ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The seeds of the crisis APD finds itself in were planted a decade or more ago, critics say, when the department began ignoring its own hiring standards and cut corners in an effort to boost the force by a couple of hundred officers in a short period of time.
The department, which is under fire by citizen groups for shootings and faces a possible U.S. Justice Department civil rights investigation, launched an aggressive recruiting campaign at a time when there was fierce competition with the military, Border Patrol and other cities for officers.
In addition to boosting the starting pay for new officers, the city:
♦ Quit requiring a college degree.
♦ Increased the number of cadet classes each year, which cut down on one-on-one training and instruction.
♦ Offered signing bonuses of several thousand dollars.
♦ Instituted a program to rehire retired officers and increased the number of officers it hired laterally from other departments.
Police Chief Ray Schultz, who has dismissed calls for his resignation, says the department is correcting the problems and adopting new standards for hiring and training.
In fact, Schultz says the department is looking for a new kind of cop — one with “compassion, empathy” and the “ability to compromise.”
In the early 2000s, the mandate was clear: APD needs more officers on the streets and must grow its ranks.
One of former Mayor Martin Chávez’s first pledges when he took office in December 2001 was to increase the number of officers; it had 893 in 2002.
Chávez first promised to increase the force to 1,000 officers, then he set the goal at 1,100. APD twice missed the mark, but finally reached it in December 2008. In July 2009, Chávez ordered APD to find still another 100 cops.
During his administration, more men and women were getting badges and guns in Albuquerque nearly every year.
But was there a cost?
Former APD Lt. Steve Tate, director of training at the Police Academy from 2003 until his retirement at the end of 2006, says “political pressure” caused APD to “ignore and circumvent its own policies and practices to meet a number.”
Tate said many questionable candidates made it into and through the APD Academy, and that has contributed to the “crisis state” the department finds itself in now.
The problems have been well-documented: 20 police shootings in 20 months, 14 of them fatal; a police officer charged with the murder of his wife; a subculture of questionable attitudes among some officers as evidenced by their comments on social media websites and the statement by a recently retired top APD official that two officers involved in beating a fleeing suspect “saved his life by not shooting him”; and raucous City Council meetings that feature long lines of citizens speaking out against what they call a “culture of corruption and police brutality.”
Chávez, who was mayor in 1994-98 and again in 2002-10 and is now running for Congress, said in a recent telephone interview that growing APD was important for him as mayor. Public safety, though, was his No. 1 priority, he said.
“More important than growing the department was growing it right,” Chávez said, adding that he made it clear to police supervisors that they were not to relax standards for hiring. “It was always more about quality than the number itself.”
Traditionally, APD has held two 22- or 24-week cadet classes annually at its academy. In 2006, three classes were held, and the next year saw four classes. Another three cadet classes went through the academy in 2008.
Of 23 officers who have made headlines in the past two years either for a shooting, alleged criminal activity or violating APD policies and procedures, 12 were hired between 2002 and 2009. Six of them were hired in 2007 alone.
Tate said running academy classes that overlapped one another — part of what made him decide to leave APD — is a bad idea because it leaves cadets with less one-on-one attention from instructors.
“It’s easier for people to slip through the cracks when you’re running classes concurrently,” he said.
APD had its share of problems while Chávez was mayor, including the evidence room scandal in 2005 that cost then-Chief Gil Gallegos his job. But the department wasn’t featured in a consistent stream of negative headlines as it has been since his departure in December 2009.
“We were always growing the department all through my administrations,” he said. “But we didn’t have these kinds of problems through all those years of growth. I can’t speak to the past two years when these problems have occurred, but when we got a bad apple, we took care of it forcefully and with a command structure. There wasn’t a systemic issue.
“I don’t know the facts well enough, and I don’t have all the information to speak to what that issue is. But I do know that this whole slew of incidents is not acceptable.”
Chief Schultz, who was appointed by Chávez in April 2005, said he was clear there were numbers-driven goals from the Mayor’s Office. But APD neither ignored nor lowered its hiring standards to meet a quota, he said.
Schultz sparred with city councilors at the time, telling them he hadn’t met the 1,000- or 1,100-officer goal because he was unwilling to hire “just anybody.”
The department’s formal standards have stayed largely the same for a decade, the chief said, but in 2001 or 2002, APD began allowing noncollege graduates to apply.
And around 2005, Schultz said, APD actually raised the bar when the academy began automatically disqualifying applicants who were in “debt crisis.”
APD used billboard advertising campaigns, signing bonuses and other incentives to try to grow its ranks. But it was facing stiff competition — other law enforcement agencies were trying to hire from largely the same pool of applicants. The U.S. Border Patrol, Air Marshals and other police departments were all pushing for increased numbers during the post-9/11 era, and many young men enlisted in the military for the war on terror.
‘New breed of officer’
Citizen complaints against officers are down, from 324 in 2006 to 272 last year. As of the end of September this year, there were 205.
Still, the chief said recently there are aspects of his department’s hiring process that need changing.
One of those is the way APD conducts psychological evaluations on officers before they’re hired and later in their careers if disciplinary problems arise. Currently, the same in-house behavioral health professionals conduct those evaluations.
Schultz said that setup can create conflicts of interest: Psychologists are less likely to identify problems with an officer during an internal investigation, say, five years into the officer’s career, when that psychologist cleared the officer for hiring at the outset.
So he plans to hire an out-of-state contractor to conduct pre-employment psychological evaluations, which he figures will cost about $75,000 a year.
The contractor would move away from the pass-fail model, Schultz said, and adopt a system that ranks candidates as not-qualified, qualified or most-qualified to be police officers.
The chief also wants to more carefully scrutinize the way APD hires officers from other departments. Health privacy laws sometimes prevent APD from obtaining information from other departments about so-called “lateral hires,” he said, and other agencies aren’t always completely forthright about an officer’s disciplinary history.
Mayor Richard Berry said some of these hiring changes came as a result of recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum, which did a city-funded study of APD and came up with numerous suggestions.
“APD hiring during this administration has always been about finding the best and brightest among us to serve our community in this vital capacity,” Berry said in a written statement. “I cannot speak to the hiring protocol for previous administrations. However, I truly believe that under the guidance of Chief Schultz and the implementation of the 58 PERF recommendations, 75 percent of which have been completed to date, this administration has taken aggressive and unprecedented steps to ensure the department is moving in the right direction.”
The changes being made are aimed, Schultz said, at adapting APD to the times.
“The traits you want in a police officer now are compassion, empathy, the ability to make good decisions and compromise,” he said. “The qualities have changed because the role of law enforcement has changed in the past 25 or 30 years. The job used to be: Keep the peace and move on. Officers do a lot more now, and the ability to problem solve is more desirable.
“You still have to be able to go from zero to a hundred in two seconds when things go bad. You still need that command presence to make split-second decisions. But if someone doesn’t have that ability, we feel like that’s easier to train than people skills.”
Schultz said the motivation to look for a different skill set in officers is twofold: in response to the community’s needs and concerns and because “best practices” in law enforcement are asking departments to hire a “new breed of officer.”
“We are willing to change,” he said.
Meeting a number
Former Lt. Tate said he agrees with Schultz’s proposed hiring changes.
But APD used to contract out psychological evaluations on officers who were the subjects of Internal Affairs investigations, said Tate, who was an IA supervisor from 2001-03.
“And frankly, it makes more sense to contract those out,” he said. “There are far fewer evaluations done during someone’s career. Why not do the ones on the front-end in-house?”
And rating candidates on a scale more detailed than pass-fail?
“We were absolutely doing that,” Tate said. “It was called the chiefs’ selection process. But if you’re focused on a number, that causes you to lower your standards, and folks are allowed in who otherwise wouldn’t have been. I saw instances of that myself. We were clear that we were to get to 1,100 officers, period. So hiring happened that was not in the best interest of the department or the community.”
Chiefs’ selection is, essentially, a meeting attended by the police chief, deputy chiefs, academy staff and others who discuss whether to admit candidates who have made it past the automatic disqualifier stage of the hiring process. Those disqualifiers include felony convictions and substance abuse issues.
Some of the other steps after an applicant submits an interest card to APD are physical fitness, reading comprehension and written tests, a background investigation, a polygraph and a psychological examination.
Tate said he attended more than 95 percent of chiefs’ selection meetings during his time at the academy.
“I’d say: ‘Here’s someone who doesn’t look that strong,’ then remind the chiefs that we were there to try to pick the best candidates and to protect ourselves from bad hires,” he said. “But they’d just say: ‘Well, we don’t have any reasons not to hire this person, and we do have open seats in the class.’
“To me, the process has always been good when it’s followed. It’s very stringent, with 16, 17, 18 steps that are all there for a reason, and everyone has a role. The problems happened when it was ignored to meet a number, and that was a commonly felt cloud that hung over everything — numbers, numbers, numbers.”
Former Mayor Chávez said he never received feedback from anyone at APD that the quality of hires was suffering.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal