ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) -The U.S. Justice Department’s report and list of findings against Albuquerque’s police force and its leaders — expected Thursday — follows years of simmering mistrust between this city’s law enforcement system and its citizens.
The past several years here have been marked by three dozen police shootings — many of them resulting in the deaths of men struggling with mental illness, drug addiction or both — and tens of millions of dollars in judgements and out-of-court agreements to settle the city’s end of police misconduct cases.
Public comment periods at City Council meetings have been dominated by the families of men shot by police and a small but determined band of activists demanding reforms at APD from their elected and appointed leaders.
A perception that neither the city’s administration nor the leadership of the Albuquerque Police Department have been willing to address a deeply- rooted culture of violence that supported many of the questionable shootings has widened the divide between the community and APD.
Through it all, Mayor Richard Berry and his top aides, including three police chiefs, have insisted there were neither cultural nor systemic problems with APD.
In public remarks, Berry mostly stuck to a limited script when discussing his troubled police department. He used words like “innovative,” “proactive” and “progressive” time and again to describe the force and its longtime chief, Ray Schultz, who stepped down last fall.
On numerous occasions, Berry and Schultz referred to their police department as the finest in America.
That posture began to shift, ever so slightly, when civil unrest came to New Mexico’s largest city last month. Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets and shouted from the steps of police headquarters Downtown following the release of a police video that showed an APD detective with a troubled record and a SWAT officer opening fire on a transient man with paranoid schizophrenia in the Sandia Foothills.
The man, 38-year-old James Boyd, appeared ready to surrender to officers after a lengthy standoff when Detective Keith Sandy threw a flash-bang grenade at his feet. Boyd pulled two knives from his pockets. That’s when Sandy and officer Dominique Perez fired three shots apiece at him from their modified assault-style rifles.
In a news conference last week, Berry called the Boyd shooting a “game changer.” It was the first time, after years of denying there was a police problem here, that the mayor conceded that the city needs the feds to help fix APD.
Berry and his administration had resisted intervention from Washington, D.C.
In August 2011, the City Council passed a resolution that would’ve invited the DOJ in to investigate APD. Berry vetoed it, citing a technicality in the measure the mayor said violated the state Open Meetings Act. Councilors disputed Berry’s claim.
A year later, shortly before the DOJ announced its sweeping investigation of Albuquerque police, Schultz held a news conference at which he said a federal investigation was unnecessary because his department already had in place more than 90 percent of reforms Justice Department officials had ordered in other cities.
But it wasn’t enough to keep the DOJ out. On Nov. 27, 2012, federal officials announced they would “peel the onion to its core and leave no stone unturned” in investigating APD.
Justice Department investigators have drilled down into APD’s hiring and recruiting practices and the department’s Internal Affairs work.
The tally now stands at 33 APD shootings since 2010, 23 of them deadly. They far outpace the number of police shootings in other cities.
Some of the men were shot in the back. Many were unarmed. And in many cases, officers didn’t turn on their lapel cameras.
The APD Internal Affairs division ruled each of the shootings justified.
So did Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, who, like some of her predecessors, used for years an “investigative grand jury” process for police shooting cases. The process was highly unusual, in that the grand juries did not have the authority to indict officers. Instead, they were simply asked to say whether the shootings were justified — after Brandenburg’s top lieutenants presented grand jurors with instructions only on justified shootings.
Early last year, state District Court judges ordered Brandenburg to halt the practice. The judges cited a lack of statutory authority to use grand juries for the limited purpose of clearing police shooting cases. They also raised questions over the integrity of the process overall.
Brandenburg switched to a new system under which she and her chief deputies essentially review APD’s investigation of officer-involved shootings and determine whether they are justified. The results and case documents are posted on the DA’s website. Each case reviewed with the new system has arrived at the same conclusion: that APD officers haven’t broken the law by shooting citizens.
As the shootings mounted, so did the allegations of a system-wide cover-up. Bad cops, activists said, were not being punished.
Other problems came to light, too: officers caught on lapel cameras beating suspects, committing crimes in uniform while on duty and posting offensive comments on social media.
One officer described his job as “human waste disposal” on Facebook. He later shot a man in the back, and the city paid out $300,000 to the man’s family to settle a civil suit. The officer was suspended for three days for the Facebook comment.
When the wife of then-Public Safety Director Darren White got into a crash admitted she was on prescription drugs but wasn’t tested for DWI, distrust of the department came to a boil again.
The mayor was being called to the carpet.
And a growing chorus was calling for him to oust Chief Schultz.
They fell on deaf ears.
As the outrage built, the mayor kept boasting about reforms he’d put in starting in late 2011 after the city commissioned a study from a law enforcement think tank.
The Police Executive Research Forum, of which Schultz was a prominent member, returned a laundry list of ideas for the $60,000 the city paid the group. Among them: hiring less confrontational officers with an eye toward solving problems instead of escalating them.
For many longtime APD observers, that, along with a failure in leadership, has been the crux of the problem.
They point to the previous decade when then-Mayor Martin Chavez and Schultz pushed to hire hundreds of officers to swell the ranks to of APD 1,100.
Some of the officers brought in during that surge have been at the center of the controversy.
One of those is Sean Wallace, a transfer from State Police who had already cost the state $500,000 for shooting and killing an unarmed drug suspect. He’s shot two more unarmed men since joining APD, including Alan Gomez.
The young man was standing on his porch when Wallace shot him once during a SWAT callout. That cost the city another $900,000.
Wallace was hired the same time as Detective Sandy. It was 2007, and both men were fresh off a scandal for collecting pay from a private security firm while on the clock collecting pay from State Police.
APD said at the time that Sandy would not be given a badge of a gun. He’d be working as an evidence technician, then-Deputy Chief Mike Castro said.
Sandy’s shooting of Boyd is now the subject of an FBI criminal investigation.
There are also common themes among the people who are being shot. Like Boyd, many have had serious mental health issues.
APD and city officials have said the unpredictable threat that the mentally ill can pose has played a role in the wave of shootings.
In 2004, a mentally ill man took Officer Carol Oleksak’s gun away from her in Nob Hill and shot her in the head, leaving her with permanent damage. Officers fatally shot the man.
A year later in 2005, Officers Richard Smith and Michael King went to the home of John Hyde near UNM to check on the mentally man. Hyde then ambushed and gunned down the officers.
King and Smith had been close friends of Schultz. One former city official said Hyde’s killing spree prompted Schultz to shift the department’s focus from community policing to “officer safety.”
More recently, Christopher Chase opened fire on a police officer before stealing his car. Chase shot two more officers during a cross-town pursuit before officers fatally shot him.
With those memories, many Albuquerque police officers have been on edge over the past decade.
Many factors contributed to the problems APD is facing. And many reforms are expected from the DOJ on Thursday.