ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – A few weeks have passed since a sergeant at the Albuquerque Police Department fired a fatal shot at a man during a standoff and, now, the sergeant is headed into a bare-walled interview room at Internal Affairs on the first floor of City Hall to verbally retrace the steps of the tragic event.
Inside the room, a pair of Internal Affairs investigators sit on one side of a medium-sized conference table with their recording devices and notebooks at the ready. On the other side sit the sergeant, police union attorney Fred Mowrer – and Sean Wallace, who has been among the poster boys for APD’s excessive force problem.
The investigators roll tape, advise the sergeant that he’s compelled to tell the truth about what happened, then listen to his side of the story. Their investigation will form the basis for whether the sergeant’s shooting was within department policy and, ultimately, whether he will keep his badge and gun.
It’s a hypothetical scenario, but Wallace’s presence is quite real – made possible this spring when he was elected to the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association’s executive board as the area representative for APD supervisors.
By contract, APD officers are allowed to bring an attorney and a union rep to Internal Affairs interviews. That’s common law enforcement practice around the country.
Wallace’s election to the position came around the same time the U.S. Department of Justice was dropping a 46-page hammer on the City of Albuquerque. After an 18-month investigation, the DOJ determined that city police had a longstanding pattern of violating citizens’ civil rights through the use of force and that APD leadership had a parallel pattern of turning a blind eye to it.
Without using his name, Justice Department investigators used Wallace’s fatal shooting of 22-year-old Alan Gomez in 2011 as an example of the culture of aggression among police here.
That shooting cost taxpayers more than $900,000 to settle wrongful death and other constitutional claims filed by Gomez’s family in civil court. Gomez was the third unarmed man Wallace shot while working as a police officer.
Since that shooting, Wallace has been promoted to sergeant. That’s how he came to be eligible for the position he now holds with the police union.
Former APD officer and excessive-force whistleblower Sam Costales said in a recent interview that Wallace’s election to the APOA board sends to the public an ominous message about a police department that is supposed to be in the midst of sweeping reforms.
“Well, it sort of slaps them in the face,” Costales told KRQE News 13. “And it’s sort of in spite of the DOJ findings … (The union) should look for the officers who don’t have a record with the police department as far as complaints and use of force complaints especially. And if they have those types of complaints on their record, they need to be looked at and sort of bypassed.”
Union Vice President Shaun Willoughby said the APOA isn’t concerned about how including an officer with a history like Wallace’s on the board might appear to some. That’s because the union sees tremendous benefit from Wallace’s experience.
“The value that we receive as an organization is we have executive board members who have been involved in some of these situations that can better assist other officers who have found themselves in unfortunate situations,” Willoughby said in an interview. “They’re able to extend a true understanding of what it means to be involved in an officer-involved shooting, or be involved in a disciplinary case.”
And besides, Willoughby added, “I don’t believe that it is anybody’s business who’s on the board.”
The APOA has a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer. In addition, there are 19 other board members who serve as area representatives for each of APD’s six area commands, supervisors, the criminal investigations bureau and other divisions within the department.
Wallace isn’t the only board member who carries some baggage.
Officer Scott McMurrough was suspended this spring for 56 hours in connection with his role in the case of Omaree Varela, a 9-year-old boy was allegedly kicked to death by his mother. APD and other agencies missed repeated opportunities to intervene for Varela.
McMurrough is the union representative for the Southwest Area Command.
Over in the Northeast Area Command, the union rep is officer Martin Smith. The DOJ pointed to Smith’s 2012 shooting of Daniel Tillison, who was in a vehicle and holding a cellphone at the time, as one of several examples of city police firing at people who posed no immediate threat to officers or others. Attorneys for Tillison’s family claim in a civil lawsuit that Smith, a military combat veteran, told fellow officers he was in the middle of a “PTSD moment” when he shot Tillison.
Justice Department investigators also singled out the 2009 fatal shooting of Andrew Lopez by officer Justin Montgomery, one of two APOA area reps for the criminal investigations bureau, as an example of excessive force. Lopez was lying on his back, unarmed, and had already been shot once by Montgomery when the officer fired a final shot from close range that pierced Lopez’s heart and lung, killing him.
In awarding more than $4 million to Lopez’s family following a civil trial, state District Judge Theresa Baca wrote in an opinion and order that Montgomery’s shooting of Lopez showed that APD’s training was “designed to result in the unreasonable use of deadly force.” Baca also noted that Montgomery and other officers who testified during the trial were “not credible” and “unreasonable.” The judgement was later reduced to $400,000 because of caps outlined in state law.
Neither union officials nor their paid public relations firm could say whether Wallace, McMurrough, Smith or Montgomery was chosen for the board in a competitive election.
Costales, the former officer who retired in 2009, said he remembered multiple officers running for each board position. Another former officer with more recent experience said turnout for union elections has plummeted during the past several years. So has the number of officers running for positions on the board, the former officer said, leaving most races uncontested.
Current union leadership and their PR firm also couldn’t say whether any of the officers were elected to their first one-year term this spring — or whether they had been reelected to positions they already held.
With the APOA, the officers have something of a dual role: as area reps and as board members.
They perform a host of duties as union representatives for various areas of the department.
“The best way to describe it is a support network for the rank and file of the Albuquerque Police Department,” Willoughby, the union vice president, said. “Anything and everything. We help them with their families, we help them with medical concerns, injuries.”
In the Internal Affairs context, the union representative holds considerable sway, according to two sources who are familiar with the process.
During IA interviews, union reps often stop investigators and ask them to clarify or restate questions, the sources said. The reps also confer with the officer who is being questioned about how to answer during portions of the inquiry. Union representatives even have halted Internal Affairs interviews in their tracks and stepped out of the interview room to talk with targeted officers.
Willoughby said experienced officers make ideal wing-men in the high-stress environment of Internal Affairs.
“To have somebody on your team who actually has experienced that and come through that successfully is invaluable to an officer that’s going through it for their first time,” he said.
APOA board members also serve as pass-throughs for information between the union and the rank-and-file, Willoughby said. That leads into their second role — as board members.
The union meets monthly. The board votes on how to spend its money and how to support officers in need. In July, the union negotiated a new contract with the city that gave the APOA something it didn’t have before: a voice in the ongoing APD-reform negotiations with the DOJ.
That means the city must keep Willoughby, APOA President Stephanie Lopez, Wallace, Montgomery, Smith and the rest of the board informed about any shifts in policy that come from the negotiations.
Costales said the current composition of the union board doesn’t bode well for making the changes necessary for APD to win back public trust, which continues to wane.
“It tells you about the culture,” he said. ‘The majority rules. And like I said, the majority do have that notion about how to treat people.” Asked whether he was referring to the often-cited “us-against-them” mentality at APD, Costales responded: “Yes.”
The 24-year APD veteran also took exception to the idea that the APOA exists to help officers through difficult times. He said his experience was just the opposite.
In 2006, Costales witnessed Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies throw race-car legend Al Unser Sr. to the ground and twist his arm behind his back at a roadblock near Unser’s property. Costales reported the behavior to his supervisor and later testified for the defense during Unser’s trial. Unser was acquitted on charges of resisting and disobeying police.
In the aftermath, Costales told News 13, he experienced harsh retaliation from APD and BCSO brass, rank-and-file officers and the APOA for stepping across the “blue wall of silence.” He said he was called a “rat” for speaking out about officers who used excessive force, and that the then-secretary of the police union even threatened him in an elevator.
Costales said union officials spread the word among officers that they were not to respond to calls for backup by Costales when he was in the field. APOA Vice President Willoughby said he wasn’t familiar with the particulars of Costales’ relationship with the union.
In 2009, a jury found that Costales had been retaliated against by, among others, then-Police Chief Ray Schultz. The jury awarded Costales more than $660,000.
Other officers have said they felt like the APOA pulled the plug on them in their time of need, too.
Former officers John Doyle and Robert Woolever were fired from APD in late 2011 after Schultz ruled their arrest of violent felon Nicholas Blume — which was recorded on parking garage surveillance video and showed Doyle kicking Blume as Woolever struggled to free Blume’s hands to cuff him — amounted to excessive force. In addition to appealing their firings, Doyle and Woolever are suing the union on claims of breach of contract, wrongful interference, civil conspiracy and breaches of trust. In response, the union has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
Reform at APD, Costales said, is a long time coming. But he pointed to a recent meritorious conduct award APD gave Wallace as one of the reasons he is concerned that reform may be further off in the distance than the city is letting on.
“With Wallace, they’re awarding him in front of the public, saying: ‘We’re going to give this officer an award for being a good officer. We’re going to give him a position in the union,'” Costales said. “They keep doing things in spite of the DOJ findings.”
The DOJ findings don’t appear to held in particularly high regard by either attorneys for the city or by the police union.
“The DOJ report is an opinion of a group of individuals who, in my opinion, did not do a very thorough investigation,” Willoughby said, adding that he agrees with some of the Justice Department’s findings, such as APD’s over-reliance on electronic stun guns and the department’s questionable responses to suicide calls.
In criticizing the findings, Willoughby fell back on an argument that lawyers for the Berry administration have used in court proceedings: that the DOJ’s work was unreliable, in part because investigators didn’t interview the individual officers who shot people unconstitutionally.
He refused to discuss the specifics of the shootings by Wallace, Montgomery and Smith. But during his interview with News 13, he spoke broadly about police shootings.
“These officers that you speak of were involved in unfortunate situations,” Willoughby said. “That being said, their experience to the APOA is invaluable as a service to our other members who find themselves in unfortunate situations.
“An officer never makes a choice to kill somebody. An officer has to make a determination to stop somebody’s actions … I think that it would be wrong to point a negative finger at a police officer because he’s been involved in an incident where he was required to use lethal force.”
Asked whether he believed there are any bad officers at APD, Willoughby replied: “I think that — there’s none that I know of. There’s a bad apple in every bundle of apples, but as far as I know, there’s nobody that comes to mind right now that is a ‘bad cop.'”
Police Chief Gorden Eden recently told a USA TODAY reporter: “I believe there are people on the force who shouldn’t be on the force.”
News 13 asked APD spokeswoman Janet Blair to arrange an interview with Police Chief Gorden Eden for this story. News 13 wanted to ask, among other things, whether having officers such as Wallace, Montgomery and Smith on the union board — and by extension playing a role in Internal Affairs interviews and policy changes — creates an impediment to reform.
Blair responded by saying she had passed Eden in the hallway and asked him that question. “No,” Blair quoted the chief as saying. The following day, she said Eden would not sit down for an interview.
News 13 asked Costales whether he sees a serious effort under way to reform APD.
His response: “No. And I think that everything they keep doing as a slap in the face.”