Albuquerque (KRQE) – U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham is calling for an immediate halt to training for officers of the beleaguered Albuquerque Police Department at a secluded Department of Energy facility southeast of town, calling the military- and nuclear-security-based instruction “inappropriate … for community police departments.”
The Albuquerque-based Democratic congresswoman’s request, made in a letter sent to the Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Wednesday, would end a decades-long relationship between the federal department and local police. Scores of APD officers — and some from other state and local agencies — have received and, in some cases, taught classes at the Energy Department’s National Training Center through the years.
Some of the training has ties America’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Other aspects of the courses taught at the training center, located in a place called Coyote Canyon, are geared toward the armed federal force that is responsible for guarding and transporting America’s nuclear weapons.
“I think, in general, we’ve created an environment where we’ve done away with the sort of day-to-day training that’s necessary, including crisis intervention, behavioral health training — the kinds of things that we know that both protect officers and the community — and moved away to a highly military, advanced SWAT team mentality,” Lujan Grisham said in an interview this week.”And that’s not appropriate, and it’s certainly not appropriate for APD under the current circumstances.”
Those circumstances include a long and troubled history of using excessive force and questionable deadly shootings. Last April, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded after an 18-month investigation that APD has an “aggressive culture that undervalues civilian safety” and “poses unacceptable risks to the Albuquerque community.”
City officials and Justice Department lawyers have negotiated a settlement to resolve the DOJ’s damning set of findings and reform numerous areas of APD. They include training, recruiting, tactical responses, Internal Affairs investigations and citizen oversight. A federal judge is reviewing the agreement and is expected to sign it.
Federal investigators were aware of the training for APD officers at Coyote Canyon, but they did not address it in either their findings report or in the settlement agreement.
A KRQE News 13 review of more than 130 APD shootings since 1987, most of them fatal, shows at least 43 percent of the shooting officers had trained, taught or both at the Coyote Canyon facility. A former APD officer with extensive experience at the facility confirmed News 13’s findings.
“That fact alone persuaded my office that, in the letter, we asked them to immediately stop allowing any of the training, pending a full review by our office and others,” Lujan Grisham said. “I don’t want anyone else to get trained there. I want it to immediately stop until we have answers, because I can’t justify it.
“Good training is good training. But this is inappropriate training for a community police force — certainly in my opinion.”
More recently, according to the former APD officer, 20 of 41 APD shootings since 2010 involved officers with connections to Coyote Canyon.
It is unclear whether the congresswoman’s request will be met. That’s because the Energy Department and APD refused requests for interviews for this story.
APD spokeswoman Celina Espinoza sent an emailed statement that did not respond to numerous questions sent by News 13 during the past several months:
“We appreciate the Department of Energy for providing their premiere facilities to allow APD to utilize our own curriculum,” Espinoza wrote. “The training done by APD is aimed at keeping both the community and our officers safe. This ensures, in accordance with the Department of Justice agreement, APD will use scenario based training and interactive exercises including hostage negotiations and crisis intervention training.”
The National Training Center’s own promotional materials boast about the capability to host force-on-force training exercises — often utilizing paintball guns — protective force drills in a replica DOE facility and two live-fire shoot houses. The materials do not mention crisis intervention training.
Lujan Grisham’s letter marks the first time in recent memory that an elected official — at the state, local or federal level — has pointed to a specific aspect of APD’s practices and pushed for action. Her call for a halt to police training at the DOE facility comes as a national debate about the militarization of American police departments continues to roil.
Much of that debate, however, has focused on military equipment flowing to local law enforcement. There has been far less discussion about training.
Lujan Grisham said she is concerned about a possible connection between the training in Coyote Canyon and APD’s history of excessive use of force and deadly force.
“There are concerns that this type of training may be counterproductive to APD’s goals and lead officers to view the community as adversaries rather than partners and collaborators,” she wrote in her letter to the DOE.
In the letter, Lujan Grisham also pointed to steps President Obama’s administration has taken to rein in police militarization. Among those is an ongoing review of the Defense Department’s program that sends excess military equipment — including armored vehicles, weapons and tactical gear — to local police departments.
“‘There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred,'” she quoted the president as saying. “I couldn’t agree more.”
The public can’t get near the Energy Department’s National Training Center.
It is only accessible through a secure gate at Kirtland Air Force Base off Wyoming Boulevard. From there, it’s several miles through the base, then five more miles up a dirt road into Coyote Canyon, a secluded spot in the Manzano Mountains southeast of town.
There are more checkpoints along the route, according to former APD officers who have trained at the center. There also are armed military guards patrolling the area, which also is home to nuclear weapons.
For at least 25 years, the DOE has put on training in Coyote Canyon for the nation’s nuclear protective force, elite military units and local law enforcement, the former officers said. Some of the instructors are Energy Department employees. Others are police officers, including numerous APD officers who have worked there through the years, hired through DOE contractors such as Wackenhut Services, Inc.
Neither the Energy Department nor APD has ever advertised the relationship. In fact, neither agency appears to ever have discussed it publicly at all.
Last summer, the DOE did not respond to News 13’s requests for information about APD’s involvement at the National Training Center. APD ignored a detailed request for information about the relationship last fall.
In October, News 13 published a report that included interviews with former APD officers who trained in Coyote Canyon, details about the training and the officers’ thoughts in hindsight about how it affected New Mexico’s largest law enforcement agency.
The National Training Center facility includes several shooting ranges, a “live-fire shoot house,” rapelling walls, road courses and other features.
Course subjects at the center have included through the years: nighttime assaults, vehicle assaults, dynamic room entries, street clearing and rolling day/night convoy ambushing.
Combat-seasoned military veterans who had second careers as police officers authored some of the lesson plans. There is a presence in Coyote Canyon of ex-Delta Force and Navy SEALs special operators, said a former officer who spent time training at the DOE’s training center.
“There are some real-deal, hardcore guys hanging around there,” the former officer told News 13 last fall. “Those guys definitely had an impact on us. Looking back, I’m really not sure how convoy ambushing translated to working as a police officer.”
Another former officer with experience at the National Training Center said last fall that there’s a place in urban policing for the type of training offered at Coyote Canyon. The firearms instruction, “hands-on” grappling courses and other classes help prepare officers for any type of scenario they may encounter. And some of the more eye-popping course titles give them a background in worst-case scenarios.
There is, however, a danger for less-mature officers, the second former officer said.
“Could it go to some guys’ heads? Could it make them think they’re something they’re not? Sure,” the second former officer said.
Lujan Grisham learned about the intertwined relationship between the Energy Department and APD by reading News 13’s October story and a report in Rolling Stone magazine by journalist Nick Pinto last month that included reporting about training in Coyote Canyon.
She does not object to training for nuclear protective force officers or members of the military at Coyote Canyon. But she questions why APD officers — and even recruits at the APD Academy — have access to the same facilities and classes as U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations Forces, the U.S. Secret Service, other elite military units and federal security forces.
“How this got translated to what could be, depending upon the answers (from DOE), sort of the core training to not only just the SWAT members of APD, but maybe other members,” she said. “If they’re also doing the training, something’s gone wrong, because that’s not their core mission. How did they all of a sudden become experts about protecting our nukes or nuclear safety?”
In her letter to the DOE, Lujan Grisham asked Secretary Moniz to “immediately suspend APD’s access to NTC classes and facilities
Lujan Grisham wants DOE to do more than cut off access to training at Coyote Canyon for APD officers.
Several current and former APD officers have moonlighted as adjunct instructors at the National Training Center. News 13 asked Lujan Grisham whether she thought that practice should continue.
“I don’t,” she said. “I want APD officers to feel like they’ve got support in this community to do the right community policing … and that we’re going to give them the resources and the right tools to do that. But that means they have to take some responsibility for identifying patterns and practices that are inappropriate for this community.”
One of the few times the National Training Center made the news before last October involved adjunct instructors.
In 2007, a group of four New Mexico State Police officers lost their jobs over a double-dipping scandal in which they were teaching classes at the training center as adjuncts for Wackenhut while they were on the clock for State Police. The officers — Keith Sandy, Sean Wallace, Johnny Salas and Chris Luttrell — were nearly prosecuted for time card fraud.
Instead, they got jobs with the Albuquerque Police Department.
Since then, Wallace has shot two unarmed men, killing one of them in what the Justice Department called an unconstitutional use of deadly force. The family of the man he fatally shot settled a civil rights lawsuit for $950,000.
Sandy is currently facing a murder charge for the shooting death last March of James Boyd, a homeless man who had been illegally camping in the Sandia Foothills and brandished two small knives during a lengthy standoff with police. He appeared ready to surrender and was turning away from officers and Sandy and SWAT team member Dominique Perez shot him in the back.
Sandy has since resigned from APD.
Another pair of adjunct instructors for the National Training Center also had histories of shootings with APD. Both of them turned their relationships with the DOE into jobs with the federal agency.
For several years after they retired from APD, Charlie Lopez and Neal Terry worked at the center as the operations manager for the Protective Force Training Department and the manager for security training operations, respectively. They were, according to former APD officers who trained in Coyote Canyon, the overseers of the facility.
Terry shot at least four people while he was a member of the APD SWAT team. At least two of them resulted in six-figure payouts by the city to settle lawsuits.
Lopez shot at least two people during his time with APD SWAT.
Those incidents were part of a wave of APD SWAT shootings in the 1980s and 1990s that led City Hall to hire outside experts to evaluate the department’s practices and oversight systems.
The report, delivered in 1997 by Samuel Walker and Eileen Luna, hammered APD, saying its officers often used excessive deadly force. The so-called “Walker-Luna report” reads like it could’ve been written in 2014.
Terry still works at the National Training Center. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Lopez retired from the center last August, according to a woman who answered the telephone there on Wednesday.
The Department of Energy works hard to promote the National Training Center — in particular, the live-fire ranges at Coyote Canyon.
A narrator in a promotional video touting force-on-force exercises describes training in which students will be “able to practice skills that were once only taught as theory.”
On screen, a squad of unidentified camouflage-clad police officers or military personnel charges down a hallway with automatic weapons at the ready. As they exit the hallway, the camera focuses on the man covering their advance. He’s firing a large machine gun outfitted with a drum magazine at a staircase inside a National Training Center building as empty shells spill out of the weapon.
News 13 showed the video to Lujan Grisham.
“Wow,” she said. “I have the same reaction after looking at that excessive force and bullets flying and a SWAT team approach and complete protection in armor for the individual — it’s like watching the terrible war games videos where you’re really intended to have a visceral, scared response. And you feel like you’ve gotta be protected from these serious, large, unknown threats. And that’s not community policing. And it’s not, in my opinion, an effective protocol at all — it’s a dangerous protocol for public safety responses.”
Local law enforcement agencies are allowed to use the facilities at Coyote Canyon in two ways.
Officers from APD and other local police forces can take courses offered by DOE instructors. Sources who trained at Coyote Canyon told News 13 that there’s “comingling” at the DOE courses – APD officers are likely to be grouped with trainees from other military or federal forces.
Local police departments can also use the facilities for classes that their own instructors teach – with DOE supervision close by – through what’s called a range-use agreement.
The list of agencies with range-use agreements at Coyote Canyon underscores the congresswoman’s concern.
APD’s SWAT unit has an agreement, as does the SWAT team from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office. The APD Academy has a range-use agreement, too.
The rest of the list includes outfits such as the U.S. Secret Service, MARSOC – the Marine Corps Special Operations Command, the U.S. Air Force Pararescue and Combat Rescue School and the FBI’s SWAT team.
Range reports kept by the DOE show that APD’s cadet academy scheduled 52 sessions at Coyote Canyon in 2014. Sixteen times, the APD Academy reserved shooting ranges. Six times, the reports show, the academy reserved the live-fire shoot house. The academy also booked a shoot house used to conduct force-on-force, paintball-style drills eight times. APD’s SWAT team booked the live-fire shoot house once.
The reports show that each of the sessions booked by the academy and the SWAT unit took place after the Department of Justice told APD it had serious problems with its officers being too quick to the trigger.
Range reports for 2015 show 28 more reservations by the APD Academy, including four more trips to the live-fire shoot house, five visits to the force-on-force shoot house, nine sessions at various live-fire gun ranges and one three-hour tour at something called the “vehicle assault pit.”
‘A national problem’
In the interview, Lujan Grisham said she wants to know whether training for police like what’s offered at Coyote Canyon may have spread around the country. Police accountability protests dominated the headlines in 2014, from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City to Seattle.
“I’m now concerned: Are these sorts of training operations — are they in areas where we’re seeing other issues around the country, where we’ve got excessive force and community credibility (problems)?” she said. “We might have a national problem. Could this be one of the issues associated with a trend where we’ve got a very militaristic, excessive force, community policing problem going on in this country?”
Lujan Grisham plans to make a series of requests of the DOE in the coming weeks. She hopes the information she gets back will answer some of her questions.
“My expectation is they actually stop the kind of training arrangements and recognize by virtue of our inquiry that they’re inappropriate,” she said. “If they don’t provide me with the information that we need, then we’ll go to hearings on the Hill. And if that’s insufficient, then we’ll go to legislation that specifically prohibits this kind of training.”
Before it gets to that, Lujan Grisham said she would prefer that the city voluntarily stop sending APD officers to train at Coyote Canyon. She said her early impressions in the DOJ-mandated reform process were that Mayor Richard Berry’s administration was resisting wholesale change for APD.
The statement from Espinoza, the APD spokeswoman, suggests that the department isn’t likely to sever ties with the DOE any time soon on its own.