward recognition that there was a problem in APD.”

Bob Martinez, state president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said APD’s challenges aren’t necessarily of Berry’s making, but “his performance has been mediocre.” Ordinary officers want to know they’re supported by management, he said.

“There really hasn’t been a very clear and open discussion with the rank and file,” Martinez said.

Michael Gomez, whose son was shot and killed by officers, resulting in a $900,000 settlement, offered a harsh assessment of Berry’s performance.

“He’s like an ostrich in the sand. … He’s the master of deflection, that guy,” Gomez said in an interview.

Effort since Day One

Berry strongly disputes that sort of criticism. He does have a sense of urgency about improving APD, he said.

The city hired a think tank, the Police Executive Research Forum, the year after Berry took office to evaluate police shootings.

And the city later carried out 60 changes in police policy, training and procedures, many based on the recommendations of PERF, which issued a report in 2011.

Berry also made APD one of the first and largest departments in the country to embrace the use of body-worn cameras that show officers’ interactions with the public.

Albuquerque also started training every field officer in crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques, making it the first department to do so, the mayor said.

Police reforms “did not start when the DOJ walked in the door,” Berry said. “We’ve had a great relationship there, and that’s advancing our efforts, no question. But, for me, this has been (a priority) almost since Day One.”

The Department of Justice investigation – the findings were announced in 2014, about six months after Berry’s big re-election win the previous year – made it clear the early reforms weren’t enough.

On the use of body-worn cameras, for example, the DOJ said “the implementation has been highly inconsistent.” Federal investigators also said APD’s training academy put too much emphasis on the use of force and weapons.

“I’ll admit that we weren’t finished with those first round of reforms,” Berry said.

“But I hope people understand the effort and the willingness of their mayor to take this seriously and to try to hand it off way better than we found it.”

‘Politically vulnerable’

Berry, a former member of the state House, says he won’t seek a third term as mayor in the 2017 election, but he’s widely seen as a potential candidate for statewide office.

Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., which does scientific surveys for the Journal, said the mayor “will be politically vulnerable if the city is not in substantial compliance (with the DOJ settlement) before his term ends.”

The agreement calls for an assessment in November 2016 to determine whether Albuquerque police have achieved “substantial compliance.” That’s a year before Berry’s term ends, on Nov. 30, 2017.

“I think he’ll have a feather in his cap if he can have the monitor say the city has reached compliance,” Sanderoff said.

Even some critics of the mayor’s handling of APD say they expect the reforms to succeed.

“I don’t think the outcomes are going to live up to our expectations – our high expectations – but I think there is a will within the department to generally reform the way officers are using force,” ACLU NM executive director Simonson said.

The DOJ settlement calls for the city to try to come into full compliance within four years, or by November 2018.

The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce said things are on the right track and Berry “should not let up.”

The mayor “faced the investigation and the findings head-on, and has worked hard to pull together the funding and support to implement the improvements outlined in the consent decree,” said Terri Cole, the chamber’s president and CEO.

City Council President Dan Lewis, a Republican, provided a rather neutral appraisal of Berry’s performance and the outlook for APD.

“It’s not my job to defend the mayor,” he said, “and I don’t feel the need to pile on criticism. I’m focused on what Albuquerque can be in the future if we make the best decisions, regardless of what this administration does.”

Looking ahead, the mayor says he is trying to calibrate the city’s police reform efforts to maximize their effectiveness – neither doing too much nor too little.

“I’ve tried not to politicize it,” Berry said. “I’ve tried not to overswing. I’ve tried not to underswing. … We want to do this right, and doing it right is never doing it easy and it’s never doing it fast.”

Ultimately, he said, the public will judge whether he got it right.

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