Records contradict Albuquerque police chief’s claim in excessive force case

Officer who kneed suspect's head disciplined only after DOJ monitor's report became public

In an image from an officer's body-worn camera, APD officer Jonathan Franco grabs the uniform of officer Benjamin Daffron to use it as leverage as he delivers a knee strike to the head of suspected car thief Majestic Howard. Howard's can be seen hanging off the curb as officers try to grab his right arm.
In an image from an officer's body-worn camera, APD officer Jonathan Franco grabs the uniform of officer Benjamin Daffron to use it as leverage as he delivers a knee strike to the head of suspected car thief Majestic Howard. Howard's can be seen hanging off the curb as officers try to grab his right arm.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) — Albuquerque Police Chief Gorden Eden seemed to think the concerns of the department’s independent monitor were old news.

It was September 2016, after all, and the special report just made public by the United States Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque focused on three use-of-force incidents from late 2015. The same two officers were involved in each case- a succession of knee strikes and violent take downs resulting in broken bones for two of the three suspects.

Eden’s statement to the media about monitor James Ginger’s report said the review “confirms what the department already knew; these 2015 incidents were serious use-of-force cases that needed to be thoroughly investigated.

benjamin-daffron-apd
Benjamin Daffron

“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.” (italics added)

But a KRQE News 13 review of internal affairs records in the cases shows that only marginal discipline — two verbal reprimands for failure to report a use of force — had been meted out by the department at the time the chief sought to assure the community that cases had been dealt with. It wasn’t until five days after the chief’s statement that APD suspended a single officer for excessive force in one case. In the other two instances, the department could not produce any evidence that either of the officers had been punished.

APD Communications and Community Outreach Director Celina Espinoza refused to make the disciplinary letters referenced in the chief’s remarks immediately available. The department only did so after News 13 filed an Inspection of Public Records Act request. The department still has not allowed News 13 to review the entire internal affairs file for the case, as required by state law.

Ginger was hired by the city as a required independent monitor to evaluate APD’s progress toward compliance with a host of policing reforms mandated by a court-approved settlement agreement with the Department of Justice. In 2014, the DOJ found that Albuquerque police had a pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing, particularly when it came to how officers use force in arrests and other parts of their job.

The monitor has drawn attention to the October 30, 2015 arrest of Majestic Howard. That night, the career criminal was behind the wheel of a truck the department used as bait to catch auto thieves. Hidden cameras installed in the truck’s dashboard show Howard jamming a screwdriver into the ignition. When police following behind him turn on their lights and sirens, Howard keeps driving until a malfunctioning remote kill-switch finally stops the truck near downtown Albuquerque.

As half a dozen officers roll up behind him, Howard tries in vain to start the truck. He tosses what looks like a gun in the front passenger seat. Finally, he raises his hands and gets out. Within moments, body cameras from the officers on scene show he drops his hands and runs.

APD officer Jonathan Franco catches up 15 seconds later. Franco’s body camera shows Howard stop running and sit back on a mattress leaned against a fence. His hands are raised. Franco grabs the suspect and pulls him to the ground as officer Benjamin Daffron catches up. Body cameras show Howard’s right arm pinned beneath him as the officers take him to the ground.

jonathan-franco-apd
Jonathan Franco

Within seven seconds, other officers can be heard calling out that they’ve secured Howard’s legs and left arm. As Daffron shouts at Howard to give up the arm he has underneath him, the officer used what he termed in his report as a “distraction technique” to try to get Howard to comply. The technique, the report later reflected, was knee strikes to Howard’s body.

Franco, meanwhile, walks around the prone Howard and grabs the back of Daffron’s uniform, using it as leverage as he lowers his knee and drives it along the curb into Howard’s face, which is hanging out over the curb. Bloodied and confused, Howard is in handcuffs moments later.

Franco’s initial report never mentioned the blow and the independent monitor keyed upon APD’s subsequent use-of-force investigation as emblematic of the department’s attitude toward the choices made by its officers in the field.

While Chief Eden told the public on Sept. 16 that officers had been disciplined in the case, records show Franco’s two-week suspension wasn’t decided upon until Sept. 21. Two other officers involved in the case, Sonny Molina and Sgt. Nick Wheeler, received verbal reprimands. Records show Wheeler refused to sign an acknowledgement of the discipline. Benjamin Daffron was not punished.

Read the disciplinary letters here >>

Officers Franco and Daffron often work together, the monitor found, and five weeks later, the two were behind a pair of arrests on consecutive days in which the suspects came out of the encounter with broken bones. Both were suspects in auto theft cases.

The monitor’s special report focused on the department’s response to the two cases as well as the Majestic Howard case, calling the example set by APD’s treatment of Daffron and Franco’s uses of force “critical to developing workable systems to identify, assess, analyze, categorize, and correct officer behavior that is non-compliant with established (recently developed) policy and procedure within APD.”

The city’s Police Oversight Board has struggled with the department’s response to outside input. Board member Joanne Fine told KRQE News 13 that she sees APD’s buy-in to the court-approved settlement agreement as minimal.

“I don’t think they’re being straight with anybody about any part of this reform process,” Fine said. She and other board members have complained to the city and the DOJ about a lack of willingness on the part of Eden and his department to share decisions about officer discipline.

The board, part of the city’s Civilian Police Oversight Agency, is in place to help monitor APD’s response to the use of force by its officers. As laid out in the city ordinance governing the CPOA’s operations, the chief is supposed to send letters to the board explaining his departures from their recommendations regarding officer discipline.

As of last week, when the board sat down to iron out differences with the police department and the chief, it hadn’t received a single letter. Fine says the board elicited a promise from Eden to keep them apprised of his disciplinary decisions.

“But we’ve heard that before,” she said, “And right now he has 57 letters outstanding.”

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