ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – It took “The Nation’s Newspaper” to get Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden to provide the kind of unvarnished assessment of his long-troubled department that many families affected by police violence, elected officials and others in the community have been waiting for.
Eden told a USA Today reporter, for a story published Wednesday, that APD has had a “systemic failure in our ability to track employee misconduct.”
The chief, who took over the top spot at New Mexico’s largest law enforcement agency in February, also went a step further. He told the newspaper: “I believe there are people on the force who shouldn’t be on the force.”
The blunt comments marked a sea change for Mayor Richard Berry’s administration, which has kept its public statements about the police department in a range other city officials say has fallen between cautious and defensive during the nearly five years Berry has been in office.
Berry, through spokeswoman Breanna Anderson, declined an interview and would not say whether he agreed with Eden’s assessment of the department.
Elsewhere in City Hall, the chief’s comments earned plenty of praise.
“It’s good to hear the chief articulate it that way,” City Councilor Dan Lewis said of Eden’s quotes in the USA Today story. “We have been (speaking frankly about deeply rooted problems at APD) since 2011. You can’t lead and fix things unless you’re able to be brutally honest about a problem … Chief Eden came to lead and to change the department. If he’s not doing that, then we don’t need him here. That’s what’s required right now at APD.”
Self reflection has not always been the modus operandi at APD.
Even as the number of fatal police shootings during his tenure climbed past two dozen, Berry took the position that his administration could handle any necessary course correction in house. And when the U.S. Department of Justice issued a set of findings in April that many of those shootings were unconstitutional, the mayor, who had won a second term a few months prior, said the feds’ opinion — that his police department’s aggressive culture was tied to willful indifference among leadership — came as news to him.
And in court, Berry’s administration has gone so far as to argue that the DOJ’s work in Albuquerque was sloppy and “not reliable.”
On Wednesday afternoon, when reporter Kevin Johnson’s “Before Ferguson there was Albuquerque” appeared on USA Today’s website, that position seemed to change.
Lewis, who, like Berry, is a Republican, applauded Eden’s honesty.
Council President Ken Sanchez, a Democrat, said the chief’s new tone was “encouraging,” although the change was “long, long overdue.”
Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, described the shift in Eden’s message as “remarkable” and a “positive sign” that there may finally be willingness to reform the department from the top. Simonson has been among the most vocal critics of APD and its entrenched leadership.
“I think it is encouraging that the chief is actually acknowledging what the DOJ has tried to make clear,” Simonson said. “We’ve lived through three cycles of police violence in our community over 40 years, where we have seen these rises in officer-involved shootings. Finally we have a federal agency that has taken notice and has intervened formally. And we can’t waste this opportunity.”
The chief had finally admitted, those interviewed by KRQE News 13 said, that there were systemic problems at APD.
And then, Eden made a retreat to the kind of measured remarks that he, his predecessor and his boss have made numerous times before.
News 13 asked for an interview with Eden to follow up on his comments in the national press. He declined through spokeswoman Janet Blair, who provided a written statement in which the chief would only say that APD, like other law enforcement agencies, has its issues.
“All large departments encounter margins of personnel whose fitness or suitability for service concerns the chief and management,” the statement said. “Although the law will not permit me to retroactively investigate, impose discipline or take other administrative action, I can assure you that my management team and I closely monitor the small group of officers that are of concern in this area. As the leader of APD, it is my job to address these situations where we help officers succeed, either coaching them up or coaching them out.”
The statement seems to be, in part, a response to additional comments Eden made to USA Today about problem officers. He would not tell the newspaper how many officers were unfit to wear the APD badge or what they had done to deserve termination.The chief said firing officers for things they had done in the past would likely be impossible because of provisions in the police union’s contract.
“Yes, we may be stuck with them,” he told the newspaper.
Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association President Stephanie Lopez did not return calls seeking comment.
Councilor Lewis said he was encouraged by the chief’s acknowledgement that APD has officers on the force who aren’t salvageable. But he added a caveat.
“I like that he’s acknowledged the fact that there are problem cops,” Lewis said. “I just hope there’s action taken on it. It’s a great first step; the second step is good management.
“Yes, there are some hoops to jump through because these are public jobs. But that’s those are the cards we’re dealt. Sometimes you have to fire people, and if there’s a lawsuit, then there’s a lawsuit.”
Johnson’s story for USA Today didn’t cover any new ground in terms of what’s happened between APD and the citizens of Albuquerque through the years. In the piece, he pointed to some of the most controversial police shootings.
One of those came in May 2011, when officer Sean Wallace shot and killed Alan Gomez, 22, during a standoff outside Gomez’s family home. Gomez was the third unarmed man Wallace had shot.
The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office ruled, as it has in every police shooting in city history, that Wallace was within the law when he fired the fatal shot. The Justice Department came to a different conclusion. Federal investigators singled out the shooting as an example of APD’s undisciplined tactical units escalating situations to the point that they end in unconstitutional shootings.
Wallace, who has since been promoted to sergeant, was never disciplined — at least, not that’s ever been publicly reported.
In his USA Today story, Johnson quoted Eden as saying Wallace has been reassigned to desk duty and “does not respond to calls for service” from the public. The story did not say when the reassignment took place.
Blair, the APD spokeswoman, wouldn’t say why or when Wallace was reassigned. She did not respond to questions about whether other officers whose shootings were mentioned in the DOJ report had also been reassigned.
City leaders and Justice Department officials in July began negotiating a court-enforceable set of reforms for APD that will be overseen by a federal monitor.