ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A federal judge has ordered the City of Albuquerque to soften a key rule in Albuquerque police’s strict new officer promotion policy, created in response to Department of Justice related reforms.
In a ruling filed Wednesday, U.S. Federal Court Judge Robert Brack ordered the Albuquerque Police Department to re-work the promotion policy, in essence, saying the new rules are unfair.
APD has been using a new officer promotion policy since July 2016. The policy was designed as part of the APD-DOJ settlement agreement as a way to address what the DOJ called a “culture of aggression” within APD. That culture was highlighted by U.S. Department of Justice officials during an April 2014 press conference.
“Improper force incidents were not properly investigated, documented or addressed with corrective measures,” said Jocelyn Samuels, the then Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. DOJ.
As part of the APD-DOJ settlement agreement, the city overhauled its rules on who could be promoted.
“We’re trying to go to a system where there’s a lot more specific evaluation and thought going into a particular officer’s background,” said Jessica Hernandez, Albuquerque’s city attorney.
Under the old policy, officers were ineligible for promotion if they have sustained discipline resulting in suspension in the last year. The Chief was also allowed to consider any sustained suspension an officer received in the last two years from the date an officer took a written exam. Hernandez equated the old policy to one where, “essentially anyone that could pass the (written) test” would be promoted.
“That didn’t work,” said Hernandez.
In an attempt to keep problematic officers from becoming supervisors, the city’s new strict promotion policy implemented several rules. The new promotion policy disqualifies officers who’ve been suspended twice in the last five years, or with a single suspension of 40 hours of more in the last five years. The new policy also gives the APD Chief the discretion to disqualify a promotion candidate for “just cause” for any incident in the last five years, and the ability to consider the officer’s entire disciplinary record throughout their career.
The Albuquerque Police union fought those rules, arguing that the new policy is unfair.
“We wanted a more concise definition of what the parameters were within this promotion and we don’t think the Chief should have the ultimate authority to make this decision. Should have the chief have discretion within certain circumstances? Sure, that’s fine, but ultimate discretion? That’s unfair,” said Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association.
The union filed an objection to the policy in August.
“There’s no real defining elements to (the policy) (that would) allow an officer an understanding to whether they’re going to be eligible for a promotion, or not eligible for a promotion,” said Willoughby.
Federal Judge Robert Brack heard APOA’s arguments and the city’s defense during a November court hearing. On Wednesday, Judge Brack filed an order responding to the objection, ordering the city to re-work APD’s promotion policy. In his ruling, the judge says the new promotion policy’s wording is “too vague,” and the new policy should “primarily” only apply to officer conduct since the settlement agreement was approved by the Federal Court in June 2015.
“I’m very pleased,” said Willoughby in response to the judge’s order. “That one little bad that is to no fault of a police officer, should not detriment their entire career path.”
Judge Brack has asked that the city to work on revisions to the policy in the coming months. The city says it’s willing to re-work the policy.
“We have more guidance from the court on how to make this policy better, so we don’t view that as a negative at all,” said Hernandez.
Even with the changes, city officials still think APD will be able to prevent problematic officers from getting promoted into positions of power.
“If we are specific enough (in re-writing the policy,) I do think that we’ll be able to make sure that we are promoting only those people who’s history shows that they are committed to reform,” said Hernandez.
As part of the DOJ reforms, APD is required to review its new policies every six months. The city will start the process of rewriting the promotion policy in January 2017. The judge has called for an update on the new promotion policy to come in March 2017.
Judge Robert Brack’s ruling comes as a controversial APD officer is suing the department for being denied a promotion under the old policy. Brett Lampiris Tremba, who shot and killed Ken Ellis III back in 2010, is now asking a summary judgment in his lawsuit filed in Bernalillo County District Court.