In a statement, Mayor Richard Berry's office said, 'We are committed to reform'
Will the U.S. Department of Justice be able to walk away from its police reform deal with Albuquerque?
That was the question being asked around town following the Trump administration’s announcement Monday night that it wants to review and possibly pull out of civil rights lawsuits over police violence across the country.
Here in Albuquerque, the answer is probably not.
That’s because the City of Albuquerque and the DOJ already have a signed agreement approved by a federal judge – and the judge, not the presidential administration, controls the deal.
However, DOJ lawyers could take a less aggressive attitude toward enforcing the agreement and potentially derail the process through benign neglect.
Both sides committed to reform
Mayor Richard Berry’s office, APD Chief Gorden Eden and the president of the police officer’s union said Tuesday they’re committed to seeing the city’s nearly three-year-old reform effort through.
“I have maintained that regardless of what, if any changes may occur on the national level, APD is committed to our reform efforts and the successful implementation of our settlement agreement,” Eden said Tuesday.
“The settlement agreement is an agreement with the people we proudly serve. Our team will continue with the reforms and the substantial progress we have made. We believe that the changes have improved our training, our responses, our accountability and our unwavering collaboration with our community to fulfill the terms of our agreement.”
In a statement, Berry’s office said, “We are committed to reform.”
Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, said there is no turning back.
“It is going to be a lot more complex in Albuquerque considering that we already have a settlement agreement in federal court,” Willoughby said.
“There are a lot of things we would like to look at, but the reality is that we are in federal court,” he said. “We are marching down the road to reform and I don’t see anything changing.”
A nationwide policy change
The possibility that the DOJ could walk away from its consent decrees was raised on Monday when the DOJ made public a memo by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordering a department-wide review of consent degrees and pending agreements the feds have made with police agencies across the country.
In the March 31 memo, Sessions told the DOJ to look at whether the consent decrees and other agreements the Obama administration signed meet the new administration’s law-and-order principles. One of those principles says, “The individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn” the work police officers perform “in keeping American communities safe.”
Albuquerque attorney Peter Cubra, who represents mentally disabled people arrested and jailed in Bernalillo County, and who is an amicus party to the DOJ-APD settlement, said federal court judges run the show once a settlement is reached.
“It is obvious that no matter what a politician, including Jeff Sessions, thinks, any time a federal judge adopts a stipulated settlement [like the one in Albuquerque] only a court can decide” whether to scrap it, Cubra said.
“In the event that the United States changes its position it has been taking in America regarding police misbehavior, every federal judge in America who has entered into a stipulated court order has an obligation to protect the interests of the federal court,” Cubra added.
“I would expect every good judge to hold every defendant in every lawsuit to the agreements that they asked the court to adopt,” he said.
Some worries remain
Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, worries that DOJ lawyers under Trump won’t be as eager to enforce the provisions of the Albuquerque agreement.
“This is an adversarial process, and ultimately if one side of the equation withdraws from their role, I think it runs the risk of reducing the prospect of full accountability,” Simonson said.
“My assumption is that they could dismiss the lawsuit,” he said. “My greater concern is that they won’t work as aggressively to monitor APD’s progress, raise questions and generally ensure that the department is complying with the terms of the agreement in the most complete and professional manner possible.”
The lead prosecutor in the DOJ-APD case is Acting U.S. Attorney James D. Tierney, who was named on March 11. That appointment followed Sessions’ request for the resignation of his predecessor, New Mexico U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez, along with the resignations of 45 of his counterparts in other states who were appointed by President Barack Obama.
In early 2014, the DOJ issued a scathing report saying that APD had for years engaged in an unconstitutional pattern of using excessive force. The city and the DOJ signed a settlement agreement that called for APD to return to a system of constitutional policing.
Federal judge retains control
The reforms agreed to in that deal have been overseen by U.S. District Judge Robert Brack. An independent monitor, James Ginger, who reports to the judge, has been evaluating APD as it, sometimes haltingly, has worked toward meeting benchmarks called for in the deal.
Joanne Fine, chair of the city’s Police Oversight Board, said the DOJ and Ginger should be around for a long time.
That’s because, under the terms of the settlement agreement, APD has to be in full compliance with the reform effort for two years before Ginger and the DOJ can leave town. As of last July 31, APD was in full compliance with only 25 percent of the settlement agreement’s 278 requirements.
“I’m hoping that Mr. Sessions and Trump can’t disassemble the agreements that are already in place,” Fine said, “and I don’t think they can.”