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Trump and Reform at APD

Trump and Reform at APD

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.”



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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

Latest posts by Dennis Domrzalski (see all)

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  • Pete Dinelli
    April 5, 2017, 2:07 pm

    The truth has always been that Chief Gordon Eden and his command staff are not committed to implementing the DOJ reforms as evidenced by their actions and performance under the consent decree.

    Just five months ago on November 12, 2016, the Albuquerque Journal published an article reporting that city Community Policing Councils were frustrated with Chief Gordon Eden not attending their meetings, the Police Oversight Board complaining that Chief Eden ignored its findings and discipline recommendations, and the city attorney, instead of Chief Eden, was often the person who publicly explained the reform efforts.

    (See November 12, 2106 Albuquerque Journal article “Police reform groups say APD Chief not involved” at https://www.abqjournal.com/887736/groups-where-is-eden.html).
    APD Forward, an APD oversight group, also said Eden had not been present for many settlement-agreement meetings.

    The Berry Administration, Chief Eden and his command staff lack of commitment to the DOJ mandated reforms is documented in the second, third and the fourth progress reports submitted by Federal Monitor James Ginger to the Federal Court.

    In his second report to the federal court, Federal Monitor James Ginger accused the City Attorney of what he called, “delay, do little and deflect” tactics saying his relationship with her was “a little rougher than most” compared with top attorneys in other cities and where he has overseen police reform.

    The July 1, 2016 federal monitor’s third report states “Across the board … the components in APD’s system for overseeing and holding officers accountable for the use of force, for the most part, has failed … the serious deficiencies revealed point to a deeply-rooted systemic problem. … The deficiencies, in part, indicate a culture [of] low accountability is at work within APD, particularly in chain-of-command reviews. …”

    The November 1, 2016 fourth federal monitor’s report states that when “excessive use of force” incidents are investigated by the APD Critical Incident Team, it“ [deploys] carefully worded excuses, apparently designed not to find fault with officer actions” and “[uses] language and terminology apparently designed to absolve officers and supervisors of their responsibility to follow certain CASA (Court Approved Settlement Agreement) related provisions.

    With Attorney General Jeff Sessions demanding the resignation of US Attorney Damon Martinez, Albuquerque lost a federal prosecutor who was committed to implementation of the APD consent decree and all the reforms.

    The District of New Mexico will soon have a new United States Attorney to carry out the Trump Administration agenda and only time will tell if that person will be committed to carrying out the consent decree or seek its modification.

    Come December 1, 2017, the City of Albuquerque will have a new Mayor and likely a new Chief of Police.

    Voters need to demand candidates for Mayor say what their position is on the DOJ consent decree, if they support the reform effort and to what extent they support the reform effort.

    Voters also need to demand from candidates for Mayor if they are committed to hiring a Police Chief and a command staff who will cooperate with the Federal Monitor to ensure genuine implementation of the consent decree and all the mandated reforms.

The following two tabs change content below.
Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

Latest posts by Dennis Domrzalski (see all)