ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A special report by the independent monitor assigned to evaluate the progress of Albuquerque police toward constitutional policing took the department to task for a look-busy approach to holding officers accountable for use-of-force incidents and fostering a “culture of low accountability.”
The report released Friday was exceptional in that it was not part of the monitor’s scheduled series of progress reports for the department. It was sparked by a use-of-force incident in October 2015, in which four Albuquerque Police Department officers used knee strikes to the body and head of suspected car thief as they arrested him.
The special report says that while the department presents itself publicly as willing to change how it polices both citizens and officers, the behind-the-scenes reality is that APD has “almost no appetite for correcting behavior that violates existing policy.” Within the department’s system for monitoring use of force by officers, the report says, “each step appears preconditioned to rationalize or explain away officer conduct.”
The monitor, James Ginger, excoriated the city for exploiting the time lag between prior reports and their release; in effect trying to tell the public that by the time the monitor was raising issues, the city had already solved them. Contrary to that narrative, Ginger wrote several times in the report, the incidents used as examples are still indicative of use-of-force problems today.
In the face of the monitor’s new criticism, Albuquerque Police Department defended its progress Friday, claiming that the report draws “sweeping conclusions” about the current state of use of force reporting and investigations, without providing data to back up those conclusions. Once again, the Department claimed that the “use of force” problems described by the monitor are in the past, and occurred before APD completed new “use of force” training for officers and supervisors.
But it’s clear, the Independent Monitor does not agree with APD that the department’s use of force reporting and investigation problems are in the past. In the special report, Independent Monitor James Ginger said APD’s lack of accountability for officers who use force on the job can’t be chalked up to past problems or new policies. Ginger called the use-of-force issues a “snapshot” of APD’s policies as recently as last month, and said they “represent serious shortfalls in terms of basic, well-establish oversight and accountability principles. Moreover, most investigative lapses are straightforward and basic.”
APD’s statements did not directly respond to the monitor’s words that “most investigative lapses are straight forward and basic.” Albuquerque City Attorney Jessica Hernandez also sent a seven page letter to the independent monitor, responding to his report.
If the city had its way, however, the public would have never seen this version of the special report.
An order by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Brack allowing for the report’s release said the city and the police union — the Albuquerque Police Officers Association — objected to not specifically mentioning steps the city has taken to respond to some of the uses of force detailed in the report.
Judge Brack found the city’s suggestion to allow it to alter the monitor’s report “neither well-founded nor workable.” Such a move, Brack said, would undermine the monitor’s independence.
Further, the judge wrote, the purpose of the settlement was to foster transparency and rebuild public trust in the beleaguered department. Letting the city add to, change, or outright censor the report, Brack wrote, would be contrary to the spirit of the court-approved settlement agreement that the U.S. Department of Justice signed with the City of Albuquerque.
Friday, Albuquerque Police watchdog group, “APD Forward” took issue with the city’s request to alter the monitor’s report.
“The reports from the monitor should simply be the reports from the monitor, APD can and has been releasing its own self-assessments of what’s going on, but the city and the police officers union shouldn’t be tampering with the independence of the monitor,” said Steve Allen, policy director for ACLU New Mexico. The organization is a co-member of the “APD Forward” group.
There have been signs of growing frustration by the monitoring team with both the pace of change at APD and the department’s apparent unwillingness to implement critical pieces of the settlement agreement. In a July 1 progress report, the monitoring team raised questions about the department’s desire to hold officers accountable for use-of-force incidents.
Specifically, Ginger mentioned an incident in the July 1 report in which officers arrested a man accused of stealing a bait car, using a knee-strike to the head and body of 27-year-old Majestic Howard as they took him into custody. The officers called the violent blows to Howard “distraction strikes.”
In the special report released Friday, Ginger said the terms “distraction strike” and “distraction techniques” were commonly used APD code words for use-of-force. More often than not, the monitor wrote, such uses of force went unreported, unreviewed and undisciplined.
In the case of Howard, Ginger pointed out, none of the four officers reported their use-of-force. Further, their reports of the incident didn’t match body camera recordings of it. The difference, what the monitor called a “serious discrepancy,” was never addressed by the department.
In another example used by the monitor, the two primary officers in the Howard case were on patrol a few weeks later. After a driver allegedly plowed through landscaping at a Walmart, the officers tried to pull him over. The man ran. The two officers caught up to him, tackled and handcuffed him. The man had a broken arm.
The very next day, another suspect arrested by the same pair of officers came away from the encounter with a broken collarbone.
Ginger said in both cases, the department’s response and subsequent reviews by command staff fell short of the use-of-force review guidelines agreed to by the city when it signed a settlement agreement with the DOJ.
The court order providing for the report’s release noted that the city and the union wanted to change the report through an informal request during a status conference. Had they succeeded, it may have been possible that the public would not have known the city had changed the report to soften its conclusions. Brack’s final sentence orders all parties to the settlement agreement to file motions in the future; documents that would be public record.
In response to the report’s release on Friday, Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden released the following statement:
“We appreciate Dr. Ginger’s feedback and guidance throughout this process. This recently released report confirms what the Department already knew; these 2015 incidents were serious use of force cases that needed to be thoroughly investigated. When Dr. Ginger notified the Department of his concerns in May 2016, we let him know that we had been investigating them since November of 2015. We have since disciplined personnel in connection with these investigations. These incidents occurred before the Department adopted and trained officers on our new Use of Force policy. The initial investigations also occurred prior to supervisors being trained on how to review uses of force under the new policy. In addition to the new policies and training since the time of these incidents, the Department is already in the process of evaluating and implementing the new recommendations in this report. We know that organizational change takes time and effort; we will continue working hard to improve and integrate our new policies into the Department’s culture.
Both the Department and the Police Officers’ Association had serious concerns about the way this Special Report focused on incidents and investigations from before the new policies and training were implemented and then made conclusions about APD’s current status. We expected the Special Report to provide an in-depth review of these past shortcomings and what we could learn from them as we continue moving forward. Instead, the report draws sweeping conclusions about current use of force reporting and investigations without clearly providing supporting facts or data from events after new policies and training were implemented. Both the Department and the Union believed that the conclusions in the report should be fairly tied to the past events detailed in the report. Nonetheless, we are committed to moving forward.”
–Chief Gorden Eden, Albuquerque Police Department
In response to the “APD Forward” advocacy group’s claim that the the department was trying to ‘block the federal monitor from releasing information about use of force incidents to the public,” Albuquerque Police released another statement:
“The Department never attempted to stop the federal monitor from releasing information about use of force incidents to the public. In fact, the Department made it clear to the monitor and the Court that we were not asking for a single change in the way the monitor described the uses of force, his critiques of the investigations of those incidents, his conclusions on the Department’s shortcomings in those investigations, or the ways the monitor thought the Department needed to change its systems going forward. The Department said again and again that it welcomes that feedback as an opportunity to improve. The Department asked only that the conclusions in the report be accurately tied to the time period actually reported on in the report so that the conclusions were fair and accurate.”
–Chief Gorden Eden, Albuquerque Police Department