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On Tuesday, DOJ officials said they want to know if APD engages in a pattern or practice of use of excessive force in violation of the Constitution and federal law.
(Scroll down to see a video of today's press conference.)
“We will peel the onion to its core, and leave no stone unturned,” said Thomas E Perez, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, who will lead the investigation.
With their reputations on the line, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and Police Chief Ray Schultz, both pledge to cooperate with the feds.
The investigation did not come as a surprise to APD’s command staff or the mayor. Schultz said his department has been assisting the DOJ since August 2011.
“We look forward to working with all parties involved,” Schultz said. “We know we’re not always perfect.”
Schultz told reporters the department hasn't been waiting around for the DOJ to investigate, but instead has been busy implenting procedures to reduce deadly outcomes since 2010.
Berry, who vetoed a city council resolution inviting the DOJ to investigate the department last year, said his administration does not consider the investigation a black eye on the city or the police department.
“We will not shy away from difficult issues,” Berry said, insisting he’s focused on protecting the men and women who serve the community from any harm and finding a better outcome for the entire community.
Still, the DOJ wants to talk to the rank and file members of the department, other police professionals, and engage members of the community to see if there are any systemic problems at APD.
The investigation, similar to DOJ reviews of police departments in New Orleans, Seattle and Austin, will focus on allegations that APD officers engage in use of excessive force, including use of unreasonable deadly force, in their encounters with civilians.
“Police officers are entrusted with extraordinary power, including the power to use deadly force, and police departments have a responsibility to ensure that officers exercise that power within the law,” Perez said.
APD has been the focus of protests, lawsuits, and demands for systematic overhauls from civil rights advocates and family members of 25 people shot by police officers. Since 2010, 17 of those shootings have been fatal.
Several officers have been disciplined and fired in recent months after videos surfaced showing them involved kicking a handcuffed suspect, and using a stun gun on another after the man appeared to have already surrendered.
After a fatal shooting in 2010, APD changed its own social media policy when reporters at KOB discovered the officer who was involved in the shooting had listed his occupation as “human waste disposal.”
In 2011, APD spent thousands of dollars getting recommendations on how to reduce shootings from the Police Executive Research Forum. That group recommended changing who the department recruits to become police officers, and suggested they move away from hiring war and service veterans and finding people who have the skills needed to defuse rather than escalate potentially violent incidents.
After reading the PERF, Schultz adopted an Early Warning System (EWS), which is set up to flag officers after they are involved in three, rather than five, use of force incidents.
Today, APD gave SFR a list of 43 officers currently flagged by the EWS.
Ahead of the DOJ investigation, Schultz all appointed a Critical Incident Review Board to help him review technologies and every excessive use of force incident. The board has recommended APD take a backseat to other law enforcement agencies at any officer-involved shooting scene.
The department is also in the final stages of updating its 2009 Use of Force Policy. Suggested revisions to the three-year old policy are noted in bold-face type.
Perez said the DOJ’s investigation will include a thorough review of APD’s policies and practices.
“As well as outreach to the community and other stakeholders, to identify root causes of misconduct if we discover that there have been systemic violations of the law.”
The investigation, which could take two years to complete, will also include a comprehensive review of the police department’s policies, training, and systems of accountability, and what external oversights exist following officer-involved shootings and other force incidents.
“The shared goal of this endeavor is a safer community and a police department that has the full confidence of the community it serves,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales, who was appointed by President Obama to the federal bench earlier this month, said he expects the review to identify measures that will strengthen the community’s confidence in APD.
Berry hopes it won’t impact his re-election chances next year. But the Democratic Party of New Mexico is already putting Berry in its sights.
“The buck stops at his door,” DPNM Chairman Javier Gonzales wrote in an e-mailed statement to the media this afternoon. “This black eye for the city of Albuquerque belongs to him, and people won't forget his inaction when he is running for re-election next year."
Pete Dinelli, a former public safety director for the City of Albuquerque and possible mayoral candidate, also said the investigation is a black eye for the city. He said the mayor should have asked the DOJ to review the increase in officer involved shootings on his own last year.
Attorneys and staff from the Special Litigation Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico will jointly conduct the investigation.
Perez invited any residents with relevant information to contact the department via email or by telephone at (855) 544-5134.
The Albuquerque Journal produced this timeline of events at APD beginning with the January 2010 shooting of veteran Kenny Ellis, who was shot in the parking lot of a retail store in Albuquerque when he was shot in the neck. Ellis reportedly suffered from symptoms of PTSD. Officers were cleared by a grand jury who determined the shooting was justified. Ellis father, an outspoken critic of APD, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the department.
Currently, officer-involved shootings are not being reviewed by a grand jury panel. A district court judge ordered the process halted earlier this year; however, negotiations with the district attorney over how to revamp the grand jury review are underway and the process could begin again early next year. For now, the city’s Police Oversight Commission’s Long Term Planning and Independent Review Officer review all shootings and any citizen complaint. The POC’s recommendations are then forwarded to Chief Schultz for final review.
Additional information about the Civil Rights Division is available on its website.
Additional information about the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico is available on its website.