ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Albuquerque officials are bracing for the U.S Justice Department’s long-awaited investigation report on the culture and use-of-force patterns at the city’s beleaguered police department.
It’s expected any day.
Mayor Richard Berry on Tuesday rolled out a nearly $500 million budget proposal for the coming fiscal year. In an interview with KRQE News 13, Berry said $1 million of that will be spent on providing APD officers with training in deescalation techniques and strategies for dealing with people with mental illness.
Berry said he hasn’t seen the DOJ’s findings, and he doesn’t know what reforms federal officials will require of APD. He did, however, characterize the training for officers as a “proactive” step toward compliance.
The mayor also said he doesn’t know how much money the Justice Department’s mandated reforms will cost Albuquerque taxpayers.
The $1 million, Berry said, is “a starting point so when the Department of Justice does come in with recommendations, and we just don’t know what they’re going to be at this point, or how much they will cost, we have a robust beginning to that process as well.”
If the DOJ’s work on police reforms in other cities is any indication, $1 million isn’t going to be nearly enough.
In New Orleans, La., for example, city officials entered into an agreement, known as a “consent decree,” with the DOJ in 2012 to clean up that city’s long-troubled police department. The cost: $11 million a year for five years.
Citizens in Seattle, Wa., have paid nearly $7 million for federally-mandated police reforms since Emerald City leaders signed a consent decree with the Justice Department in 2012.
In both cities, a federal monitor is in place to ensure reforms take hold.
Samuel Walker is a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a national expert on police practices. He also has some experience with APD, as co-author of a report on officer-involved shootings in 1997.
Walker has published work on DOJ investigations of police departments. He told News 13 this week that a Justice Department probe is a sign that things have gone awry.
“These reforms are expensive,” Walker said. “It’s really a lot of unfinished business in terms of doing things that should have been done a long time ago.
“Think of a police department as a house that’s been neglected for 30 years: you know, the leak in the roof, the leaking windows, the foundation problems, the porch is falling apart. If you suddenly at one point want to fix all those, the bill is going to be pretty steep.”
APD has been on the Justice Department’s radar since at least August 2011, when police shootings here had just spiked to never-before-seen levels. Federal officials announced in November 2012 that they would “peel the onion to its core and leave no stone unturned” in a comprehensive investigation aimed at determining whether city police have a pattern or practice of violating citizens’ civil rights, particularly in the way they use force.
In all, APD officers have shot 34 men since 2010. Most of them were living with mental illness, 23 of them died.
Federal officials have met with community leaders and family members of men shot by APD during the past 16 months to discuss the investigation, but they’ve provided few details. They’ve been even more tight-lipped with the news media.
But from the outset, DOJ officials made clear that they would focus on several key areas at APD, including officers’ training, how well the department polices itself through the Internal Affairs process and whether APD’s policies and procedures match what’s happening on the streets, especially when it comes to the use of force.
No matter the cost, mandated reforms from the Department of Justice won’t arrive a moment too soon for many city residents, who are calling louder than ever for reform at APD amid fresh criticism that the department’s officers are too quick to the trigger. The recent outrage, which has included hundreds of demonstrators marching on police headquarters, follows the release of video footage from a SWAT officer’s helmet camera that shows two APD officers firing three shots a piece from assault-style rifles at 38-year-old James Boyd on March 16.
Police say Boyd was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was illegally camping in the Sandia foothills. He was shot after a three-hour encounter with police. At the time Detective Keith Sandy and Officer Dominique Perez shot him, Boyd was holding two knives. But moments earlier, he had agreed to leave the foothills with the officers, and he was turning away from them.
The FBI confirmed last week that it has launched a criminal investigation into the Boyd shooting. News 13 has learned that there are, in fact, several ongoing criminal investigations of individual APD officers. Those are separate from the civil investigation.
The Albuquerque Police Department is just the latest law enforcement agency to come under the DOJ’s microscope. The federal agency has investigated 32 law enforcement agencies across the country since 1994, according to its website.
Four consent decrees are in place and active.
In December 2011, after an 11-month investigation, the DOJ announced Seattle police officers too often resorted to using excessive force, often for minor offenses, such as jaywalking and open container violations.
The feds also found evidence of biased policing, but investigators couldn’t identify find a pattern. The report also pointed out that most of the people officers used force against were living with mental illness drug abuse problems.
Like Albuquerque, the Seattle probe came in the wake of highly publicized confrontations, including the August 2010 fatal police shooting of a Native American woodcarver who was described as a chronic inebriate, according to news reports. The shooting was ruled unjustified, and the officer resigned.
Then-Mayor Michael McGinn said the DOJ report raised “serious” allegations but agreed to a consent decree to avoid a costly civil trial.
Under the court-ordered agreement, the SPD was ordered to overhaul use-of-force policies, boost training and implement measures that address biased policing. One of the major changes included making sure there were a sufficient number of supervisors within the department to review and document each use of force incident. The Community Police Commission, a group of 15 community members appointed by the mayor, was created to monitor how the SPD was making changes.
Seattle taxpayers, to date, are on the hook for more than $7 million to implement the DOJ-mandated reforms.
In March 2011, the DOJ released a 160-page report on the long-troubled New Orleans Police Department after a 10-month investigation. It was the most comprehensive federal police investigation ever conducted.
Newly-elected mayor Mitch Landrieu in May 2010 invited the DOJ to review what he characterized as “one of the worst police departments in the country.” The DOJ and the City of New Orleans reached a consent decree agreement in July 2012.
Attorney General Eric Holder at the time called it the “most wide-ranging agreement in the nation’s history.”
Federal investigators found NOPD did not investigate or document police use of force cases. The DOJ report stated there was a systemic failure within the department to investigate sexual assaults and domestic violence; a history of unconstitutional stops, searches and arrests; and a pattern of racial and ethnic profiling.
The feds also criticized a department program that allowed officers to work overtime for having no oversight or accountability. They characterized the officers’ “detail” program as a “river of corruption” flowing through the NOPD.
The consent decree appointed a court-ordered monitor to oversee implementation of more than 100 new department policies, governing use-of-force, officer misconduct, searches, arrests, interrogations, recruitment, training and more.
Mayor Landrieu estimated the changes would cost the city $55 million over five years.
Federally mandated reforms are painful for police departments, said Walker, the national law enforcement expert. But in cities where the relationships between police and citizens have broken down, they’re necessary.
“I think they’ve been fairly successful in a number of departments: in changing a department that is really dysfunctional, where they really just don’t seem to be able to get on top of the problem of officer misconduct,” Walker said. “Investigations typically result in a consent decree that imposes a number of accountability reforms, and those are things the department hasn’t been able to do itself.”
Berry has repeatedly pointed to the 60 reforms his police department has put into place since 2011. Many of those came after the city paid $60,000 to the Police Executive Research Forum — a national law enforcement think tank of which then-APD Chief Ray Schultz was a prominent member — to review APD’s policies and procedures.
Other reforms came from Schultz himself.
They included sending supervisors to potentially volatile scenes to slow things down; creating additional categories for pre-employment psychological exams; and re-instituting a requirement that prospective cadets have either 60 college credit hours of three years of military experience to get a seat at the APD Academy.
Officers have been involved in several controversial shootings since those changes went into effect.
Police shootings and officer misconduct already has cost Albuquerque taxpayers more than $24 million in the past four-plus years through settlements and judgments in civil cases.
There are more cases in the pipeline, too. Mayor Berry’s proposed budget includes an extra $5 million for the fund used to pay out on lawsuits against the city.
The families of men shot by APD officers, civil rights leaders and others in the community say they hope the DOJ’s mandated reforms will lead to real change in the culture within New Mexico’s largest law enforcement agency.
Walker said past experience points to the possibility of hope fulfilled.
“Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Washington DC — those departments were better because of the experience,” he said.