'We are not here to tell the chief what to do' -- APD Monitor James Ginger
BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI
If you didn’t make it to Thursday night’s meeting with James Ginger, the special monitor who is overseeing the Albuquerque Police Department’s DOJ-mandated reform process, don’t worry. You didn’t miss much.
Almost no new information came out of the two-hour-long meeting at the Sheraton Uptown that drew about 120 people. What was new was that APD has yet to revise its lapel-camera policy, that SWAT team deployments are up but injuries in them down, that Ginger will move to Albuquerque in December, and that Ginger’s long-awaited report on what progress APD is making in implementing those reforms will be released in late November or early December.
The meeting, which was sponsored by City Councilor Diane Gibson, provided a glimpse into the beauty, ugliness and frustration of holding public meetings on complex and emotional subjects. It drew people with serious questions about the reform process, borderline crackpots who will never believe that any progress is being made, people who see conspiracies everywhere, the ill-informed, and the always-present speech makers who can’t understand what it means to ask a question.
Here are some takeaways from Thursday’s meeting:
Ginger and his team can’t order APD to do anything. They can only make suggestions for reforms and report to the judge what progress APD has or has not made in meeting the 200 reform requirements of the settlement agreement. “We are not here to tell the chief what to do,” Ginger said. “We are here to determine if APD has complied with the consent decree. This is a very clearly defined process. We do not direct the police department, we are here to evaluate.”
The reform process is going to take time and won’t happen overnight. Ginger repeatedly told the audience that the reform process will take time, and that the process is a marathon, and not a sprint. Different strategies are needed for both races, and APD and the monitoring team are in the process of laying a strong foundation on which to build those reforms, he said.
APD SWAT team deployments are up, but injuries in them are down, an indication that cops here are calming down. Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, posed the question about deployments to Ginger, who said the deployments were indeed up. “Deployments are up and injuries and deaths are down,” Ginger said. “The SWAT response has been softened substantially. It appears that APD is more focused on negotiations than on action.”
APD has yet to revise its lapel camera policy. “The policy has not been issued and has not been submitted to Justice [DOJ],” Ginger said, adding that lapel cameras won’t have to be activated in every police encounter with a citizen. The cameras are “not a 24-7 news channel,” Ginger said. They are to be used under certain conditions that are have yet to be clarified. That explanation was challenged by some in the audience who said the city’s settlement agreement with the DOJ called on all police encounters with members of the public be recorded.
Sometimes news organizations can jump to, or insinuate erroneous conclusions in their reporting. A TV station recently aired a story about how Ginger, at the last minute, canceled a meeting he had previously scheduled with the city’s civilian Police Oversight Board. One audience member suggested that was a sign of Ginger’s lack of transparency and commitment to the reform effort. “That makes me wonder about your commitment,” the woman said. Ginger responded with, “What do you do when your boss calls?” The elderly questioner replied that she was retired and didn’t have a boss, which drew laughs from the audience. Ginger then explained that his boss is the federal court judge who is overseeing the settlement agreement, and that the judge had called him just before he was set to meet with the oversight board. “The judge is my boss and I had to return the call,” Ginger said.
Ginger is no wuss and he doesn’t cave to public pressure. Several times during the question-and-answer period, audience members, who had been told to ask questions about the process, prefaced their questions with minutes-long statements, some of which had nothing to do with the reform process. Ginger shut them down by asking, “Where’s the question?” When one guy ended his long-winded statement without a question, Ginger said, “I didn’t hear a question so I don’t have a response.” Another audience member accused Ginger’s team of lacking diversity, suggesting it was an all-white group that had no insights into Albuquerque’s Hispanic community. Ginger told the guy his figures about his team were wrong and said the team included two Hispanics, a Black and two women. That, Ginger added, meant that the team was nearly half minority. The audience member responded by saying that women weren’t minorities.
Audience members get tired of people who make political statements instead of asking questions. Most in the audience were balding, graying and sagging, meaning they were an older crowd. And often, older people don’t suffer fools. Several times during the meeting, members of the audience shouted, “Question! Question!” when someone babbled on with their statements. It worked. After being shouted at, the statement-makers usually immediately asked a question.
Some people don’t want to hear that change will take time. Some audience members asked when APD would implement a lapel camera policy, suggesting they wanted one immediately. Ginger replied, “We can do it now, or we can do it right.” That brought sneers and muted jeers from some audience members, but Ginger didn’t back down. He explained that the reform process begins with setting proper policy. That’s hugely important because training is based on policy. Get the policy wrong and your training program is worthless, he said. “If we mess this up we don’t get a second chance. To not do it right carries serious implications,” Ginger said. Some audience members still didn’t buy that explanation.
There was one tense, surreal moment. One of the first people take the microphone to ask Ginger a questions was Andres Valdez of Vecinos United. But Valdez didn’t pose a question, he made statements. Ginger asked for a question, and Valdez kept on with his statement-making. At on point, guy— a member of the team that put on the meeting — and who was sort of policing the people who were in line to ask questions, tried to take the microphone out of Valdez’s hand. Valdez resisted and Ginger asked if there was security in the small ballroom. There was, and a uniformed APD officer walked to the microphone. It’s probable that more than a few people in the room wondered whether the cop would use force on Valdez — force in a meeting about APD’s excessive use of force. Valdez walked away, as did the cop, and the moment passed.
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