Albuquerque PD: a case study of police brutality

Will Department of Justice reforms change a culture of violence in the New Mexico police department?

Magazine image - Please do not use - A history of Violence

Albuquerque, New Mexico –  In January 1972, Rito Canales and Antonio Cordova, members of the Chicano youth organisation known as the Black Berets, were killed in a barrage of gunfire by the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) and New Mexico State Police.

“It was an assassination, pure and simple,” says Black Beret cofounder Richard Moore. His suspicions were partially supported years later when a man named Tim Chapa testified in court that, as a former APD informant, he had helped set up the assassination.

This was the culmination of a brutal crackdown against Chicano and native activist groups across the state of New Mexico, and mirrored the nationwide campaign of racialised police violence in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement.

“I think it would be hard to overstate how important the Civil Rights Movement, and the cascade of uprisings that came afterwards, were on affecting the strategies, tactics, the occupational culture … of police in this country, says Kristian Williams, a journalist and author who writes about the legacies of policing in America.

The Black Berets emerged in the late 1960s from the under-served, impoverished and predominantly Hispanic south valley neighbourhood of Albuquerque. Modelled on the Black Panthers and inspired by the revolutionary ideals of Che Guevara, the community organisation opened clinics, provided educational services and free breakfasts for schoolchildren, and organised community patrols in response to the campaign of racialised police violence against minorities in Albuquerque and across the state.

The killings of Canales and Cordova, just a day before both Beret members were to appear on television and hold a press conference about an investigation into prison violence and police brutality, created a storm of media attention and led to an investigation into their deaths.


An officer removes crime scene tape after a police action in Albuquerque in May 2015. After surrounding an apartment with guns drawn for several hours, police realised the suspect was not there [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera]
An officer removes crime scene tape after a police action in Albuquerque in May 2015. After surrounding an apartment with guns drawn for several hours, police realised the suspect was not there [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera]

Some 40 years later, amid a nationwide outcry over the use of deadly police violence against unarmed people of colour, attention has returned to the city as another string of fatal Albuquerque police shootings – 29 since 2010 – affecting the marginalised and disenfranchised has spurred local outrage and a US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into the department’s actions.

The federal government investigation revealed in striking clarity the extreme violence practised by Albuquerque police. A “findings letter” released by the DOJ in April 2014 detailed the problem in no uncertain terms.

“Of the 20 officer-involved shootings resulting in fatalities from 2009 to 2012, we concluded that a majority of these shootings were unconstitutional,” the letter stated. “Albuquerque police officers also often use less lethal force in an unconstitutional manner … [and] often use unreasonable physical force without regard for the subject’s safety or the level of threat encountered.”

The findings letter also exposed some shocking examples of police brutality and negligence that had so far evaded media attention. For example, the report notes “officers fired Tasers numerous times at a man who had poured gasoline on himself. The Taser discharges set the man on fire, requiring another officer to extinguish the flames,” before adding drily: “This endangered all present.”

It also revealed a set of familiar problems in US policing that have taken root in the Albuquerque department, including poor training, dubious hiring practices and the militarisation of a civil police department. It outlined a pervasive shoot-first mentality that in part accounts for the staggering use of lethal force by US police, disproportionately targeting  Hispanic, black and Native American people.

De-historicising police violence

Members of Albuquerque's SWAT team surround a house during a standoff with a mentally ill man holding a saw and a shovel in June 2015 [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera] 
Members of Albuquerque’s SWAT team surround a house during a standoff with a mentally ill man holding a saw and a shovel in June 2015 [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera] 

To many, however, the investigation failed to address the structural issues at the heart of the patterns of police violence in this country.

“Police violence is always de-historicised. It is always [portrayed as] something unique to the present,” explains activist and professor David Correia. “But if we could focus on issues like race and class, we could connect what’s happening here to these longer struggles.”

As a result of the DOJ’s findings, the federal government entered into negotiations with the City of Albuquerque – the mayor and local government – to reform the police department. This resulted in a 106-page settlement agreement known as a consent decree between the City and the DOJ, whereby the City agrees to make certain changes to the police department and the DOJ retains the right to bring legal action against them for the civil rights violations outlined in the findings letter.

The consent decree is only the most recent in a long line of reform measures, including four separate reports commissioned by the city since 1980, each aimed at curtailing fatal shootings, according to Correia. To date, these reports and investigations have done little to stop a department that has killed at least 100 people since 1984.

Meanwhile, the connections between race, class and police violence highlighted in other communities  -Ferguson and Baltimore, for example – are rarely talked about openly in Albuquerque. Neither the DOJ findings letter nor the consent decree make any mention of racialised policing, and the consent decree does not mandate the city to do anything to deter racism among officers.

“There is a lack of data,” according to Robert McGoey, the author of Albuquerque’s Stolen Lives, a 2004 report examining all Albuquerque police killings since 1987. The researcher said the absent record-keeping in New Mexico – and nationwide – helps to explain why the media tends not to view race as a factor in this city.

A 2014 study by and about people routinely victimised by the APD – based in part on preliminary research collected by one of the author’s of this article, Andy Beale – found that it systematically engages in racially motivated policing, targeting people of colour, particularly Native Americans.

“The native community has long felt unfairly targeted by police in Albuquerque,”  said Laurie Weahkee, the executive director of the Native American Voters Alliance, regarding a recent motion filed by the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] to increase the community’s say in how the agreement between the DOJ and the City of Albuquerque will be implemented.

For those who have lived through the violence of the 1960s and 1970s, these issues are familiar. “I spoke to the DOJ in the 70s,” says Moore, the Black Beret activist. “They said they didn’t want to hear about race. Now, many years later there is another investigation, some new reforms, and all the while APD goes on killing.”

A familiar story

The Albuquerque apartment complex where Mary Jobe's husband, Daniel Tillison, was killed by Albuquerque police in March 2012. [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera]
The Albuquerque apartment complex where Mary Jobe’s husband, Daniel Tillison, was killed by Albuquerque police in March 2012. [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera]

On April 12, 2011, Steve Torres received a worrying call from his neighbour informing him that dozens of Albuquerque police officers were pointing rifles at his house.

“Right away I panicked and I feared the worst,” Torres says, fighting back tears as he describes the day two plainclothed officers entered the backyard of his home and, after a struggle, shot his schizophrenic son, Christopher, three times at point-blank range.

Earlier that day Christopher had gone to work, met his mother for lunch and returned home to help some of his elderly neighbours with chores, as he often did.

“Christopher was good with the elderly,” says Torres, whose son’s illness made each day a struggle.

“[The neighbours] said he was cheerful. My wife said he was happy … for Christopher it had been a good day,” Torres explains from his Albuquerque law office located a block away from police headquarters.

At around 1:30pm, undercover officers Christopher J Brown and Richard Hilger arrived at the Torres house to question Christopher, or possibly serve a warrant for a road-rage incident he had been involved in weeks before (the two officers’ stories differ).

According to court documents, officers rang the doorbell but no one answered. As they prepared to leave they heard a noise in the backyard, went to the side of the house, peeked over the fence and saw Christopher. The officers involved claimed to have announced themselves at this point, although they later testified in court that they did not have their lapel cameras with them on that day, so could not prove this. Then Officer Brown jumped over the fence, tackling Christopher and throwing him to the ground.

“At this point the perspective shifts to the neighbour,” says Torres, describing the testimony given by neighbour Christie Apodaca. She had heard the commotion and came outside.

What she saw, according to her sworn testimony, was Brown straddling Christopher’s back while Hilger punched him in the face. “She called the cops as she thinks Chris is being robbed,” Torres explains. “It was at this time that she heard three shots.”

According to the officers, Christopher had at some point managed to grab Hilger’s gun, prompting Hilger to yell: “He’s got my gun, shoot him, shoot him.”

Apodaca, the neighbour, remembers things differently. All she ever heard was Brown saying calmly and matter-of-factly: “I’m going to shoot you.”

According to Judge Shannon Bacon, who oversaw the subsequent civil case against the department: “There is no credible evidence that Christopher Torres grabbed Detective Hilger’s gun out of the hidden, inside-the-pants holster, held it in a firing position, and threatened either of the detectives.”

The autopsy report found defensive wounds on Christophers hands, and the proximity of Brown’s pistol left burn marks in his flesh.

The judge found the officers, who showed up to court in jeans and T-shirts, “not credible” and their charge of self-defence was summarily rejected. The Torres family was awarded $6m by the judge, according to a report by local newspaper the Albuquerque Journal. However, the payout will be limited to $400,000, which is the maximum allowed under the state Tort Claims Act.

The scene at the Torres house after the shooting was like something out of a Hollywood hostage situation: 40 officers, 30 police cars, a mobile command centre, armoured vehicles and SWAT officers in full military-style body armour on the rooftops, pointing guns at an empty house.

“It was crazy,” Torres says, describing the scene when officers stormed the empty house with battering rams and flashbang grenades.

“They had already shot him, killed him and removed him from the scene, he continues. I offered to let them in the house … but they wanted to use their toys.”

Torres believes that the ensuing “circus” was simply a way to cover up their mistake. “I think what they were doing was hoping to find drugs or contraband, something to justify what they had done,” he says.

That night, as the family mourned, news coverage of the event consistently portrayed Christopher as a violent criminal with a lengthy rap sheet.

“They were trying to smear him,” says Torres, who adds that the lawsuit brought against the APD was in large part an attempt to clear Christopher’s name.

“That is what they do,” explains former APD officer John Doyle, describing the controversial background checks compiled on high-profile cases, and also allegedly held on those considered to be enemies and critics of the APD. “They gather intel on people, often bad [incorrect] intel, then they go straight to the media with this elaborate display to undermine their character.”

New awareness, old problem

Sam Costales has been one of the most outspoken critics of the APD since leaving the force in 2009. A police officer for 24 years, Costales says he was forced out of the department, a claim the APD has disputed. A jury agreed with Costales, however, awarding him $662,000 in 2009 after finding that then police chief Ray Schultz had violated his First Amendment rights [Andy Beale]
Sam Costales has been one of the most outspoken critics of the APD since leaving the force in 2009. A police officer for 24 years, Costales says he was forced out of the department, a claim the APD has disputed. A jury agreed with Costales, however, awarding him $662,000 in 2009 after finding that then police chief Ray Schultz had violated his First Amendment rights [Andy Beale]

This story was in many ways emblematic of the patterns and practices of the APD.

Christopher, Hispanic and mentally ill, fitted the profile of those most likely to be killed by the APD. According to the first and, so far, only report released by the newly established Citizen Police Oversight Agency, covering the city’s 42 fatal and non-fatal officer-involved shootings from 2010 to 2014, Hispanics were overrepresented as victims of police shootings, while a majority of those shot were either suffering a mental crisis or had an “unknown” mental state.

The actions of the two officers, the militant response of the department and the ensuing media coverage all spoke to a culture of violence and impunity.

Sam Costales, a 24-year veteran of the force, says today’s revelations of police brutality across the country do not reflect an increase in police violence – just an increase in public awareness of a very old problem.

“What you’re seeing today is reminiscent of what happened when I came on [joined the force] …. Except nobody had cameras back then,” he says. “Now it’s coming out because everyone’s got a cellphone with a camera in it. And they’re able to record what I witnessed all the time as a police officer that was kept quiet.”

In March 2014, a graphic video of an Albuquerque police killing spurred large protests that brought new critical attention to the department. Officers Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez shot 38-year-old James Boyd three times each as he was visibly attempting to cooperate.

In January of this year, District Attorney Kari Brandenburg announced that she would pursue murder charges against Sandy and Perez. The very next day, Albuquerque police killed again . Following the shooting of John O’Keefe, who police claimed was armed and wearing a bulletproof vest, Brandenburg’s office was for the first time in Albuquerque history locked out of the APD’s briefing on the shooting.

According to Brandenburg, officers told Chief Deputy DA Sylvia Martinez that the DA’s office could not be party to the investigation because Brandenburg has a “conflict of interest” due to filing charges against Sandy and Perez. These developments were striking as it is standard procedure in police departments around the country for the DA’s office to review all uses of lethal force by the police department.

The APD has consistently maintained that Sandy and Perez did nothing wrong. But Costales, the APD veteran, says that after watching the video he felt he had “just witnessed a murder”.

Contrary to what police often claim, many uses of force by officers are unnecessary, he says.

“I went my 20 years, and I never hit, kicked, punched, slapped anyone during an arrest. It’s possible. It’s possible to do that,” Costales says.

He goes on to explain that violent officers knew full well that their punches and baton strikes were often unnecessary, but chose to use excessive force anyway.

“When you witnessed it, you looked at the other police officer in the face as he just got through beating up a person, and he looked you straight in the eye knowing that what he had done was wrong and knowing that what you had just witnessed you would not say.”

Breaking the blue wall of silence

An APD officer hangs crime-scene tape to block off a road during a SWAT standoff in May 2015 [Andy Beale] 
An APD officer hangs crime-scene tape to block off a road during a SWAT standoff in May 2015 [Andy Beale] 

And the reason why officers “would not say” what they had witnessed? Fear of retaliation, says Costales, who learned for himself how well-grounded that fear could be.

In 2006, after the APD leadership convinced him to come out of retirement and rejoin the force, he was given a painful lesson in what happens when you break the “blue wall of silence”.

Bizarrely, the story starts with the violent arrest of Al Unser, a former NASCAR racer famous in the US.

Unser was 67 years old in 2006, when Costales saw sheriff’s deputies drag him out of his car and throw him face down before taking him to jail. Costales says the officers did it solely because Unser had told them, “You guys think you’re gods,” after they screamed at him for no apparent reason.

Costales decided he would no longer remain silent when he witnessed police abuses. So he testified in Unser’s defence at the NASCAR driver’s trial for charges of resisting arrest and disobeying police. Unser was acquitted.

But Costales’ bosses didn’t like that.

He says that they encouraged a campaign of defamation against him, finding its clearest expression on the Albuquerque police unions’ online message board.

“Once the chief came out and made it clear he wasn’t happy with me … they came out after that, and they had the [police union] website, that I was not a part of, and began this slander. They’re talking about me, saying what a rat I was, that I should’nt be trusted.”

Costales’ problems within the department mounted, and when the pressure from administration and other officers became too much, he quit.

“I said, ‘I’ve got my retirement. I’m a rehire. I came back to work. I don’t have to worry about that any more. They won’t do anything to me. I was wrong. They came after me just as hard as if I was a first-year rookie.”

The department denied retaliating against him, but a jury agreed with Costales, awarding him $662,000 in 2009 and finding that then Chief Ray Schultz had violated his First Amendment rights.

Since leaving the APD, Costales has become an outspoken critic of the department. Although he says he never used violence in his time as a police officer, he readily admits to participating in criminal violations of people’s rights under orders.

He recounts, for example, an incident in which he was ordered to remove homeless people from an Albuquerque park in order to make the area more accommodating for a Ramada Inn to open nearby. After disputing the validity of the order, he was threatened with discipline if he refused to comply.

“They said, ‘Well, make up something. But get them out of the park. I said that’s violating their rights.’ And they said, ‘Well, are you gonna be insubordinate?’ I said, ‘Well, I haven’t been insubordinate yet, so no.’ So I had to make up a story,” Costales says. “I just made up a story saying, ‘If you have a job, you’re allowed to be in the park. If you don’t have a job, you’re not allowed to be in the park’.”

Costales details other incidents of police abuse he either witnessed or participated in. Many, he claims, were routine and woven into the fabric of the department’s day-to-day business. Officers, required to come up with 40 traffic tickets a month, would routinely profile Mexican nationals under the belief that they are less likely to have their car’s documents in order, due to unfamiliarity with the requirements of driving in the US.

“At the end of the month you start profiling the Mexican nationals riding around in their cars because you know you get three or four tickets out of them at least, or an arrest because probably they didn’t show up [to court for] the last tickets they received and then a warrant was issued for their arrest,” Costales explains.

“I’ve made several statements to the effect of ‘There are no good police officers,'” Costales says. “You can be a good person, you can be a great person, but if you’re going to be a cop, you’re going to have to do some things that are against your values and morals, are against the law, and they’re going to be done under threat of termination.”

A suspicious death

Members of the APDs SWAT team enter a house after a suspect surrendered in May 2015. The armoured vehicle used by SWAT is known as a Bearcat, and was frequently seen on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, during protests following the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown last year [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera]
Members of the APDs SWAT team enter a house after a suspect surrendered in May 2015. The armoured vehicle used by SWAT is known as a Bearcat, and was frequently seen on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, during protests following the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown last year [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera]

This culture has changed very little since Costales’ days in the department, according to former officer Tom Grover. “It was a running joke at the department: ‘Did they have a gun, wink wink, nod nod?'” Grover says. “There wasn’t any concealing or diminishing of [the] APD’s propensity for violence. It was there, it was acknowledged, it was accepted.”

Grover joined the department in 2004 and left in 2011 after a botched APD investigation into the death of his close friend Mary Han, a well-known civil rights lawyer and outspoken critic of the APD.

“I’d taken tenfolds of carbon-monoxide suicides or attempts at suicide. And it’s not this pristine scene that you see in the movies,” says Grover of the way Han’s body was found. “People look sunburnt. They sweat because of the heat from the exhaust. They expectorate, there’s snot everywhere. There’s a lot of scratching. It’s a very violent death. Theres nothing pleasant or sublime about it. Its an ugly, ugly scene … Mary, however, is just sort of there like, ‘Hey, wake up.'”

What followed was a series of unusual events, as numerous high-ranking APD officials and city civilians arrived on the scene, something Grover had never seen before. According to a police report filed by Grover (and later lost by the APD), the lieutenant said that while on the scene he overheard detectives commenting that Han was a staged murder, that it was a homicide, that Han was “clearly taken out”.

Later that evening, Grover got a call from a lieutenant on the graveyard shift saying the APD never made the call-out to investigate Han’s death as a homicide.

“It just stinks to high heaven,” says Grover, speaking of the inconsistencies in Han’s toxicology screen, her body position and her apparent carbon-monoxide suicide. “Everything about that scene was consistent with a staged homicide.”

A follow-up investigation by the office of New Mexico attorney general Gary King found that the investigation had been “terribly mishandled”, and that “the real cause of death for Albuquerque attorney Mary Han may never be determined because of the puzzling police investigation. However, the evidence does not definitively indicate she took her own life,” according to an article from the Albuquerque Journal.

When asked who might have been involved in Han’s death, Grover says: “Now that I know a lot of the things that I know and have seen the things that I’ve seen, she – there’s a third rail out there that she tapped. I don’t know what it is, but she tapped it. And that was the consequence for that, I guess.”

For Grover, the APD’s handling of the investigation was the last straw. “I saw such a departure and grotesque actions by the people that are supposed to be leading the department,” he says. “I had seen this corner coming around, but I was at the point where I knew if I stayed,” he continues, tapping his heart where a badge used to be, “I would be violating this badge.”

Kill, reform, kill, repeat

Police debrief in the streets of Albuquerque following a SWAT standoff in May 2015 [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera]
Police debrief in the streets of Albuquerque following a SWAT standoff in May 2015 [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera]

The federal investigation and the implementation of a monitor to oversee the consent decree gave some hope that the department would be forced to change its ways.

“We were cautiously optimistic that the DOJ would come in and make the kind of changes that would ensure what happened to our son would not happen again,” says Steve Torres, but I’m afraid what’s happening here is whitewashing. They say they’re going to change things, but nothing really changes.”

Doyle, a former APD officer who was forced out of the department after allegations of excessive force were made against him, believes that the kind of reform outlined thus far will have little effect on the department. “Nothing is going to happen by saying we’re gonna change some directives, or provide better training’,” Doyle says. “This is a hopeless cause here. It would take decades to fix this.”

His view is shared by family members of APD victims.

Mary Jobe, whose husband was killed by the APD in 2012, puts it bluntly: “I think the DOJ so far, right now, is a joke.”

Jobe’s husband is one of those mentioned by name, as an example of unconstitutional action, in the DOJ findings letter.

On March 19, 2012, police officer Martin Smith shot Daniel Tillison as he attempted to escape in his car following an anonymous call reporting that stolen goods were being sold in a parking lot. The findings letter says Smith should have waited for back-up and officers should never fire into a moving vehicle. The report concludes that Smith was “not in control of the situation”, and states: “If the officer believed Tillison posed such a threat to the officer or public safety that it was necessary to draw his weapon, it is not at all clear why the officer did not take cover and wait for other officers to assist him.”

Yet Smith is still on the streets with a badge and a gun, and in fact was recently trumpeted by the department and paraded on Albuquerque local media for supposedly saving an unconscious baby’s life by “rubbing her chest and blowing in her face”.

This is a major sticking point for Jobe. “The DOJ said they were wrong. If the DOJ’s not going to punish them, these cops aren’t going to take these punishments and this DOJ report seriously,” she says.

Kenneth Ellis II, whose son Kenneth Ellis III was killed by Officer Brett Lampiris-Tremba, echoes Jobe’s sentiments. His son was shot as he was holding a gun to his own head and threatening suicide. Immediately after firing the fatal shot, the officer exclaimed : “F**k, was that me?” A judge found that the shooting was unreasonable and a jury awarded the Ellis family more than $10m in 2010.

Asked if the DOJ’s presence in Albuquerque will have any effect, Ellis, like Jobe, says the settlement agreement is useless, since it allows cops who have killed to stay on the force.

“Well, if they indict the officer who was proven in a court of law to have violated my son’s rights, then justice will have been served. And until then, no, to answer your question.”

Ellis sees the settlement agreement as just one more in a long line of ineffective reforms.

“They went through this back here in this city back in 1986; they had a whole rash of shootings. And they created this Police Oversight Commission. And they created this Internal Review Officer and they created all these mechanisms in order to solve the problem,” Ellis says. “It didn’t work. The officers never got reprimanded for nothing. Their [citizens’] complaints fell on deaf ears. It was a complete farce. A complete fleecing of the public. A false perception of accountability when there really wasn’t any.”

Costales, the APD veteran forced out of the department for testifying in Al Unser’s defence, does not see a lot of hope in the reforms mandated by the DOJ. He believes the settlement agreement fails to provide an incentive for officers to stop bad behaviour.

“I’m not so optimistic to think anything that’s being done right now is going to change anything at the ground level. At the street-cop level,” he says. “[Officers should be] held accountable personally for whatever they do outside the scope of their duty. Obviously, you’re not supposed to issue the punishment once a man’s in handcuffs. That’s a battery. So once they do something like that, outside the scope of their authority, they should be on their own. The department shouldn’t have to back them. The department shouldn’t have to pay any of their lawsuits. The department shouldn’t have to hire them a lawyer.”

Dubious hiring practices

An Albuquerque's SWAT team member uses a police SUV as a mirror to adjust his helmet during a standoff with a mentally ill suspect  in June 2015 [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera]
An Albuquerque’s SWAT team member uses a police SUV as a mirror to adjust his helmet during a standoff with a mentally ill suspect  in June 2015 [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera]

Although Costales says he saw misconduct the entire time he was at the APD, he believes the level of violence spiked following a decision by former Albuquerque mayor Martin Chavez, a Democrat, to increase the number of officers on the force in an attempt to look tough on crime. According to the Albuquerque Journal, Chavez pledged to increase the number of officers from 893 to 1,100.

In the early 2000s, Chavez made several changes to the department’s hiring policy. He dropped the requirement that officers must have a university degree, offered a several thousand-dollar signing bonus for new officers, and perhaps most critically, allowed “lateral hires”, officers hired from other departments, to skip the training process.

“Many of these officers [hired laterally] had applied to [the] APD and weren’t able to make it for one reason or another, either psychological exam, a background check, or a number of other reasons that come into play, why they weren’t allowed to join our academy,” Costales says. “So they back-doored the process. They’d go to Las Lunas police [a town just outside Albuquerque], work there for a year, and lateral in to [the] APD. And [the] APD would just let ’em.”

Many of the lateral hires were blatantly unqualified, Costales insists.

“They just started bringing all this riff-raff into the department, and these guys had no standards, no values, no morals, and they would just haphazardly do the job of a police officer,” he says. “That’s where s**t started going downhill.”

If this was in fact a crucial factor in an increase in the APD’s brutality, it augurs poorly for the future of Albuquerque. The department has frequently taken to local media over the year to decry what it sees as a “drastic officer shortage”, and is once again beginning to relax hiring standards .

Real reform?

A member of Albuquerque's SWAT team retrieves gear from the department's Bearcat armoured vehicle during a SWAT standoff with a mentally-ill man in June 2015 [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera]
A member of Albuquerque’s SWAT team retrieves gear from the department’s Bearcat armoured vehicle during a SWAT standoff with a mentally-ill man in June 2015 [Andy Beale/Al Jazeera]

The consent decree itself has a rash of glaring problems, and many believe it is unlikely to bring about any real change in the department.

“All they’re doing with DOJ is writing a new rulebook for them to break,” Ellis says. “They don’t follow the f*****g rules they got now, what the hell’s making a bunch of damn new rules for DOJ gonna do? Nothin. They’re gonna break them f*****s too.”

Even if they follow the rules, the consent decree offers wide latitude to the department. It mandates “discipline” of officers for a variety of offences, “including, but not limited to, a verbal reprimand, written reprimand, suspension, or dismissal”. However, it never once defines a specific discipline for a specific offence, and it allows the chief of police to choose not to apply discipline regardless of the offence, as long as he or she provides a written explanation for the decision.

Large sections of the consent decree are devoted to the differences between a “use of force” and a “serious use of force”, and it mandates additional reporting requirements in the event of a “serious use of force”. However, the extremes to which an officer may go before a use of force becomes “serious” have raised eyebrows in the community.

For example, an officer may taser a suspect for up to 15 seconds before it becomes a “serious use of force”. Officers may also strike someone with a police baton up to three times – only on the fourth strike is it considered “serious”.

“I was optimistic at first,” says David Correia about the DOJ investigation. “But what they did in Ferguson was telling. To have one report saying racial bias is a problem and another saying the killing of Mike Brown had nothing to do with race. That is what they do, they walk a fine line, and they leave it up to local PD [police departments] to actually do the reform.”

The consent decree also establishes the Civilian Police Oversight Agency, yet another in a long line of watchdogs that have proved ineffective. In its findings letter, the DOJ notes that Robin Hammer, the APD’s previous Independent Review Officer, is not so independent, stating “from our review it appears that the Review Officer is more closely aligned with the department than with the community that the Review Officer serves … in at least one case, she has interpreted the department’s policies in ways that are contrary to the policies themselves but favourable to officers.”

Despite this finding, the terms of the consent decree allow the City to decide who will sit on the oversight agency – and the City promptly made Hammer the acting executive director of the agency.

Albuquerque Police Chief Gordon Eden, appointed in 2014, says that contrary to what many in the community are saying, the consent decree is a serious reform effort that will affect lasting change inside the department.

“I think you need to understand something. There’s never been significant reform,” Eden says. “And I can’t speak historically, but what I’m told is there’s never been significant, systematic reform. So people who are saying, ‘Well, they did this before and it didn’t work,’ I have no idea what they’re talking about.”

Eden says the department has already made some changes, and is now waiting for a report by the monitor, who is charged with reporting on the APD’s progress in implementing the consent decree.

“Many of the elements of the settlement agreement are dependent upon the monitor,” Eden explains. “The monitor’s gonna provide a report, and when the monitor provides that report, that begins to lay the foundation to begin to institutionalise some of the changes we’ve already made, or revisions to some of the changes we’ve already made.”

The monitor will review the department for a minimum of six years, and if the APD is found to be in compliance with the terms of the consent decree, the department’s agreement with the DOJ will be terminated, and the APD will no longer be monitored by the federal government.

“They’re gonna spit in [the] DOJ’s eye,” Ellis says. “[The DOJ] can go away in four, five, six years and then we can be right back to where we were.”

Regardless, neither Ellis nor any other citizen of Albuquerque is granted rights under the consent decree. The final paragraph reads in full: “This Agreement is enforceable only by the Parties. No person or entity is intended to be a third-party beneficiary of the provisions of this Agreement for purposes of any civil, criminal, or administrative action. Accordingly, no person or entity may assert any claim or right as a beneficiary or protected class under this Agreement.” This means that no individual or group except the DOJ itself can bring a lawsuit against the APD for violating the agreement.

The way Correia sees it, the consent decree simply functions as a diversion, addressing some of the symptoms, but doing nothing to change the underlying structural problems in the APD’s policing.

“If it’s bad apples, get rid of the apples, if it’s bad training get better training, if it’s bad leadership get new leadership,” he says. “They create all these reforms … and [the] APD keeps killing.”

This article first appeared in the August 2015 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine.   

Source: Al Jazeera