Justice Dept. to review controversial military-style training for Albuquerque police

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – The U.S. Department of Justice has agreed to look at whether it is appropriate for Albuquerque police and other local law enforcement officers to take and, in some cases, instruct a series of courses designed for the nation’s nuclear security force, according to documents obtained by KRQE News 13.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque confirmed the review in a written statement to News 13, but did not provide specifics or a timetable for its completion.

But it could lead to restrictions on, and even an end to APD’s longstanding participation in courses with titles such as “Fieldcraft,” “Tactical Response Force II,” “Opposition Force” and “Advanced Weapons System Instructor Certification.”

In the latter, according to documents obtained by News 13, students learn to teach others how to use M240 and M249 machine guns and a variety of grenade launchers. Tactics used in some of the other courses include “vehicle ambush,” “recapture/recovery and pursuit operations,” “close quarters battle techniques” and “force-on-force” exercises.

The courses are taught at the U.S. Energy Department’s National Training Center — a high-security facility in Coyote Canyon, a dozen or so miles southeast of Albuquerque. The documents make clear that the courses are meant for DOE security personnel and their instructors.

For decades, APD officers have been taking and teaching the courses, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the arrangement. Several of those officers have shot multiple people while on duty for APD’s specialized units, including the SWAT team.

News 13 first reported in October on the relationship between DOE and APD — and what two former officers with experience at the Coyote Canyon facility described as the federal training’s role in a longstanding culture of aggression and the use of excessive force among the police here.

The story prompted U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, an Albuquerque-based Democrat, to call on the Energy Department for a suspension of the training for local law enforcement. Essentially, Lujan Grisham questioned whether training that has its roots not in American law enforcement, but in more volatile and sensitive scenarios such as protecting nuclear weapons and facilities — and even overseas wars — is appropriate for police.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, in a letter to Lujan Grisham dated April 27, wrote that he understood the congresswoman’s concerns about the training. But he punted her question to the Justice Department.

“It is beyond our expertise at the (Energy Department) to determine what type of training is appropriate for local law enforcement agencies,” Moniz wrote. “In response to the questions that you have raised in your letter about whether local law enforcement should have access to the (National Training Center’s) classes and/or facilities, I have asked the Department of Justice, and they have agreed, to perform an assessment of the courses taught at the NTC to determine whether any of the courses are inappropriate for local law enforcement officers.”

Moniz wrote that he would decide whether to shut APD and other police departments out of the training center’s courses after the DOJ completes its review.

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Lujan Grisham said she was “disappointed” that Moniz did not agree to suspend the police training at the DOE center while federal officials review it.

“We also still don’t know the names of all the (APD) officers and what training they were involved in,” she said, adding that the DOE cited privacy concerns in declining requests from her office for detailed information. “I am very disappointed that they won’t provide that to us. But we are expecting the DOJ to show us that they can track down the who, the what, the when and the where, and how that translates into the excessive use of force at APD.”

Still, Lujan Grisham said she was encouraged by Moniz’s prompt response to her inquiry — and by the pending DOJ review.

As his reason for asking the DOJ to conduct the review, Moniz cited the court-enforceable agreement Mayor Richard Berry’s administration signed with the Justice Department to reform the long-troubled APD. The agreement followed an 18-month investigation by the DOJ that found entrenched patterns and practices of using excessive force against citizens in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

“All policies and training developed by APD under the agreement are subject to review by DOJ and the court-appointed monitor,” he wrote. “I believe DOJ is particularly qualified to provide advice on what courses are or are not relevant and appropriate for local law enforcement officers.”

Indeed, Justice Department investigators determined that APD training was one of eight areas that contributed to the excessive force problem with the police here. Specifically, federal investigators pointed to an “over-emphasis on using force, especially weapons, to resolve stressful encounters, and insufficient emphasis on de-escalation techniques” in the training of both cadets and experienced officers.

“Much of the training leads officers to believe that violent outcomes are normal and desirable,” DOJ officials wrote in their investigative findings letter last April.

Moniz’s discussions with the DOJ about the involvement of local police at the National Training Center were not the first Justice Department officials had heard of it.

Two former APD officers with extensive experience at the National Training Center say they told Justice Department officials in late 2012 and early 2013 that the involvement of a few dozen of their former

Coyote Canyon
The Coyote Canyon complex, bottom right, as seen from the south. (Matt Grubs/KRQE)

colleagues at the center warranted attention in the DOJ’s broad look at APD’s use of excessive force. Both former officers spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations they had with federal investigators.

“I told them flat out that the Coyote Canyon stuff — the training up there, the guys who were involved heavily — was a big part of the problem,” one of the former officers said. “We talked about it for probably a half-hour.”

There is no evidence in either the report of findings from the DOJ or in the settlement agreement between the city and the Justice Department that federal investigators took a close look at police training at the Energy Department’s facility.

Elizabeth Martinez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, said the review will be folded into the existing settlement agreement between the DOJ and the city. The agreement specifically mentions training at the APD academy. It does not mention the DOE facility at Coyote Canyon.

“The Justice Department’s assessment of the courses taught at the Department of Energy’s National Training Center will be undertaken as part of the Department’s ongoing review of the reforms being implemented by the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) pursuant to the settlement agreement between the United States and city of Albuquerque,” Martinez wrote. “That assessment will include a review of all policies and training developed by APD as part of the reform process.”

Two Arrangements

When Lujan Grisham first requested a suspension of the training in February, Mayor Berry and his aides responded by calling it an act of uninformed political opportunism. Berry even told a reporter for another television station that the congresswoman should focus on finding money to help pay for the millions of dollars it will cost to reform APD, not question its training relationship with the Energy Department.

Lujan Grisham pointed out on Tuesday that she had secured $2 million for the DOJ’s police reform budget.

In their response to Lujan Grisham’s February request, Berry and an APD spokeswoman focused only on the city’s agreement with the Energy Department to use the National Training Center as a supplemental location to teach police cadets APD-authored courses.

“We appreciate the Department of Energy for providing their premiere facilities to allow APD to utilize our own curriculum,” police spokeswoman Celina Espinoza wrote in an email to News 13 at the time. “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.”

However, numerous documents obtained by News 13 show APD’s involvement goes much deeper than that.

Moniz’s letter, for example, says that 23 APD officers were issued “protective force training certificates” in 2014 alone.

Other records show that APD officers have been working as instructors for nuclear security focused courses at the DOE facility going back to at least 2007. Three of those officers — Drew Bader, Zack Stephenson and Russell Carter — have shot multiple people while working at APD.

Some of the department’s highest ranking officers also have worked as instructors at the facility, including Major Anthony Montano, the documents show.

Espinoza, the police spokeswoman, refused to comment for this story.

APD has continued to say since February that its training relationship with the Energy Department exists so that police cadets can be instructed at the National Training Center in APD’s own curricula. However, the department has refused to release those course descriptions to News 13.

*Note: This story has been updated with a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque.

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