ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A hearing to update the federal judge on Albuquerque’s police reform effort ended with a celebratory picnic in the courtroom.
U.S. District Judge Robert Brack, who said he was pleased with the reform process so far, had the tables where lawyers sit covered in cloth and the ceremonial courtroom in the federal courthouse on Gold Street in Downtown was turned into a dinner party of sorts.
Officials and officers from the city, the police union, the Department of Justice and advocates from various community organizations mingled and had barbecue, cold tea and other trimmings. The courtroom was full for both the hearing and the picnic.
Brack compared the event to a “topping out ceremony,” which is held midway through major construction projects.
The judge talked briefly about the tumultuous relationships between police departments and communities across the nation and said he hopes the reform effort here can one day be an example for the rest of the country.
“Maybe this was a good time for a topping out ceremony. We now have a framework in place,” he said. “We aren’t a big, beautiful, endearing place yet, but the framework is there. We’re building something here that can be a model for the nation.”
Albuquerque police are putting in place a series of court-enforceable reforms that stem from a DOJ investigation that found Albuquerque had a pattern of using excessive force.
Officers are undergoing training that aims to curb excessive force and de-escalate situations. Supervisors are also being trained and reviewed by a monitoring team to ensure the supervisors will hold officers accountable to those new policies.
Brack said it was time for a ceremony because the city has written the necessary policies and begun training to implement them.
Still some concerns
Despite the cheery nature at the end of Thursday’s hearing, there are concerns.
James Ginger, the monitor overseeing the reform effort, said in court Thursday that the city at times took shortcuts in the reform process so it could stay on track with a four-year deadline. Both Ginger and DOJ officials have said that deadline is almost impossible for the city to achieve.
Ginger’s third report on the police’s progress, which was released earlier this month, said there were problems with some supervisory investigations into serious use-of-force cases.
U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez pointed out that Albuquerque police have achieved “operational compliance” with less than 5 percent of the tasks APD will have to accomplish as part of the settlement agreement.
He also said Thursday that the city administration blocked a scheduled meeting between DOJ officials and rank-and-file police officers so the officials could get a sense of how officers feel about the training they’ve received so far.
“Are these policies making sense to you? Are you receiving proper training? Is it making you safer?” Martinez said he wanted to ask officers. “If an officer is training to act appropriately to what a situation calls for, that will help both the officer and the person from the community who is in that situation.”
Several community groups also raised concerns about APD’s engagement with the public, specifically the Community Policing Councils.
Also, the civilian agencies that investigate complaints against police and serious use-of-force cases, which include shootings, said there are problems with the strict deadlines in which they have to review cases. They have also said they are frustrated at being left out of policy development discussions.
Within APD, there appears to be some discrepancy over how the training is going.
Shaun Willoughby, the president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, said crucial policies governing an officer’s actions are being changed and the training is happening so quickly that some officers are scared to take action in certain situations.
“I don’t care how long (the reform effort) takes,” he said. “I just want our officers to have all the tools they need to be successful.”
City officials said their main concern is that the training goes well.
“I’ve never talked to a single officer who said the training was going too fast,” Police Chief Gorden Eden said. “Every officer I talked to said it’s the best they’ve had in their career.”