The Albuquerque Police Department has a pattern “of using excessive force,” its officers are “reckless” and the problems stem from “systemic deficiencies” in its policies and training, according to a blunt Justice Department report issued Thursday.
This report follows an investigation that the Justice Department began in November 2012 to explore allegations that Albuquerque police used excessive force. And it also comes less than two weeks after a chaotic, frenzied confrontation between protesters and police in that city following a string of police-involved shootings; that melee drew a lot of attention to the city and to the fact that Albuquerque police had shot and killed 23 people since the beginning of 2010.
So what did investigators determine? And what does this mean going forward? Here are four key findings (plus a look at what comes next) from the Justice Department investigation, conducted by the department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Mexico:
1. Excessive use of deadly force
Police in Albuquerque “too often use deadly force in an unconstitutional manner,” the report said. Investigators looked at the 20 fatal police-involved shootings between 2009 and 2010 and concluded that a majority of these were not constitutional. From the report:
Albuquerque police officers often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to officers or others. Instead, officers used deadly force against people who posed a minimal threat, including individuals who posed a threat only to themselves or who were unarmed. Officers also used deadly force in situations where the conduct of the officers heightened the danger and contributed to the need to use force.
2. Excessive use of force, period
According to the report, Albuquerque police “often use unreasonable physical force” and “often use less lethal force in an unconstitutional manner.” Officers frequently misuse Tasers, turning those weapons on people who are passively resisting police or who aren’t threatening but cannot comply with police orders because of their mental states, the investigation found.
One example highlighted is the time officers used Tasers on a man who had poured gasoline on himself. That promptly set the man on fire, so another officer then had to put out those flames.
3. A lack of accountability
The pattern of excessive force investigators found was “not isolated or sporadic” — rather, it stems from deficiencies in the department’s training and oversight. One key issue highlighted in the report: A lack of a strong internal accountability system. Investigators found just a few cases where officers used force and a supervisor sought additional investigation; nearly all of those times, even when the accounts from officers were inconsistent or didn’t sync up with the available evidence, supervisors agreed with what the officers said. “Supervisors marked as ‘reasonable’ almost every use of force report form we saw,” the report states. Officers also would not turn on their devices, for which they were almost never reprimanded.
4. Using force on people with mental illnesses or people who posed no threat but couldn’t comply
“A significant amount of the force we reviewed was used against persons with mental illness and in crisis,” investigators wrote. This included using force against people who were not able to comply with police orders “for reasons beyond their control.” One example cited was the case of a 25-year-old man with a developmental disability who was Tasered multiple times, kicked and beaten by police; police later learned the man, who was not charged with a crime, had wandered away from his group home. There are also instances of force used on people who were either too drugged or otherwise intoxicated to properly comply, despite the fact that none of them posed a threat to officers and others, according to investigators.
5. Going forward: New policies and new training needed
So what does this mean going forward? The report also includes some recommended remedial measures, which includes developing specific policies for when officers can use deadly force, firearms, Tasers or any other weapon; making sure that there’s a system to track when officers use force; and improving the training for when officers should use force and when they should avoid doing so. The department also needs to develop policies and protocols to change the way officers respond to people with behavioral or mental health issues, the report said.
Albuquerque police recently hired a deputy chief meant to take the lead on the recommended reforms that were expected from the Justice Department.
You can read the entire report here.