It was on November 14, 2014 that the City of Albuquerque, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) and the United State Department of Justice (DOJ) entered into a stipulated Court Approved Settlement Agreement (CASA) after the DOJ completed an 18th month investigation of APD. The DOJ found that APD had engaged in a pattern of excessive use of force and deadly force and that a “culture of aggression” existed within APD. The Court Approved Settlement Agreement mandates 271 police reforms, the appointment of a Federal Monitor and the filing of Independent Monitor’s reports (IMRs) on APD’s progress implementing the reforms.
HEARING HELD ON 16TH FEDERAL MONITOR’S REPORT
On December 6, Federal District Court James Browning, who oversees the settlement, held an all-day remote hearing to review the report. The Federal Monitor reported that as of the end of the IMR-16 reporting period, APD’s compliance levels are as follows:
Primary Compliance: 100% (No change)
Secondary Compliance: 99% (No change)
Operational Compliance: 80%. (10% increase from 70%)
Under the terms and conditions of the settlement agreement, once APD achieves a 95% compliance rate in the 3 identified compliance levels and maintains it for 2 consecutive years, the case can be dismissed. Originally, APD was to have come into compliance within 4 years and the case was to be dismissed in 2020.
During the December 6 hearing, Federal Monitor James Ginger reported that APD continued to make impressive gains in the compliance levels over the past year. This is a complete reversal of the downward trend found and reported in 3 previous monitor’s reports.
HITORY REPEATING ITSELF WITH APD OFFICER INVOLVED SHOOTINGS
At the December 6, 2022 hearing on the 16th Independent Monitor’s reports it was reported that there had been more APD police officer shootings in 2022 than during any other year before. In 2022, there had been 18 APD Police Officer involved shootings,10 of which were fatal. In 2021 there were 10, four of which were fatal.
A review of shootings by APD police officers between 2018 and 2022 identified three common circumstances:
- When officers are attempting to apprehend violent suspects;
- When individuals are experiencing some kind of mental health episode;
- When people with little criminal history are under the influence of drugs or alcohol and make bad decisions.
Albuquerque Police Department released data that shows there have been 54 police shootings dating back to 2018. Of the cases reviewed, 85% involved people who were armed with a gun or a weapon that appeared to be a firearm. About 55% of the cases involved people under the influence of drugs or alcohol, while only 2 cases in which intoxication did not play a role. Without toxicology tests, it was unknown whether drugs or alcohol played a role in the remainder of the cases. Statewide, authorities said the number of shootings in which officers opened fire stands at 50 for the year.
Barron Jones, a member of APD Forward and a senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico, said that more transparency is needed to better understand what, if anything, could be done to prevent shooting deaths at the hands of officers. Jones also said that recent cases underscore the need for a statewide use-of-force policy that includes clear, consistent protocols for deescalating interactions with the public “to avoid these kinds of tragic incidents.”
The last two years have also been two very violent years in the city. The number of homicides in the city have broken all time records. In 2021, there were 117 homicides, with 3 declared self defense reducing homicide number to 114. In 2022, there were 115 homicides as of December 3, 2022.
The spike in APD police shooting includes the years when the DOJ found that APD had a pattern of excessive use of force and deadly force with a finding of a culture of aggression. The increase in APD police officer shootings overshadowed the report on APD’s progress with the reforms and dominated the day long hearing.
The high number of shootings caused DOJ attorneys and community stakeholders to raise concerns during the December 6 hearing even as APD continues to improve in compliance with the reforms laid out in the Court Approved Settlement Agreement with the DOJ. According to the Federal Monitors 16 report, APD is currently at 100% primary compliance, 99% secondary compliance, and 80% operational compliance with the reforms.
APD ANNOUNCES CHANGE IN USE OF FORCE POLICY
On January 26, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) announced changes to its Use of Force policies for the use of less lethal force. Three years ago APD overhauled its use of force policy as part of the city’s agreement with the Department of Justice over the use of excessive force. The DOJ has approved APD’s revised nonlethal use of force policy.
Over the next few weeks, the policy will be implemented with formal training programs throughout the department. APD’s leadership believe that because of the changes, the results will be fewer shootings by officers since they should have a better sense of when they can use less-lethal force rather than deadly force.
The Albuquerque Police Department reported that in November, gun law violations spiked 85% this year alone. The last two years have also been two very violent years for Albuquerque. The number of homicides in the city have broken all-time records. In 2021, there were 117 homicides, with 3 declared self-defense reducing homicide number to 114. In 2022, there were 115 homicides as of December 3, 2022.
As reported above, there have been more APD police officer shootings in 2022 than during any other year before. In 2022, there were 18 APD Police Officer involved shootings,10 of which were fatal. In 3 of the cases people were injured and in 5 of the cases officers missed. In one case a man killed himself before the officer fired. In 2021 there were 10, four of which were fatal.
Under APD’s use of force policies, less lethal options include Tasers, beanbag shotguns, 40-millimeter impact launchers, or canine deployments. APD Officers will begin training on the new policies over the next quarter.
Chief Medina said this about the spike in APD shootings:
“I recognize there’s community concern. Eighteen officer-involved shootings last year and that’s why we’re trying to make these changes to ensure that the community knows that we’re hearing their concern, we are doing evaluations and we are making adjustments as necessary.”
According to APD, the change in policy is meant to make it more clear when officers can use non-lethal force. The hope is that this will lower the number of deadly police shootings. APD leadership said there was a need to be more specific in the policy for when officers can use lower levels of force like tasers or bean bag shotguns.
The updated policy outlines when officers should discharge electronic control weapons and when an officer can use force in dangerous situations. This allows officers to use less lethal force sooner than they were able to under the previous policy.
The new “use of force policies” were the result of an extensive process that involved review by the DOJ and the Independent Monitoring Team overseeing the reform effort. It took months to fully negotiate the new policies. The changes to the policies took effect in 2020. However, within 6 to 8 months after implementation, APD leaders began to see the need for revisions.
Deputy Chief of Compliance Cori Lowe in an interview with Albuquerque Journal editors and reporters said this:
“We started noticing different areas of improvement based off of force review boards, based off of discipline that we started seeing coming out and just basic trend data … Specifically because of the [increase in officer involved shootings], you saw us really try to react as much as we could, because we started recognizing that there were significant areas that we needed to make more clear.”
Lowe said despite the lengthy process that went into the prior policies there were things they did not recognize until officers actually started trying to follow them in the field. For example, Lowe said officers were confused about when they could tase a person since the word “use” seemed to include pointing a Taser at someone as well as discharging it. Deputy Lowe said this:
“I think a lot of times until you put these in practice, and you kind of take a look at it, you may not recognize it. … What we did is we went through there and we put discharge throughout. … So officers are very clear that they can use a Taser when there’s an act of resistance or the totality of circumstances that bring it through.”
The changes include outlining when officers should discharge their Tasers and when they should use them as a “show of force” to encourage compliance and replacing the words “immediate threat” with “imminent threat.” Lowe said this:
“An immediate threat is an immediate threat to an officer or another individual that can be delivered without delay and requires an instant response by an officer to stop the threat or control of a situation. … Imminent is a dangerous or threatening situation which is about to occur or take place and is perceived to be unfolding.”
Both Lowe and APD Chief Harold Medina stressed that the new policies ask officers to evaluate the totality of the circumstances surrounding whether they should use less-lethal force, and not just whether the person is actively resisting or a threat in the moment. APD Chief Harold Medina for his part said de-escalation continues to be a priority and he said this:
“Our goal with these changes is to make sure that if de-escalation is not possible, we exhaust every tool available to apprehend offenders, only using a firearm as a last resort. … Police officers sometimes issue orders that they’re going to do something but there isn’t always the clarity that they’re authorized to do it yet … I think it’s important to recognize that these officers are in a situation where they’re giving orders and they’re prepared to do something and they’re following a script in their mind to give orders, give orders but there is a lot of unclarity amongst officers in general in situations like that , whether less lethal is authorized or not.”
Superintendent of Police Reform Victor E. Valdez had this to say:
“We wanted officers to be clear on when they could use less lethal force. … We found officers should be able to use less lethal force sooner than they were (formerly) able to under the previous policy. These revisions allow better protection to both the public and the officers when confronted with a violent individual.”
The ACLU, which has been vocal about the department’s excessive use of force, released a statement on APD’s policy change.
Barron Jones, Sr. Policy Strategist at ACLU-NM said this in a statement:
“This is a positive step in reducing the deadly force used by law enforcement officers against the Albuquerque community. The city must continue to ramp up alternative responses to reduce interactions between police and those living with mental health and substance abuse disorders and other quality of life issues.”
The links to quoted news sources are here:
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
There is no doubt that the community should be absolutely alarmed over the fact that there has been a spike in police officer involved shootings given the fact such shootings, and accompanying litigation and judgements against the city, is what brought the Department of Justice to the City in 2013 in the first place. When it comes to APD Police Officer Involved shootings, history is repeating itself despite millions spent and implementation of the settlement reforms.
What is equally alarming is the city for the last 5 years has broken the record of number of homicides each year. Crime rates in the city are also high across the board. According to the Albuquerque Police’s annual report on crime, there were 46,391 property crimes and 15,765 violent crimes recorded in 2021. These numbers place Albuquerque among America’s most dangerous cities.
All residents are at increased risk of experiencing aggravated robbery, auto theft, and petty theft. The chances of becoming a victim of property crime in Albuquerque are 1 in 20, an alarmingly high statistic. Simple assault, aggravated assault, auto theft, and larceny are just some of the most common criminal offenses in Albuquerque. Burglary and sex offense rates In Albuquerque are also higher than the national average.
It’s because of the city’s overall crime rates that no one should be surprised that there have been more police officer involved shootings this past year. The reality is that the city can expect the trend of police officer involve shootings to continue even if APD achieves 100% compliance of all 271 mandated police reforms under the settlement.
Only time will tell if APD’s changes in its use of force policies for less lethal force options will be successful. Given APD’s ability to repeat its history, the implementation of the DOJ reforms and the millions spent over the last 8 years, no one should hold their breath hoping that police shootings will go down. This is the new reality of APD.