Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
In 2010, Albuquerque police fired their weapons about once every two weeks.
And the taxpayers paid some hefty amounts for some of those incidents.
Among the shootings that year were Christopher Torres, a schizophrenic man who was shot in the back in his parents’ backyard by plainclothes detectives trying to serve a warrant; Kenneth Ellis III, an Iraq war veteran shot by a detective outside a convenience store as he was pointing a gun at his own head; and Alan Gomez, who only had a spoon when shot by a tactical officer called to a domestic disturbance. Settlements in those three cases cost taxpayers nearly $15 million.
Compare that to last year.
Albuquerque police fired their weapons just seven times in the line of duty. It was the fewest by the department in a calendar year in at least seven years – and evidence, police officials say, that the hours of training officers have completed and policy changes called for in a settlement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice are working.
“It’s good news, and it’s also a time not to sit back and relax,” Mayor Richard Berry said.
Berry took office in December 2009. The next year, APD officers fired their weapons in the line of duty 25 times. That statistic includes shooting animals and accidental discharges, as well as shooting people or at them.
But despite the comparatively low number of police shootings last year, the department still has work to do, advocates for reform said.
“Hopefully, there is some causal connection between the reforms and those lowering numbers,” said Steven Robert Allen, a spokesman for APD Forward, a coalition of community groups that advocates for police reform. “The numbers could spike up again or drop lower, but ultimately we need a system in place (so police) adequately respond to uses of force.”
Even police officials said the number of times they open fire in a given year isn’t the best mark for critiquing the department.
“Officers always take the number of police shootings with a grain of salt because they know (the police) are only one part of the equation,” said Maj. Jessica Tyler, who oversees Albuquerque police’s training academy. “We can’t control an armed subject who decides to come out and point a gun at citizens or officers.”
The shootings in 2016 included a shootout involving three APD officers, two Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office deputies and Ronald Delfino, a Westside Bloods gang member who had just shot and killed a 64-year-old grandfather and robbed a McDonald’s.
Delfino was killed.
In another shooting last year, an Albuquerque police officer on a U.S. Marshals Task Force opened fire after his team got “pinned down” by gunfire while trying to arrest Mario Montoya, according to court documents.
Montoya died in the gunfight. The task force was rescued by Albuquerque police’s SWAT team – which didn’t fire a shot.
In all, a suspect was killed in four of the shootings police were involved in last year.
Tyler credited the drop in shootings to policy changes and hours of additional training that were implemented as part of a court-enforceable settlement agreement between the DOJ and the city of Albuquerque.
“It’s knowing the difference between when (officers) can shoot and when they have to shoot,” Tyler said. “And that’s a really thin line sometimes.”
In April 2014, the Justice Department announced that its investigation of Albuquerque police had found a pattern of excessive force. The DOJ reviewed 20 shootings over a three-year period and found the majority of them were not justified because the suspect posed only a minimal threat to officers.
Those findings led to months of negotiations between the DOJ and the city of Albuquerque, which resulted in a settlement agreement that outlines a series of changes the police must adopt.
Since the settlement was reached, APD has implemented a new use-of-force policy, which emphasizes de-escalation and instructs officers to use the “minimum amount of force necessary.”
Officers also have undergone hours of crisis intervention training, which aims to improve communication skills so they can better calm suspects.
The department has made several significant changes to they way officers operate.
For example, the DOJ said in its findings letter that APD’s SWAT team acted recklessly and was poorly supervised.
In the past, supervisors in the field could call the team to action. Now, calling out the SWAT team must be approved by a lieutenant on the team. A psychologist also is deployed every time the SWAT team is activated, Tyler said.
APD’s SWAT team hasn’t fired a weapon in the line of duty since July 2014, according to shooting statistics.
Despite the decrease in the number of shootings last year, the work called for in the settlement agreement is far from over.
James Ginger, the independent monitor overseeing police reform, repeatedly has raised concerns in reports about the way supervisors respond to cases where officers use force against someone.
During a status conference before U.S. District Court Judge Robert Brack earlier this month, attorneys involved in the litigation said there are ongoing problems with the way the city and Ginger are working together, according to a transcript of the hearing.
Luis Salcedo, an attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ, said at the Jan. 5 hearing that much of the disagreement is over Ginger’s role in the process.
The city has tried to get Ginger to edit his reports on the police’s progress prior to filing them in court to reflect what the city says are changes since the information in the reports is several months old. Brack has allowed Ginger to file them without additional edits.
Ginger, who has worked on reforms by police departments in other states, said he’s never had “this level” of disagreement with a city going through the reform process.
“I am as concerned today as I’ve been at any point in the process,” Brack said at the Jan. 5 hearing, according to a transcript.
Allen said APD Forward remains concerned about the police’s response to the settlement agreement.
“It’s clear they don’t have the systems in place to track and respond to uses of force,” he said. “It’s alarming reading the monitor reports.”