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Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
FOR THE RECORD: This story incorrectly reported the work history of Albuquerque Police Department Sgt. Scott Norris, who oversees the new Critical Incident Review Team. Norris was not previously employed by the New Mexico State Police.
Are there lessons to be learned from the Albuquerque Police Department’s response to the May 24 demonstration that spun out of control outside Donald Trump’s presidential campaign appearance here?
A newly created APD team trained to review serious use of force incidents for ways to improve outcomes has the “riot” among its cases to evaluate.
But there’s no guarantee the public will see the team’s final analysis.
The administration of Mayor Richard Berry has had an attorney working with the new APD Critical Incident Review Team and considers the team’s reviews as attorney work product. That means the evaluations would generally be exempt from public release under state law.
It will be up to the City Attorney’s Office to determine if any review will be publicly disseminated, said city Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry.
“It’s a Catch 22,” Perry said. “We don’t mean to conceal anything. But it’s going to be on a case-by-case basis. We have to consider the legal implications of it. There’s the whole notion of, ‘Oh, you’re going to be critical of yourself. Well, you just gave the plaintiffs’ bar a playbook (to sue the city).’ ” Some reviews will be withheld if there are ongoing criminal proceedings, he added.
Albuquerque civil rights attorney Joe Kennedy said he didn’t believe the CIRT reviews would be legally admissible in court “to prove a constitutional violation.”
“So I don’t see any concern about what we would do with that information,” said Kennedy, whose firm won about $13 million in damages related to two fatal shootings by APD officers since 2010.
After-action reviews are a good idea, Kennedy said, but he believes that police training or policy experts should oversee the reviews, rather than an attorney.
The APD review team, which went live in November 2015 without public fanfare, assesses whether policy, tactics, training or equipment issues are involved in incidents involving serious use of force.
“It’s kind of like an after-action report on steroids,” said APD Sgt. Scott Norris, who supervises the four-detective unit. “We’re looking at what we can do to improve upon whatever we may have done not so great,” Norris said. “We’re also looking at things that we did right, and we’re trying to push that out to the rest of the department as positive reinforcement.”
Serious force incidents are to be reviewed within two months.
The new internal scrutiny is mandated under the city’s 2014 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that APD engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force that violated the U.S. Constitution. APD was also faulted for its use of less than lethal force and of using unnecessary force during encounters with the mentally ill or those in crisis.
The Justice Department also found systemic deficiencies within APD, including failed accountability systems and ineffective systems of investigation.
As of early June, 31 cases were assigned to the review team, including “handcuffed takedowns,” “neck holds,” and what was described as “Critical Incident – Trump Riot.”
Outside the Trump appearance at the Albuquerque Convention Center in May, protesters threw burning T-shirts, plastic bottles and other items at police officers, injuring several, and toppled trash cans and barricades. Police responded by firing pepper spray and smoke grenades into the crowd.
The Albuquerque Police Officers Association complained that the department failed to equip officers with the gear they needed to avoid harm and that not enough officers were on hand to handle the situation.
The incident, which didn’t involve serious force, was nevertheless sent for the team’s review because “it was kind of a debatable thing about what type of force and equipment we used,” Perry told the Journal . As of last week, the CIRT hadn’t yet started that review.
Norris said APD had 10 months from the date of the settlement to launch the new unit and Norris’ team traveled around the country for specialized training.
APD modeled its unit after a similar program at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, and a CIRT team from Las Vegas, Nev., traveled here to show APD ways of successfully reviewing incidents. Albuquerque attorney Mark D. Jarmie was retained to set up the program and oversee the reviews.
But in Las Vegas, the results of administrative reviews of force incidents are not only public, the “key conclusions, recommendations and outcomes” from CIRT reviews have been posted on the police department’s website.
For instance, one review found deficiencies in radio communications during a December 2010 deadly use of force, and also recommended revising policy to bar multiple police officers from using Taser-like devices at the same time.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department decided to make its reviews public in June 2012, according to a press release, as a way of providing “a level of transparency that the public deserves.” Force incidents under criminal review aren’t posted.
APD didn’t conduct formal administrative reviews when an officer used serious force in the past, Perry said. APD’s Internal Affairs Bureau only focused on individual officers’ conduct to assess whether they had followed policies and state and federal law.
That Internal Affairs process is still in place, while the CIRT is a division of Internal Affairs.
Now, Perry said, “we’re looking at ourselves saying, ‘We don’t do everything right. What can we fix?’ ”
Perry provided to the Journal excerpts from two CIRT reviews – both marked as confidential with warnings against copying or disclosure.
One examined police use of batons and determined that the baton wasn’t being used and should be optional for officers to carry.
The other review recommended a clarification of police policy so the review team’s resources wouldn’t be “diverted on red herring investigations.”
That review, dated Jan. 29, states that attorney Jarmie’s firm provided “legal direction and analysis.”
Perry said another review focused on how the APD sets up perimeters to confine suspects in high-risk situations.
“In one very high profile case, the flare system as it relates to our aviation support didn’t have good GPS positioning so that we could actually set a secure perimeter. To that extent, it’s an equipment issue, combined with policy and maybe some training.
“Because when you’re chasing a bad guy in a very unstable, quickly evolving situation,” Perry said, “you’ve got to be able to do that right.”
Recommendations from CIRT go to an APD Force Review Board. “If they agree, we have to close the loop,” said APD’s Norris. “We have to make sure we close the loop … and put that recommendation into practice.”
Norris, who has 15 years with the APD, says this is the toughest assignment he has ever had.
“You have to be super, super self-critical. Critical of the people you’ve worked around for many years, critical of the people that work for you. You have to be critical of the people you work for and that’s a really hard thing to do. It can put you in a spot.”