It's too early to celebrate APD's progress

Peter Simonson, Executive Director of the ACLU, writes on behalf of APD Forward regarding the recent "celebration" that took place in Federal Court on July 28, 2016. 

During a 2008 game against the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Desean Jackson caught a 61-yard touchdown pass that ended with a ridiculous giddy-up dance in the end zone. Only problem? In his eagerness to celebrate, Jackson dumped the ball before crossing the goal-line, turning it over to Dallas and negating the touchdown.

To read the Journal’s front-page coverage of the recent celebratory conclusion to a federal court hearing between the Albuquerque Police Department, the Department of Justice and the independent monitor, James Ginger, one might get the impression that APD is closing on the goal-line and about to fix the use-of-force problems of the past.

But anyone who actually read Ginger’s latest report on APD’s progress couldn’t fail to note the disparity between his words and the celebratory ending to the hearing. Ginger’s comments were most damning when it came to APD’s system for reviewing use-of-force incidents and taking corrective action, a cornerstone of the reform:

“Across the board, the monitoring team has found that the components in APD’s system for overseeing (and holding officers accountable for) the use of force, for the most part, has failed. Hence, the serious deficiencies [which we have revealed] point to a deeply rooted systemic problem.

 “The deficiencies, in part, indicate a culture of low accountability is at work within APD, particularly in chain of command reviews” of use-of-force incidents.

“Until APD generates such self-correcting behavior, it cannot, in the monitor’s opinion, come into compliance with the use-of-force-related paragraphs” of the settlement agreement between the city of Albuquerque and the DOJ.

City officials will contend that Ginger’s findings are old news, describing a situation that existed four months ago (the period covered by the report), but that have now been fixed. But they offer little to back that claim and there is evidence to the contrary.

Take, for example, a memo which APD’s Critical Incident Review Team sent to all sworn personnel warning “that field officers are engaging in a dangerous trend of under use of force.” No guidance or examples accompanied the memo to instruct officers on how to change their existing approaches to using force.

Only after APD Forward raised the concern did APD officials begin to organize meetings to discuss the warning with officers so that they wouldn’t interpret it as a blanket encouragement to use more force.

To be fair, APD has made significant strides, especially in reforming its SWAT unit, canine unit and bomb squad.

According to Ginger, “These units are guided by some of the best policy yet developed at APD. They train on an on-going basis, and they have incorporated scenarios into their training that emphasize de-escalation … . These policy and training processes have resulted in fewer deaths and injuries attributed to actions in these specialized units over the last year or more.”

Chief Gorden Eden and his command staff deserve high praise for their progress in this area. Tactical units are a critical dimension of the reform plan.

But considerable work remains.

Far from having laid the foundation for reform, APD is in operational compliance with only 5 percent of the tasks that must be met under the settlement agreement. Both the DOJ and Ginger have expressed grave doubts that APD can achieve that goal by next November, the mutually agreed upon deadline.

Four short months remain for APD to overcome “deeply rooted systemic problems” and “a system that has no, or a minimal, culture of accountability regarding use of force.”

For the safety of our community and of our police officers, APD Forward wants the department to succeed.

But let’s not start the touchdown dance until the ball is safely in the end zone and the points are on the scoreboard.

Peter Simonson is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.



Note: This opinion was originally published in the Albuquerque Journal on 08/6/2016: