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Mayor Tim Keller was not yet in office in 2014 when the United States Department of Justice found a pattern and practice of excessive force being used by the Albuquerque Police Department. Candidate Keller sought and won the endorsement of the police union and promised to work with them to implement reforms. He signed a $40 million annual tax increase to fund public safety, including APD reforms. Three years and a hundred million dollars later, DOJ says Keller’s approach hasn’t changed the culture of APD and reform efforts are “on the brink of catastrophic failure.”
For a while under Keller’s administration, it seemed the department was making some strides. In 2019 Dr. James Ginger, the court-appointed federal monitor, noted in one of his reports that the city had reached 100 percent primary compliance, which means all policies that needed to be changed and implemented had been implemented—as in, all the stuff on paper. He found 93 percent secondary or training complied and 66 percent of operational compliance. The training and operational compliance referred to compliance on the streets, monitoring whether the officers and supervisors follow the new protocol and procedure.
By all accounts it’s on the street where things haven’t changed. Report after report from the monitoring team detailed cases where APD supervisors failed to recognize serious uses of force captured on officer-worn video. DOJ also says the police union is overzealous in its defense of officer misconduct and little is done to push back. Keller, having sought the union’s endorsement last time, is also negotiating a new contract with them now.
In Nov. 2020 Dr. Ginger told U.S. District Judge James O. Browning the department and the administration overseeing the reforms were “on the brink of catastrophic failure.” DOJ has threatened to hold the city, under Keller’s leadership, in contempt and begin a wholesale outside takeover of the department. In the meantime, Keller’s administration has asked the court to give it one more chance: Keller has agreed to create a new squad of outside investigators serving as police who police the police who police us. Whew.
Meanwhile, a scandal at the training academy, rampant abuses of overtime and accusations of improper spending in the chief’s office and less-than-satisfactory compliance with DOJ reforms prompted the City Council to begin questioning whether it was time for a change. Shortly thereafter, Keller asked then-Police Chief Michael Geier to step down. Interim-Chief Howard Medina stepped in as the city zeroed in on a new police chief after a nationwide net was cast. The search is now down to three candidates.
With all those reports from DOJ and signs of mismanagement at APD, some are asking if all of this could have been avoided if Keller would have taken action sooner to shake up the top brass. Maybe. It’s also much more than that. As City Attorney Esteban Aguilar said, “What we’re dealing with are these fundamental habit changes.” Change takes time—and apparently a lot of money and oversight.