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What Happens When A Troubled Police Department Refuses To Reform?

What Happens When A Troubled Police Department Refuses To Reform?

Federal consent decrees and civilian oversight are often held up as strong tools to get misbehaving police departments to right ship. But Albuquerque’s experience shows the agreements can be toothless and fragile.

A partnership between ABQ Free Press and HuffPost

In Albuquerque, They’ve Been Getting Away With Obstructing Reform

BY NICK WING AND DENNIS DOMRZALSKI

 

ALBUQUERQUE ― Early on the morning of Aug. 24, 2016, two Albuquerque police officers responded to a 911 call at an apartment complex on the city’s west side. Inside, they found the remains of fourth-grader Victoria Martens wrapped in a smoldering blanket. She had been given alcohol and methamphetamine before she was sexually assaulted, strangled, stabbed and then dismembered. It was her 10th birthday.

Victoria’s mother, Michelle, her mother’s boyfriend and the boyfriend’s cousin were arrested at the scene and charged in the girl’s murder. Only later did it come to light that New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department had forwarded a complaint related to Victoria Martens to the Albuquerque Police Department five months before her death. Victoria had told a family friend that her mother’s boyfriend had tried to kiss her ― a different man than the one charged in the girl’s death ― and the friend called CYFD.

The police received the referral, but did not follow up. When a reporter from the Albuquerque Journal, the city’s morning newspaper, inquired about it, two APD spokespeople said officers had interviewed Victoria and her mother but found no cause for further investigation. In reality, they had ignored the referral entirely.

If they’d actually looked into it, they might have learned that Michelle Martens had previously trawled the internet looking for men to engage in sexual acts with her children. A subsequent civilian oversight board investigation found that the APD officials had lied to the press and to the public about the case ― and once they were caught in their lie, Police Chief Gorden Eden rejected the board’s recommendation that one of his officers be suspended for 80 hours for violating the public’s trust.

The handling of the Martens case fit a broader pattern of troubling behavior among APD command staff. The department has been under a reform agreement with the Department of Justice since 2014, after an investigation following a string of controversial police killings found the department had violated the U.S. Constitution and demonstrated “patterns of excessive force.”

The DOJ agreement called for changes to the department’s policies on use of force, training and transparency, as well ongoing review by civilian panels and an independent monitor. But the APD has repeatedly failed to comply with reforms. A court-appointed independent monitor, James Ginger, has filed five reports with the judge overseeing the case, each one ripping APD for its obstruction. The most recent report, filed in May, accused APD of being in “deliberate noncompliance.”

“There seems to be no one person, unit, or group with responsibility and command authority to ‘make change happen,’” wrote Ginger.

 

Consent decrees can be toothless

Federal consent decrees and civilian oversight are often held up as strong tools to get misbehaving police departments to right ship. But Albuquerque’s experience shows the agreements can be toothless and fragile ― they don’t work without the cooperation of the police and, perhaps more important, city government. It’s been more than three years since the agreement was signed, and oversight officials and community activists say the department’s leaders remain accountable to no one.

Albuquerque police officers observe a protest in March 2014, just weeks before the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report about the department’s unconstitutional practices.

On a Tuesday morning in early September, members of Albuquerque’s Police Oversight Board gathered in the basement of a municipal building downtown to review a docket of APD cases.

When the session moved to cases from APD’s Critical Incident Review Team, an internal unit created under the settlement agreement to examine serious uses of force, the board identified a recurring problem: The video evidence CIRT had been sharing was often disorganized and inconsistently labeled, making it nearly impossible to navigate to relevant segments of footage.

Complications like this have become par for the course, said Joanne Fine, chair of the board. “Every obstacle they can put in our way, they did,” she said in an interview after the meeting.

Fine retired in 2013 from United Way, where she served as a chief communications officer, and has been volunteering with the oversight board since 2015. Her attitude toward the reform process has changed in the last two years.

“We were trying to figure out a way to collaborate with APD, to cooperate with them, before we realized the dysfunction,” she said.

Fine devotes about 20 hours a week to the work, she said. For other board members, which include a former pastor, retired scientist and a diverse cast of community activists, it has become a full-time job without pay.

 

Command staff in denial

APD may occasionally give lip service to the oversight board, but the department doesn’t genuinely acknowledge the mandate of civilian oversight, said Ed Harness, executive director of the Civilian Police Oversight Agency, the investigative arm of the POB that reviews officer-involved shootings and complaints against officers.

“We look at this consent decree and the department as if they’re going through the stages of grief,” Harness said. “The command staff is still in that phase of denial, and they haven’t moved on to acceptance. So that’s where the resistance is. They deny that there are any problems, they deny that there were ever problems, and they don’t feel that change is necessary.”

Asked for comment, APD emailed a statement from a city attorney, who maintained that Albuquerque and its police department remain committed to reform.

We look at this consent decree and the department as if they’re going through the stages of grief. The command staff is still in that phase of denial. Ed Harness, executive director of the Civilian Police Oversight Agency

Consent decrees can change the behavior of police departments, said Harness, a former Milwaukee police officer. But much of the necessary change is cultural, and it can be difficult to enforce a transformation when defiance has become so deeply entrenched.

Critics say APD’s culture of intransigence starts at the top. Chief Eden came to APD in February 2014, two months before the DOJ released the findings of its investigation into the department’s practices. Eden replaced Ray Schultz, who had faced calls to resign amid the probe, with the intent that he would lead the department through the reform process.

The investigation specifically called out APD’s SWAT team and another, since-disbanded tactical unit, concluding that the officers assigned to the elite squads had been responsible for more than a third of the department’s shootings since 2010. Weeks after that review, Eden promoted a former SWAT commander, Bob Huntsman, to be his second in command. Huntsman had left the APD in 2012, before some of the unit’s most controversial killings, but activists said his leadership had enabled SWAT’s rogue behavior. They saw his selection as an immediate sign of hostility toward the reform effort.

Huntsman’s role at APD has only grown since his return, while Eden’s has withered. He “essentially runs” APD today, said Harness.

Under Eden and Huntsman’s watch, there appears to have been little effort to challenge the culture at APD. Many say the current mindset dates back to August 2005, when a mentally ill man went on a shooting spree that left two of the department’s officers and three others dead. The department began to take on a more militarized ethos after the tragedy, laying the groundwork for an increase in officer-involved shootings, said Pete Dinelli, a former city councilor and prosecutor and frequent critic of the APD.

“We shifted from community-based policing, where we had a fully staffed department that did a lot of community outreach and emphasized a proactive approach to law enforcement,” said Dinelli. “We started recruiting a far more aggressive type of police officer. And with that, there was an emphasis placed on defensive tactics on behalf of the police officer.”

Under the department’s current leadership, Dinelli has little hope that reform will truly take root. And he says it’s not just Huntsman and Eden who have to go.

“It’s a paramilitary organization with a definite chain of command in place,” he said. “Most of the officers that are in command staff have been there for a number of years. They don’t want to respond to civilians. They don’t want to be told what to do.”

Meaningful reform would require APD to recruit and train a new generation of rank-and-file officers, Dinelli said.

In theory, the DOJ or the monitor, James Ginger, could call for sanctions on the department, including criminal contempt-of-court charges, fines, removal of leaders, or even a complete takeover, an unprecedented action for a federal judge.

Jonathan Smith, a former Justice Department official in the Obama administration who helped negotiate the Albuquerque agreement, said he understands the impatience but urged activists to stay actively involved in the process and to let it play out.

“These police departments get broken over a long period of time, cultures get developed over a long period of time, and changing police culture takes a long period of time,” Smith said. (The Department of Justice said it would not comment on pending litigation.)

Gutting the department would certainly be a drastic departure from the current approach.

“We only can make recommendations; we cannot impose anything,” Harness said. “We have to have the support of the public and of the citizens of Albuquerque to get things done. We have to have them engaged, and we have to have them be responsive and hold the department accountable.”

 

Reform needs public support

It’s not clear that the general public would support a broader overhaul. Crime rates have been on the rise in Albuquerque over the past few years, and some residents ― especially those in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods ― see reform as a secondary issue, one that only makes it harder for cops to protect them and their property.

“If you go to community meetings, for the most part you’ll find a much larger group that supports whatever the police do and a small minority that wants to see the police change,” said Bill Kass, a member of the POB. “They’re hardly a silent majority. They’re effectively a supportive majority, so that does give cops some cover.”

Law enforcement officials around the country have made similar arguments that addressing civil rights violations in a department would interfere with legitimate police functions. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expressed disdain for federal consent decrees and the idea of police reform more broadly, drawing pushback from activists who say that the efforts benefit civilians and cops alike.

Although Albuquerque’s consent decree is a court-ordered agreement, meaning Sessions can’t unilaterally roll it back, his tone doesn’t make the process any easier.

“I believe the Trump administration and Jeff Sessions are going to do whatever they can to gut any further civil rights investigations of police misconduct,” Dinelli said. “Over the next four years, as long as Trump and Sessions are in office, we won’t see another consent decree.”

That sort of antagonism has broader implications for police reform in Albuquerque and nationwide.

“You’re losing the hammer and you’re sending a message to jurisdictions that we’re not really serious about this,” said William Yeomans, a 24-year veteran of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and a former acting assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush.

“Decrees work best when folks at the top make it clear that they mean business, that the decree will be carried out,” added Yeomans. “If they don’t, and there’s any wiggle room, people are going to tend back on the way they have traditionally done things.”

You’re losing the hammer and you’re sending a message to jurisdictions that we’re not really serious about this. William Yeomans, former acting assistant attorney general under George W. Bush

Over the course of a consent decree, police will eventually get the message, Smith said.

“If you tell a cop, ‘Here’s a new policy,’ they’ll roll their eyes and go back to doing it the way they’ve done it, until they’ve been held accountable again and again and again,” he said.

Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, the union that represents rank-and-file officers, says that cops on the street want the reform effort to succeed, but they’re frustrated by the complexity and lack of consistency in implementing some policies, said. Many beat cops ― some already skeptical of the push for more transparency and accountability ― see an inefficient system of red tape that keeps them off street while they fill out paperwork for the various oversight authorities.

Willoughby said his experience with the process has been chaotic and inconsistent. Every consent decree is different, and everyone involved in Albuquerque’s campaign has, in effect, been participating in a big experiment, Willoughby said. And unless everyone reaches agreement on how to move forward, the process will fail.

“When we started this there was not a book out there called ‘Reforming Your Police Department With The DOJ For Idiots,’” Willoughby said. “I don’t think there has been ill-intent, but it is evident to me that this is not going to work.

The most recent federal monitor’s report found APD to be 47 percent in operational compliance with the consent decree. For a judge to consider lifting the decree, it must be 95 percent for two years.

City leadership has done little to signal that reform is a priority. Mayor Richard Berry and the nine city councilors have remained mostly silent on the issue.

During a meeting with Ginger in early 2016, council members asked him who was ultimately responsible for the reform effort. His response: the City Council.

Even after Ginger’s five negative reports about APD’s stonewalling, there have been no calls from City Hall for Eden to be fired and no formal reprimands ― even when APD lied to the public about the Martens case.

Berry, the city’s first Republican mayor in over 30 years, has been similarly indifferent. But after two terms, he isn’t running for re-election, and a new mayor will be sworn in on Dec. 1. Both candidates in the runoff election slated for mid-November have said they’ll fire Eden and go full speed ahead on reform.

Berry did not respond to a HuffPost request to comment on reform of the police department.

Under the DOJ consent decree, the Albuquerque Police Department must be found to be in 95 percent operational compliance for two years before the judge can consider declaring the work complete. The monitor’s last report found just 47 percent operational compliance.

Cost: $3 million and counting

Meanwhile, Albuquerque taxpayers are on the hook not just for the cost of the protracted reform effort but also for the large settlements that continue to arise as a result of police misconduct. The city has already shelled out nearly $3 million to pay for salaries and audits associated with the reform process, according to officials, and will likely be on the hook for millions more before all is said and done. In 2017 alone, Albuquerque added an additional $3 million to its budget to bolster the fund that covers out-of-court settlements, many of which are related to APD.

But city officials say everything is going according to schedule.

“When the City and Department of Justice began this process, they set an extremely ambitious timeline for themselves, one of the most ambitious in the nation,” Albuquerque City Attorney Jessica Hernandez, who represents the city and APD in court, said in an email. “The City has made tremendous progress over the last three years. As the City continues those efforts, both the Department and community must remember that we are focused on ensuring reform is implemented correctly as opposed to merely quickly. As the Independent Monitor has said, ‘This is a marathon, not a sprint.’”

Activists say if the city doesn’t force its police department to change, it’s not going to. For now, however, the will for swifter action may not be there.

“It seems like citizens are sort of resigned to the fact that there’s always going to be pay-to-play, that you’re always going to have a pretty fierce police force with no accountability,” said Silvio Dell’Angela, a retired Air Force officer and Vietnam veteran who’s been actively involved in the reform process. “People don’t dare to threaten the status quo, even when cops shoot people.”

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Albuquerque’s definitive alternative newspaper publishing an inquisitive, modern approach to the news and entertainment stories that matter most to New Mexicans. ABQ Free Press’ fresh voice speaks to insightful and involved professionals who care deeply about our community.