By DAVID CORREIA
Nothing, it seems, was left unsaid or unstudied in last week’s damning report by the US Department of Justice on the Albuquerque Police Department. According to the report, APD engages in unconstitutional policing. A majority of fatal shootings were unjustified. And it’s not just in the use of lethal force. The DOJ reviewed 200 reports of non-lethal force over a three-year period. In nearly all cases, officers overuse Tasers in a dangerous manner, in one instance on a man who had doused himself with gasoline. The Tasers ignited the fuel and the man caught fire. They use unreasonable physical force without regard for the level of threat. And a “significant amount” of that force was against subjects suffering from mental illness. The DOJ was clear and its authors repeated throughout the report that these are patterns not isolated to a few officers. This troubling pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing “stems from systemic deficiencies in oversight, training, and policy. Chief among these deficiencies is the department’s failure to implement an objective and rigorous internal accountability system. Force incidents are not property investigated, documented, or addressed with corrective measures” (p. 3).
This is perhaps the most damning part of the report. Leadership at APD, in other words, has created a climate of violent policing, one in which officers are free to use force without consequence. In fact, despite the nice things DOJ said about APD in the press conference where they released the report, supervisors routinely lied to the DOJ throughout the nearly 18-month investigation. “In nearly all cases [of force], supervisors endorsed officers’ version of events, even when officers’ accounts were incomplete, were inconsistent with other evidence, or were based on canned or repetitive language” (p. 4).
This pattern of unconstitutional policing is both an effect of aggressive training procedures and, at the same time, one that reinforces those same training methods. For example, the DOJ focused on the February 2009 shooting death of Andrew Lopez. A state court found nearly every APD witness “unreasonable” and “not credible,” including the claim of one officer that the unarmed Lopez carried what one officer claimed was the largest gun he’d ever seen. The court concluded that the officers used unreasonable deadly force and awarded the Lopez family nearly $5 million in damages. Lopez was pulled over for having dim headlights and broken tail lights. Officers claimed that the car was involved in an incident involving a handgun, despite the fact that the car’s model, make and color did not match the vehicle involved in the incident. An unarmed Lopez attempted to run from the scene. Officers fired shots at the fleeing Lopez. One shot hit and injured Lopez and he fell to the ground. While he lay on the ground on his back, APD officer Justin Montgomery (not named in the report) walked up to Lopez, alive but injured, and fired a round into his chest.
During the trial, APD’s training officer testified that not only did he consider the officer’s actions, including Montgomery’s, justified, but that their actions were exemplary and he used the shooting death as an example in the training of new APD officers as “a model in the use of deadly force” (p. 4).
And of course it was not just Lopez. The report continues by taking the reader on a miserable tour through APD’s recent spree of violent and unjustified killings. Alan Gomez, Ken Ellis III, Daniel Tillison, Mickey Owens. In all cases, young men who did not represent a threat, but were gunned down by APD officers.
Among the 200 uses of non-lethal force, APD said less than 1% were unjustified. DOJ disagreed and concluded that more than one-third were unjustified. In particular, APD found a troubling pattern in the misuse of Tasers. APD routinely used Tasers in patterns that officers knew would increase the possibility for serious injury or death (p. 17).
In one example, 47 officers responded to the scene of a man the report called “Albert”, who was drunk and disorderly and arguing with a friend. Albert held a small knife, but dropped the knife when ordered. He attempted to flee. “An officer fired five successive rounds of beanbags at Albert with a shotgun. Another officer deployed a flash-bang grenade. Another officer shot him with a canister of four wooden batons, two of which penetrated his skin. Another officer deployed a police canine that bit Albert in the arm, tearing his flesh as the canine tried to pull him down” (p. 17). Albert grabbed onto a fence to try to pull himself up and away from the police dog. This is when officers began Tasering Albert. “Two officers fired Tasers at Albert; one of them fired six five-second cycles of electricity into him. Albert finally collapsed, and officers carried him away unconscious, leaving behind a trail of blood and urine” (p. 18).
Albert sued in District Court, where a judge found that “no reasonable person could believe that an inhibited, slow-moving, 60-year old individual, who made no physical or verbal threats, and wielded no weapons, could constitute a threat to the safety of any of the forty-seven armed and shielded police officers who stood over twenty feet away” (p. 18).
In September 2012 APD Tasered an unarmed 75-year old man who used a cane to walk because he wouldn’t leave a bus station (p. 18). A supervisor told the DOJ the use of the Taser in this case was “exemplary.”
In June 2011 a man the DOJ called “Charles” rode his bicycle through three stop signs. Officers pursued. The subject turned into a parking lot and told officers “I am just riding my bike.” Charles turned to leave. An officer grabbed Charles and he fell to the ground. They Tasered him three times. No lapel cameras were activated (p. 18).
Officers encountered a man with developmental disabilities behaving erratically in a gas station. When he couldn’t understand their orders, they kicked him in the chest. They then Tasered him and kicked him and Tasered him again. Only later they found that he’d “wandered away from a group home and had the mental capacity of a five-year old” (p.21).
The report lists case after case of APD confronting disoriented, mentally ill men in crisis. In all cases APD used Tasers against unarmed people who posed no threat, often causing serious injury.
There is an internal form that APD supervisors are required to fill out in cases of the use of force. In almost all cases, those forms include no information whatsoever other than the signature of the supervisor and the box marked “reasonable” checked in a pattern that the DOJ concluded revealed “the chain of command’s disregard for detecting individual and aggregate patterns of unreasonable force by subordinates” (p. 25).
In other words APD leadership actively endorses these violent, unjustified and unconstitutional practices by refusing to investigate the use of force, and perhaps even more troubling, by rewarding this behavior as “exemplary.” And this is true even in cases such as the death of Alan Gomez, for example, when the actions of officers directly contradicted policies regarding the use of force. Even then, the use of unreasonable and unjustified force was defended by supervisors in a pattern that the DOJ concluded serves as disturbing “evidence of a breakdown in leadership” (p. 23).
Officers routinely failed to report the number of times they used a Taser on a subject. Officers routinely fail to turn on their lapel cameras and belt recorders.
Officers routinely used canned language depicting people as “aggressive” even in cases when people were disoriented or elderly.
Officers often fail to report the use of force. DOJ spoke to eyewitnesses and reviewed evidence that showed officers using unreasonable, unjustified force but then failing to report the use of force.
In investigations of the use of force, APD rarely canvasses for witnesses and routinely ignores officer statement inconsistencies. Internal affairs often only interviewed officers, ignoring eyewitnesses in its investigations.
Internal affairs is responsible for investigating all uses of force to ensure that procedures are not violated, but the DOJ “found no evidence that the internal affairs unit consistently carried out this critical task” (p. 28).
APD also has a disturbingly high threshold regarding when an officer exhibits a pattern in the frequent use of force. Officers with more than 15 uses of force in a 12-month period are not considered to be engaging in a pattern of aggressive or violent policing. Thus, “the department is not using the early intervention process in the way it was intended, which is to disrupt patterns of problematic behavior” (p. 29).
All of this the DOJ traces back to training, which it finds organized around “the over-emphasis on using force, especially weapons, to resolve stressful encounters, and insufficient emphasis on de-escalation techniques. Much of the training leads officers to believe that violent outcomes are normal and desirable” (p. 30). Almost laughable, if it weren’t so frightening in its implication, was the finding by DOJ that even in practice scenarios during training, APD “practice” encounters with “civilians” frequently escalated into violent encounters (p. 30). Even when they practice they’re violent. APD’s training is based “heavily on weaponry and force scenarios” to the almost total exclusion of de-escalation techniques or coordination strategies with the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) (p. 37).
Community policing, “which is widely embraced by the field as effective at building community trust in police departments” according to DOJ, is almost entirely unknown among APD officers and supervisors (p. 32).
The DOJ reviewed training procedures and found many policies outdated, often in total contradiction to accepted standards of constitutional policing. Officers, for example, are taught to fire weapons at vehicles even when the drivers are unarmed and the vehicles’ movement does not represent a direct threat (p. 33).
DOJ was encouraged by the Crisis Intervention Teams at APD but troubled by the fact that many officers are completely unfamiliar with what CIT is and what it does. This is particularly disturbing because, as DOJ noted, officers often failed to contact CIT in precisely the situations for which CIT was created.
According to DOJ, SWAT is a mess. Supervisors of SWAT units do not understand basic elements of SWAT tactics. Some SWAT supervisors have no experience in SWAT whatsoever. They arrive on a scene without a tactical plan, without coordinated leadership, without operational guidance and thus often exacerbate, rather than resolve, the very situations for which they’re called to assist (pp. 35-6).
These deficiencies are ramifying: “The department’s lack of internal oversight has allowed a culture of aggression to develop. This culture is manifested in the routine nature of excessive force and lack of corrective actions taken by leadership to address force incidents” (p. 36).
This culture of aggression is inflicted often on innocent people by APD officers who routinely “express hostility toward people not engaged in the commission of any crimes” (p. 37).
The report takes pains to point out that real community oversight of police is essential. Albuquerque has a police oversight commission and an independent review officer but the “Review Officer is more closely aligned with the department than with the community that the Review Officer serves.” Thus it should not be surprising that the DOJ found that the review officer, Robin Hammer (unnamed in the report), routinely ignores violations of policies by officers (p. 39).
The DOJ included a section on community policing, but not as a way to consider APD’s success at community policing. APD does not practice community policing but its opposite. Instead of developing positive community relations, officers are actively rude and arrogant in everyday contact with the public. They are disrespectful and hostile to reasonable community concerns (p. 40).
The report ends with a list of 46 suggested remedies to APD’s pattern of “unconstitutional policing” but no explanation for how those changes will come about. Meanwhile, DOJ is in negotiations with Chief Gorden Eden and Mayor Richard Berry. DOJ got so much right in this report. But what they’re now getting wrong may undo all the effort that’s gone before it: DOJ, unfortunately, believes that the very people who created these conditions should be the ones who fix it.