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Tierna Unruh-Enos is the managing editor and associate publisher at The Paper.

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After a nationwide search, Mayor Tim Keller nominated and City Council permanently installed Interim-Chief Harold Medina as the new chief of police earlier this month. In a break from procedure, four-time former police chief Sylvester Stanley was appointed as interim Superintendent of Police Reform. Stanley’s job will be to manage police academy operations, two internal affairs divisions, disciplinary actions, use of force review and make sure the department is meeting all DOJ mandates.

In an interview with The Paper., Chief Medina talked about his priority for addressing the rise in violent crime in the city, boosting morale among officers and working with the community to address police reform and build public trust.

The Crime Continues to Rise

Tackling the city’s rising violent crime numbers is Medina’s top priority. He says the department has to draw a line in the sand when it comes to repeat violent offenders. Medina started the Metro 15 program in 2019, which identifies the top 15 repeat crime offenders in the city. The program touts that 70 percent of those arrested remain behind bars. “We have to be proactive in our approach. But we’re going to need help. We need legislators and judges to help enforce the approach that if you’re violent, you stay in jail.”

Police Chief Harold Medina

He says he sees cracks in the system where low-level offenders are arrested once, or need services that they haven’t had access to, such as mental health support. “I feel like we’re setting up too many people for failure. We arrest them on a property crime charge, and then they’re released back into the community without support. And then everyone is surprised when they’re arrested again. It’s not working. We’re just kicking the ball down the road. I believe we need to figure out what diversions there are, especially for younger kids before they become violent offenders,” he said.

What the Critics Say

Medina has faced criticism from members of the community who say that he is part of the culture at APD that caused the problem and that he has a stain of excessive use of force as an officer as well. According to the Associated Press, in 2002, Medina and other officers responded to a 14-year-old boy in a church who said he was possessed by demons. Medina shot the boy after he pointed a BB gun at the officers. The boy later died from his injuries.

Medina was deputy chief when a protest at the Oñate statue in Old Town got violent and a protestor was shot last year. APD and the mayor have maintained they made the right decision not to intervene at the protest. He says he was at home at the time of the Oñate protest. “Most people think I was there at the command post, but I wasn’t. I reviewed the operation, and the primary focus was on the New Mexico Civil Guard. We didn’t know it would be something of this magnitude.” When asked if he would change anything about APD’s response, he says that he would want a commanding officer at any incident of this magnitude in the future. He says he still supports how the department handled the situation and says APD saw some of the lowest levels of police conflict across the country during the protests last year. He says his past experiences have made him even more committed to reforming the department and making sure officers have more training.

Transformational Change

After George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last May, Albuquerque joined the nationwide outcry against police brutality, especially against the Black community. After repeatedly clashing with activists, Medina decided it was time to talk one-on-one. He started the Ambassador Program, where he talks every week with community organizers who feel they haven’t been heard and have been unjustly targeted by police—like La’Quonte Barry, who was unjustly detained after an “I Can’t Breathe” rally at Civic Plaza. Barry has since settled with the city.

In a break from past canned law enforcement responses, Medina expressed his willingness to listen to their concerns and create partnerships within marginalized communities. “It’s my job to listen to their concerns and try to address them. I know have some very strong partnerships within the Black community. I’m trying to have strong partnerships within other communities as well, like the Asian community and the LGBTQ+ community. We have to prepare our officers to deal with everyone, and recruit officers from within these communities as well. Oftentimes there’s a cultural or religious issue we need to understand and learn how to respond to. I truly believe it’s a chance for us to understand each other.”

Medina says he’s happy to work with Stanley on police reform. “The first thing I had to do was check my ego at the door. I can accept help. I couldn’t do what needed to be done with addressing crime, lead the department and successfully meet the DOJ mandates. The rate I was going wasn’t sustainable. It was the best decision for the city and for the department.”

Working to Implement Change

Superintendent of Police Reform Sylvester Stanley says he feels comfortable in his new position.

Superintendent of Police Reform Sylvester Stanley

“Working in Indian Country, you have to work with outside agencies like the DOJ and the US Attorney’s Office. You need that partnership to assist you in your shortcomings.” Stanley says he’s reviewing training policies and looking to see where the department is missing the mark with recruits and career law enforcement. He also recognizes that there are investigators who have never conducted an investigation. Stanley says he wants to ensure that the investigators are properly trained and have the tools for success.

Concerning working with cops who have been with APD for a long time and might be resistant to the changes, he had this to say, “There are people who have been around a long time, and they think they don’t need us, but they don’t get a choice. I want to make sure we’re meeting our obligation with the DOJ.”

Stanley says he’ll be meeting the police union and working closely with them. He says he’ll be spot-checking, doing additional training where necessary. “We didn’t get here overnight. It’s going to take us a while to meet the requirements and bring about the change needed. It’s a change in culture, but that’s my job, and I’ll be responsible.”

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