Albuquerque’s long history of police abuse, cover-up and scandal

Last week, the Department of Justice issued a damning report (PDF) on the use of force among police officers in Albuquerque. Among the DOJ findings:

  • Albuquerque cops “too often use deadly force in an unconstitutional manner in their use of firearms.” The report points to 20 shootings by the city’s police between 2009-2012, a majority of which the DOJ found to be constitutional violations. Moreover, investigators found that city police “often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious body harm” to the police or anyone else, and that cops have used lethal force against people who are a “minimal threat” or pose no threat at all to anyone other than themselves.
  • The city’s police offices also have a record of using “less lethal force” in ways that violate the Constitution, including a pattern of using Tasers on people who posed little to no threat to the police or the public, and in ways that made things more dangerous, such as on a man who had doused himself in gasoline.
  • Albuquerque police routinely escalated situations by using physical force instead of efforts aimed at peaceful conflict resolution.
  • The city gives its police officers insufficient training on interacting with people suffering from mental illness or suffering some sort of mental crisis.
  • The report emphasizes that these incidents are “not isolated or sporadic,” but represent a pattern set by bad policies, including insufficient training and lax oversight.
  • “In nearly all cases” that the DOJ reviewed, APD supervisors confirmed their officers’ account of an incident, “even when officers’ accounts were incomplete, were inconsistent with other evidence, or were based on canned or repetitive language.”
  • More troubling still, in cases where outside entities did find that city police had used unreasonable force, police department supervisors responded by lavishing praise on those officers, even holding them up as examples other officers ought to follow.

As of 2012, no shooting by an Albuquerque cop had ever been found unjustified by a grand jury, leading critics to labeled the process a “sham.” And residents have become fed up with the APD, with hundreds taking to the streets in protest after the shooting of a homeless man. The thing is, for longtime Albuquerque inhabitants, this probably all sounds familiar. Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, the city went through a similar scandal. I wrote about it in my book.

In 1998 the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico brought in Jerry Galvin to take over the police department after a series of questionable shootings and SWAT incidents moved the city to commission an outside investigation. In one incident that made national news, one SWAT officer said to his colleagues, “Let’s go get the bad guy,” just before the team went to confront 33-year-old Larry Walker. The “bad guy” wasn’t a terrorist, killer, or even a drug dealer, but depressed man whose family had called the police because they feared he might be contemplating suicide. The SWAT team showed up in full battle attire, including assault rifles and flash grenades. They found Walker “cowering under a juniper tree,” the New York Times later reported, then shot him dead from 43 feet away.

The city brought in Sam Walker, a well-regarded criminologist at the University of Nebraska, to evaluate the police department’s use of lethal force. Walker was astonished by what he found. “The rate of police killings was just off the charts,” Walker told the Times. The city’s SWAT team, he said, “had an organizational structure that led them to escalate situations upward rather than de-escalating.” The city then brought in Galvin, who immediately disbanded the SWAT team, toned down the militarism, and implemented community policing policies. Galvin told the Times, “If cops have a mindset that the goal is to take out a citizen, it will happen.”

But the reform-minded Galvin didn’t last long. He was an outsider, and clashed with the city’s higher-ranking career cops. When new mayor Martin Chavez took office in 2001, he dismissed Galvin and appointed former APD officer and ex-police union president Gilbert Gallegos. Things quickly returned to business as usual. Within a few years, the stories about excessive force and corruption returned, including alleged abuse in the city’s jail, during traffic stops, and at protests. In 2003, a story broke about thousands of dollars worth of cash and property that had gone missing from APD evidence rooms. The officers who blew the whistle on the story alleged that Gallegos and other APD brass refused to investigate, then set their sights on the cops who came forward.

The deputy police chief who oversaw the evidence room at the time, Ray Schultz,  left to take a position with a police department in Arizona, but was then inexplicably brought back to Albuquerque as police chief in 2005. Schultz stayed until last summer, when Mayor Richard Berry appointed Gordon Eden to replace him. Schultz in his tenure managed to oversee the recent dramatic rise in police shootings, preside over a series of sex scandals within the department, and win the wrath of the police union.

Eden has promised reform. But he has his work cut out for him. The police culture in Albuquerque will be difficult to change. One particularly poignant example concerns the city’s police union. In 2012, TV reporter Christina Rodda filed a lawsuit against the city and against Officer Stephanie Lopez. According to Rodda’s lawsuit, she was covering a rave at a club called Tumbleweeds when she caught Lopez on tape getting rough with a teenager. Lopez then demanded that Rodda hand over the tape. Rodda initially objected. Lopez then confiscated the entire camera. If she had taken the camera because the video was evidence of some kind, she should have tagged the camera and taken it to the police station. Instead, according to Rodda’s lawsuit, Lopez took the camera home. Three days later, the camera was returned to Rodda’s employer, KOB. The incriminating video had been deleted. Rodda was able to recover the file with the assistance of a specialist. Lopez then had Rodda arrested. The charge — “criminal trespass” — was summarily dismissed by a judge.

How is all of this relevant? Well, when the DOJ report came out last week, the Albuquerque police union issued a statement from its president . . . Stephanie Lopez. Yes, the same officer who confiscated Rodda’s camera and returned it missing a video that may have depicted her own misconduct now heads the city’s police union.

Lopez’s reaction to the report is interesting, too. From TV station KRQE:

Lopez says she finds the DOJ’s findings on less lethal force particularly upsetting.

“The less lethal is there so we don’t get into the lethal encounters so, that’s the difficult part is, okay, so we’re wrong on both. We’re wrong when we use less lethal and we’re wrong when we use lethal force,” explains Lopez.

Lopez seems to think this is a Catch-22 for Albuquerque police. That in itself is revealing. The DOJ report was critical of APD officers’ use of both kinds of force not against people who presented an immediate threat, but against people who presented no threat to the police and no threat to anyone else, save perhaps for themselves. Lopez seems oblivious to the possibility that not using force at all against such people would even be an option. Her reaction would seem to support the argument that in too many police departments today, cops just aren’t trained in deescalation or conflict resolution. It’s all about force.

A few other lowlights from Albuquerque in recent years:

  • The Albuquerque Journal reported in 2012 that the city’s police unions had paid bonuses to police officers who shot and killed citizens. Of the 23 cops who shot citizens between 2010 and 2012, 20 received payments of between $300 and $1,000. The union claimed the payments were to compensate the police for emotional distress. Families of the citizens who were shot called them bounties.
  • As part of an effort to boost the number of officers on the beat, Schultz began hiring cops with shady pasts, including four who had recently resigned or been fired from the New Mexico State Police. Despite promises that none of those cops would carry guns, one of the hires, Keith Sandy was repeatedly promoted to some of the department’s most elite units.
  • Sandy was one of the cops involved in the recent shooting of homeless man James Boyd, which sparked the recent protests. Boyd “was shot because he was holding knives, according to Albuquerque Police Chief Gordon Eden. But police released helmet camera footage (warning: the footage is graphic) from the shooting last week that showed Boyd turning away from officers just before they opened fire.” Despite Boyd turning away, the officers decided to throw a flash grenade, discharge a stun gun and fire six shots from an assault rifle at him.
  • On July 1, 2006, a vice team wearing flak jackets and toting guns and ballistics shields raided a gay gym/social club in the city. Some patrons were dragged from the locker room naked, handcuffed, and forced to lie on the floor at gunpoint for more than an hour. One man said he was taken into a separate room where the officers photographed and ridiculed him. “We saw about 15 or 20 flashes coming from there and heard lots of laughter,” one club member later said. “They (the officers) were having a good old time. It was like the gay Abu Ghraib.” Police officials later said they sent the SWAT team after getting reports that the club was dispensing alcohol without a license. According to the warrant, the show of force was necessary because “sending us into this place again puts us or any other undercover officer in danger of sexual assault and/or great bodily harm and/or injury,” a fear that the city’s gay community quite understandably found offensive.
  • After accusations that an APD officer had intimidated witnesses, the department assigned three officers to investigate, two of whom had trained under the accused officer, and one of whom was a personal friend. Again, an indication that the department didn’t take misconduct all that seriously.
  • In January, the city settled with the family of Jacob Mitschelen, who was shot and killed by Det. Byron “Trey” Economidy after a traffic stop. The shooting was found justified, even though Economidy had improperly used his personal gun in the shooting. Economidy was later suspended for four days for listing his occupation on Facebook as “human waste disposal.”
  • In 2007, U.S. District Court Judge William “Chip” Johnson found that the APD’s “Party Patrol” had violated the Fourth Amendment when officers raided a home without a warrant. Created to bust parties where police suspected underage drinking, the Party Patrol often brought in helicopters, and at least 1,400 parties between 2002 and 2007. After court rebukes, they changed their practice of entering homes without a warrant or consent, and of arresting all underage people at the parties, regardless of whether they possessed or had consumed alcohol.
  • In 2006, APD Officer Sam Costales was present during an altercation between the race car driver Al Unser and several deputies from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department. Unser was arrested for assaulting the deputies. Costales, a cop of 23 years, testified in Unser’s defense that the deputies had abused Unser, and Unser was acquitted. Chief Schultz responded by an opening an investigation — of Costales, for testifying against his fellow police officers. The Albuquerque police union, which is supposed to represent Costales, then sent the Bernalillo County sheriff a letter apologizing for the fact that one of its members breached the “Blue Wall of Silence,” adding that the union was “embarrassed and ashamed” of Costales for implicating “our brother and sisters in blue.” Costales was eventually hounded into retirement. In 2009, a federal jury awarded him $662,000 in his lawsuit against the city.

If there’s a lesson to be drawn from all of this, it’s about the importance of political oversight of police agencies — and how little that tends to factor into mayoral elections. (The recent mayor’s race in New York City is a notable recent exception.) In most cities, mayors appoint police chiefs. The right choice for that position can dramatically alter the trajectory of a city’s police force. Mayors also often negotiate issues like accountability and transparency with police unions. In some cities, they appoint members of civilian review or other oversight boards.

Imagine if a chief like Galvin had been allowed to stick around long enough to implement his reforms and institute a better culture at the Albuquerque Police Department. Imagine if the city’s voters had ousted the mayor for dismissing him. Perhaps the city could have been an example of how policing ought to be done. Instead, Albuquerque is the setting of a horrifying viral video depicting police killing James Boyd, is seeing mass protests and subsequent crackdowns, is paying out six- and seven-figure settlements, and is the subject of a damning federal critique that’s making headlines around the country.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · April 14