DPA officers leaving force cite Justice Department regulation

APD Sergeant Michael Jones hosts a briefing in the parking lot of Grace Temple Baptist Missionary Church in the early afternoon before officers set out on patrol in the Southeast Albuquerque International District. (Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal.)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Overall – Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina, Police Union President and some city councilors – say officers’ dissatisfaction has its roots in the settlement agreement the city signed with the US Department of Justice.

In 2014, the DOJ concluded a lengthy investigation when it found that police officers in Albuquerque have the habit and practice of using excessive force. The city subsequently entered into the court-approved settlement agreement defining areas where it needs reform.

Medina told The Journal in a recent interview that exit interviews with officers from Albuquerque who are leaving before they reach retirement show that a major reason for their departure is that “they are very scared of the DOJ and the discipline that resulted from the DOJ process. . “

And Medina said the settlement agreement has an impact on how much time officers can spend fighting crime on the streets. This dictates an often lengthy use of force investigation process and requires adequate personnel for Home Affairs force investigations, he added.

In general, ODA funding has followed an upward trajectory over the past five years, but more staff have left in the past year than in previous years.

Medina said the discipline issues were “valid for a while because the discipline was really high.”

“I did not agree with the way he was deployed,” he added, noting that the disciplinary policy had been revised in July.

Around this time, the DPA adjusted the way it disciplines officers for minor infractions – a change according to Medina distinguishes misconduct from errors.

Albuquerque Police Officer Association president Shaun Willoughby and other officers interviewed said officers were “hung left and right” for minor offenses.

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, defends the settlement agreement.

He said it is sometimes difficult for officers to adjust to a new discipline regime “when they are held accountable for policy violations when in the past they were not”.

He called the agreement “extremely” important and said it dictated use of force policies as well as administrative rules.

“What this reform is trying to accomplish is to raise the level of professionalism within the department,” he said. By reforming the use of force practices, “this will have multiplier effects throughout the department, in particular by protecting the community from crime”.

Internal business investigations

Albuquerque City Councilor Brook Bassan, whose District 4 is in Northeast Heights, said in an interview that she spoke to voters who “have given up on calling 911, 311, or even the 242-COPS “.

“The public is screaming why don’t you protect us better, but we have a consent decree that prohibits you from doing your job (as an officer) as we are going to investigate every move you make.”

Medina acknowledged the challenges of complying with the agreement and responding to appeals given the current ODA endowment.

For example, after a use of force incident during a call to Foothills area command in early May, the subsequent Internal Affairs investigation stalled the entire relief team of five officers, some of whom were had to remain as witnesses to the incident. The call that started in the early evening ended around 3 a.m. the next morning, according to dispatch records.

“I think the community would be very upset to know” that even relatively minor use of force, such as forcing a suspect’s hand behind their back, can trigger an investigation, Medina said. “And imagine, we just lost this officer, the deputy officer and a supervisor for five hours as they conduct a level one force investigation.”

Even a show of force, such as an officer pulling out a Taser to try and compel a suspect to comply, triggers an almost as lengthy internal investigation even if the Taser is never fired, Medina said.

The settlement agreement also requires the department to have sufficient staff to conduct internal force investigations. And all uses of force are investigated, not just those that generate complaints. In 2020, there were 920 uses of force, ranging from those causing temporary discomfort to fatalities.

“It kills me that I had to assign six other people to (use of force) investigations, but the settlement agreement said we have to do it,” Medina said.

Willoughby said the six officers assigned to the forced investigations were from the Field Services Division – the men and women in uniform sent to answer calls on the city streets. “This disaster is catching up with ODA,” Willoughby said. “They are stealing Peter to pay Paul.”

On Labor Day, the wife of an DPA officer who was one of four officers injured in an August 19 shooting with a theft suspect released a public statement calling staff a the “joke” ODA.

“When my husband was on duty at the time of the shooting, there were only five officers on patrol with my husband’s team in the Foothills area,” said Tryna Verbeck, wife of Constable Mario Verbeck, who was seriously injured.

“There are more officers doing non-police work than answering calls.”

Staff shortage

Medina issued a written response to Verbeck’s statement, saying he had raised his concerns to the independent observer hired to monitor compliance with the DOJ deal.

“The pendulum has gone too far in the wrong direction where officers don’t feel supported, or that they can do their jobs safely and efficiently in all situations,” he said.

“At the same time,” Medina added, “we cannot just move every officer to patrol the streets.”

In an interview with the Journal, Medina said there was no wiggle room when it came to the settlement agreement. “I do not have the power to challenge a court order,” he said in the written response to Verbeck’s statement.

Over the past seven years, the city has struggled to comply with various aspects and more recently has generally declined in terms of success in securing the DOJ deal.

In May, the independent observer overseeing the reform effort criticized the city for having an “aversion” to discipline.

When it comes to staffing, the department hit a low of 821 officers at one point in 2016 and since then it has added more officers than it has left each year. But the current number of sworn-in officers is 939, well below the 1,140 authorized strength funded in this year’s city budget.

Medina recently commissioned a private consultant to reassess DPA staffing levels taking into account the hours consumed by each internal affairs force investigation, the number of homicides and the city’s crime rate.

Medina deplores the loss of some officers who are leaving, but adds that “without a doubt, there are people who are leaving that it is probably a good thing if we are going to reform the department”.

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