On Saturday, November 12, 2018, the City of Albuquerque hosted a Town Hall meeting to report on the progress of reforms at the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) under the Court Approved Settlement (CASA) with the U.S. Department of Justice.
A highly diverse audience with about 200 people attended the town hall meeting.
Most if not all the stakeholders in the federal lawsuit were present as well as community police oversight activists and community policing counsels.
Albuquerque City Counselor Cynthia Borrego was the only City Councilor out of 9 who attended the town hall meeting.
What was very disappointing is that Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez was nowhere to be seen, even though his office is working through a significant back log of 30 plus APD police officer involved shootings to determine if police officers will be criminally charged in deadly use of force cases.
Mayor Tim Keller had a few opening remarks but the main speakers were Independent Federal Monitor James Ginger, New Mexico United State Attorney John Anderson, APD Chief Michael Geier, along with 4 others that spoke on specific APD programs.
Albuquerque is one of 18 law enforcement agencies throughout the country operating under a consent decree brought on by a DOJ investigation that found systemic problems.
In APD’s case, the DOJ found a “culture of aggression” within APD after reviewing as many as 18 “deadly use of force cases” and other cases of “excessive use of force” cases.
The City of Albuquerque has paid out $61 million in settlements over the last 9 years involving 41 police officer involved shootings.
The implementation of reforms under the federal Court Approved Settlement Agreement (CASA) began in 2014 after a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation found a “pattern and practice of excessive force” and a “culture of aggression” within the Albuquerque Police Department (APD).
FEDERAL COURT MONITOR’S TOWN HALL PRESENTATION
During the townhall meeting Independent Federal Monitor James Ginger took front and center and summarized what is in his 8th report to the federal Court overseeing the reform process.
Since the reform project was launched in 2014, Ginger said APD’s new written policies are 99% compliant with the settlement agreement, and training on those policies is 75% compliant.
Operational Compliance is where sworn officers abide by the terms of the CASA agreement and if they fail to, supervisors note and correct the behavior.
The monitoring team found APD’s operational compliance is at 59%.
Ginger told the town hall audience that since the last report from November, 2017, APD policy compliance rose 5%, training compliance 9% and operational compliance 12%.
Ginger summarized the progress made by APD as follows:
“APD, in the last year, has made substantially more progress than just about any agency I’m familiar with, so my hat goes off to APD. … That is massive in one period. It reflects the work that Chief Geier and his people have done over the past few weeks and over the past few months, … We’re on the cusp … We’re closer almost every day [to achieving the reforms under the CASA].”
You can read the entire 239-page monitor’s report here:
During the town hall meeting 4 presentations were made by APD giving a rundown of the changes being made in “four key areas”:
1. Behavioral health
2. Use of force
3. Community engagement
4. The EPIC program aimed at improving police officer conduct to diffuse use of force incidents with police officers intervening on how another police officer is handling an incident.
It was the EPIC program presentation that received immediate attention of the audience.
The EPIC presentation received spontaneous applause on at least 4 occasions from the audience of community activists.
APD’S EPIC PROGRAM
The acronym “EPIC” stands for Ethical Policing Is Courageous.
The EPIC program originated in the city of New Orleans’ Police Department, which like APD, is under a federal consent decree for civil rights violations.
EPIC aims to stem police officer misconduct and use of force and deadly force by police officers.
The program uses “hands-on scenarios” and role-playing enactments and demonstrations to teach police officers on how to defuse calls for service that start escalating and that could easily result in the use of excessive force or deadly force.
EPIC focuses on proactively preventing uses of force, rather than just punishing officers when damage is already done, including the killing of a suspect.
The primary purpose of the EPIC program is to provide police officers with effective and proper training to learn just how and when to intervene when they themselves see other police officer misconduct.
The EPIC program is designed to show police officers how to recognize problematic behavior in fellow officers that may trigger a fellow officer to engage in misconduct.
APD Lt. George Vega is in charge APD’s EPIC Program.
APD Lt. Vega is a 20-year veteran of APD and he is a native of Albuquerque.
Lt. Vega has been working on the EPIC program since May, 2018 and has traveled to the City New Orleans spending time to see firsthand how the program works.
Lt. Vegas has selected a well-seasoned and experienced management and training team including police officers dealing with crisis intervention.
APD Lt. George Vega explained that EPIC trains officers on how to intervene when they witness a fellow officer’s misconduct and to recognize problematic behaviors beforehand.
According to Lt. Vega, officers go through 8 hours of “peer intervention” training.
The peer intervention training includes 6 hours in a classroom and 2 hours that is scenario based.
Each officer is given a pin after the training to display on their uniform that they have been through EPIC training.
Lt. Vega told the town hall audience:
“EPIC involves each officer giving permission to their fellow officer to intervene when they are about to do something that could harm themselves, others, tarnish our profession and tarnish our community. …”
APD Chief Michael Geier has ordered the entire APD department to get the EPIC training and it started with all APD supervisors.
In a Channel 4 news report, Chief Geier had this to say about the EPIC program:
“We, all of us, buy into it – from myself down … And we could be ‘EPIC’d’ by an officer if we’re out of line, too. It’s looking out for one another, and again, how we treat the community depends on our own attitudes. … If we can prevent some of our own misconduct periodically and salvage some officers’ careers because just one mistake can [ruin their career]”.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
What was exceptionally noteworthy is that New Mexico United States Attorney John C. Anderson attended the town hall meeting.
US Attorney Anderson brought with him a Deputy Assistant United States Attorney out of the Washington D.C. who works in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to discuss the history of the case.
With the firing of United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and the Trump administration previously signaling efforts to scale back consent decrees for police misconduct investigations, it was extremely important for the people of Albuquerque to see New Mexico US Attorney Anderson attend the town hall meeting.
United States Attorney John C. Anderson affirmed his office’s as well as the United States Justice Department’s commitment to the DOJ reforms and implementation of all the mandated reforms under the CASA.
The major goal of the Department of Justice consent decree is to correct a pattern of the use of “deadly force” and “excessive force” and to eliminate the culture of aggression.
The use of deadly force and excessive use of force policies with training is the primary purpose of the CASA settlement and it is where “the rubber hits the road” and the EPIC training program can accomplish that purpose.
The EPIC program is designed to show police officers how to recognize problematic behavior in fellow police officers they work with that may trigger a fellow officer to engage in misconduct and to actually intervene when they themselves see other police officer misconduct.
APD’s EPIC program offers real hope that indicates APD and its command staff have finally accepted the DOJ reforms and that real progress can be made in reducing use of force and deadly force that lead to the “culture of aggression.”
According to New Orleans Police Academy Instructor Roderic Carey:
“[EPIC] training has transformed [ the New Orleans Police Department] in regards to a culture shift … We have less complaints, now about 47% due to the EPIC program. … The subject is being irate with the officer, may also get frustrated and want to go hands-on with that subject. But another officer may intervene and say ‘Hold on. Just take a minute. Step away and I’ll talk to that subject. …”