For the first time in over a year, the Albuquerque Police Department went before a judge on Tuesday to talk about how court-ordered reforms are going. APD has been working on this for about four years after the Department of Justice investigated a high number of fatal officer-involved shootings and found a pattern of unconstitutional use of force. KUNM caught up with Albuquerque Journal reporter Elise Kaplan, who covers criminal justice and sat through the all-day hearing.
ELISE KAPLAN: Overall, definitely, a big theme of the hearing on Tuesday was that things are really improving. That’s not to say that we don’t have a long way to go. I think everyone was very clear that things are far from over. But the mayor, the police chief, the Department of Justice themselves, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the police union—even ACLU—all kind of said the same thing, that they are pleased with the way things are moving forward, and they are committed to seeing the process through.
APD just finished examining hundreds of use-of-force cases, but since there had been this kind of big backlog, all of those officers could no longer face any punishment if they were found to have used force inappropriately. Did they talk about why this took so long?
KAPLAN: They have about 90 days to complete the investigation. Then they can have an extension of up to 30 days. And then after that, under their union negotiations, they can’t face any discipline, because too much time has elapsed—basically like a statute of limitations.
These cases were all from 2017. They all occurred before the change in administration. So, I do think that people felt like they’d been kind of running out the clock and now none of these 300 cases can result in any discipline. Overall, the Department of Justice representative who was there was actually very complimentary of the way that APD had dealt with this backlog in the wake of things, kind of said they’d made the best of a bad situation—that they of course had created.
Ultimately, the new investigators had gone in and started the investigations from the very beginning and reviewed all of these cases to see: Are these officers showing a pattern of use of force? Have any of these issues continued into present day?
You weren’t allowed to ask questions during the hearing, but did you hear anything about whether ongoing problems or patterns emerged in those 300 cases? And did they talk about whether any of them should have warranted discipline, even if that wasn’t possible anymore?
KAPLAN: They didn’t get into detail about the specific cases that they found. One case that they brought up a couple times: Last February an officer was spotted by another officer throwing a handcuffed suspect around in a holding cell. And he was actually investigated, and they found that he should be terminated and charged with a misdemeanor.
Instead of making an official report to APD’s internal investigators when an officer used force, police supervisors were writing it up in something called an Additional Concerns Memo. Why were they doing that?
KAPLAN: I think why they were doing it kind of depends on who you ask. The city Attorney’s Office and the attorney for the union were very adamant that there’s no overarching scheme to be skirting anything. But the DOJ investigator did say that he found it kind of concerning. These Additional Concern Memos really spiked after the backlog got dealt with. So he felt that maybe this was a way for them to kind of skirt making an official report. I think they were saying it’s kind of like an off-ramp, or kind of like a backdoor, to be like, “Well, also, maybe this was some excessive force.” But not make an official report about it. That being said, in May 2019, APD did put a stop to that.
It sounds like the Department of Justice attorney was commending the new police chief, Michael Geier, for pushing the department to comply with these court-ordered changes. But that ground-level bosses are not on board across the department. How is Geier’s philosophy different? And what will it take to make these widespread changes?
This came up a lot, that while the change is being seen from the top, the people who really need to change are the people who’ve been there 10 or 15 years, who are kind of ingrained in this cultural attitude. So that’s like the sergeants and the lieutenants out in the field. I think there’s about 70. If Geier could just get everyone in the same harness than maybe we would be in really good shape.
Geier had mentioned this thing that I thought was really interesting about the difference in the guardian versus warrior mentality, and that he’s trying to instill thought of APD as being more guardians of the public rather than warriors against the public. It was mentioned multiple times that the previous administration, the previous APD that brought in all of these problems had very much a militaristic attitude, an us-versus-them attitude.