Tuesday, March 21, 2023
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Bad Case of the Blues

Albuquerque Police Department In A Pickle With A Federal Judge


There always seem to be problems at any police department, but this last chunk of time has been a bit overloaded for the Albuquerque Police Department. Some of the drama includes the former chief leaving with his tail between his legs, the firing of the academy commander, a scathing report from the federal monitor calling the department the worst he has seen in 30 years, officers padding their pocketbooks with overtime, COVID-19 infections taking officers off the streets and a looming threat of outside receivership.

What It's Like

It ain’t easy on the streets of Burque. More than 500,000-plus calls are received by APD dispatchers each year. These are handled by between 850 and 875 officers. Recent crime stats show 71 homicides (as of Dec. 13). According to the FBI’s midyear incident-reporting system, Albuquerque’s crime was down, overall, as of Sept. 1 when the data was collected. Seventy percent of all crimes reported are property crimes. Gun shootings are up about 19 percent over last year, with about 60 to date. Interim Chief Harold Medina has said tempering gun violence is key to reducing the homicide and overall crime rate.

Eyes On The Blues

One of the best tools for police reform is more eyes on the blues. The Civilian Police Oversight Agency (CPOA) was formed in 2014. It is an important piece in the city’s Court Approved Settlement Agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The feds found that APD officers engaged in a pattern of excessive force. The CPOA, through its police oversight board, investigates civilian complaints such as use of force, policy review and other tasks. The recommendations are sent on to the top brass to decide to follow or to ignore.

It has been a struggle for this fragile agency to even do its job. CPOA Executive Director Edward Harness has tried for years to get the attention of city leaders to secure long-term funding for the agency so it can do its job. He has all but begged the City Council to fill vacant seats. There are nine seats on the CPOA Board, with three vacant.

Harness sent a letter to U.S. District Judge James O. Browning citing inadequate funding, not being fully staffed and a lack of information coming from the police department. He said it is taking up to a year for a seat to be filled due to the cumbersome process of selecting and vetting applicants. Harness also criticized the Force Review Board, which is made up of top APD cops who review the agency’s use of force review and conclusions. In other words, they are monitoring themselves. Harness and federal monitor Dr. James Ginger said this Force Review Board has failed to meaningfully review cases and investigations. Harness also wants the CPOA Board to have access to full investigations. Currently, board members are only allowed to see an overview presentation.

During the five and a half hour Dec. 10 meeting of the CPOA board, members heard from the City Council president, who agreed that the oversight process is too complicated, needs to be more transparent, and the agency needs the tools to be able to do its job.

What Say You?

An all-day hearing was held via Zoom Dec. 4 in front of U.S. District Judge James O. Browning, who heard reports and arguments regarding proposed changes at the police department that include even more outside oversight.

Along with Harness’ letter, and the scathing federal monitor’s latest report, several amici letters were sent to Judge Browning asking for the city to be held in contempt of court. Amici curiae are advocacy groups not part of the litigation but are interested parties who are allowed to provide input. Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, who is representing the APD Forward advocacy group, said the situation at APD is desperate and is in dire need of supervision.

If the city is found to be in contempt of court, then Judge Browning could appoint an outside administrator to oversee APD to get the department into compliance. This means an agent of the court would act as the de facto police chief.

Peter Cubra, an attorney representing the McClendon Subclass, another amici group, said the city and the police union has actively interfered with the implementation of the settlement. Cubra and other amici attorneys are in support of a contempt ruling; but they do not like the idea of outside investigators, as they said this is not a good answer. Instead, the department should be taught how to properly investigate use of force. Interim Police Chief Medina agrees with bringing on external investigators to teach APD investigators how to do an internal use of force investigation properly.

Both sides have been working on a stipulated order that is expected to be filed mid-January, outlining how the city and the DOJ plan on moving forward in their compliance efforts. Stay tuned.


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