The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How elections affect police shootings

Riot police stand guard in front of protesters in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., Sunday, March 30,2014. Hundreds of protesters marched past riot police in Albuquerque on Sunday, days after a YouTube video emerged threatening retaliation for a recent deadly police shooting. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)
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The Albuquerque Journal has posted an interesting analysis of five years of police shootings, between 2010 and 2014. One thing the paper found is that 39 percent of the shootings over the past five years were by officers who were hired between 2007 and 2009, a period “when APD changed its recruiting and hiring practices in an effort to bolster the ranks.”

Those policies were implemented by police chief Ray Schultz, who was hired to take over the city’s police department in 2005. Oddly, Schultz had previously left the department after a major scandal in which thousands of dollars in cash in evidence were reported missing from the APD evidence room. Schultz at the time was deputy police chief and oversaw the evidence room. Until the media got wind of the story, the only officers punished were those who came forward to report the problem. Schultz left Albuquerque for a position in Arizona in 2003 but was then rehired two years later.

As I wrote in a post last April, over the next nine years, Schultz “managed to preside over a dramatic rise in police shootings, preside over a series of sex scandals within the department and win the wrath of the police union.” Mayor Richard Berry appointed a replacement for Schultz last year. But the effects of his tenure still linger.

It’s worth pointing out again here that it didn’t need to happen this way. As I explained in last April, back in the mid-1990s, Albuquerque was again in the news for a series of police shootings. The city brought in criminologist and policing expert Sam Walker to study what was going on. Walker was floored by the department’s toxic culture, training practices and policies that encouraged the escalation of force. The mayor of Albuquerque who oversaw the police department during this time was Martin Chavez. He decided not to run for reelection in 1997, opting instead to run for governor of New Mexico.

In 1999, new mayor Jim Baca brought in a reform-minded chief from Toledo, Ohio, named Jerry Galvin to clean up the department. Galvin raised the standards candidates needed to meet to become a police officer, including a requirement of at least 60 college-level credits. The higher standards resulted in a reduction in the number of police officers, but it’s far from clear that this was a bad thing — the crime rate continued to fall as well. The city also created a civilian review board to rein in police abuses, in addition to a number of other reforms.

But none of these reforms lasted long. After losing his bid for governor, Chavez came back to run for mayor again in 2001. He defeated Baca. Shortly after taking office, Chavez dismissed Galvin and named Gilbert Gallegos police chief. The civilian review board was also already losing its power. The police union was instructing officers not to testify before the board, while simultaneously lobbying to strip the board of its power. (The union head at the time, Paul Pacheco, is now a New Mexico state representative, and vice chair of the state’s House judiciary committee.) The board was basically rendered powerless. Given the police union’s efforts to undermine the citizen review board at the time, it’s notable that Gallegos, the man Chavez nominated to succeed the reformer Galvin, was a former president of the police union.

The old APD culture quickly returned, as officer shootings and allegations of corruption and excessive force began to mount. In 2005, Chavez appointed Schultz to head up APD, despite his prior history at the department. One of Schultz’s major initiatives was to get APD staffing back up. He accomplished that goal by relaxing hiring standards, including hiring several officers who had recently been fired from the New Mexico State Police. One of those officers, Keith Sandy, would be one of the cops involved in the fatal shooting of homeless man James Boyd last year.

From what I can tell, police use of force and misconduct weren’t major issues in the Albuquerque mayor races of 1997 or 2001. That wouldn’t be surprising. These sorts of issues are rarely even discussed in mayoral campaigns, much less a major factor in them. But they ought to be. And not just mayoral elections, but elections for district attorney, state representative and even statewide offices that, say, oversee the training of state police forces and the curriculum of state police academies.

Imagine if voters had held Chavez to account for his poor oversight of the department in the 1990s by not giving him his old job back in 2001. Maybe Jerry Galvin would have had more time to change the culture within APD. Perhaps the city could have been a model for community policing instead of the national symbol for excessive force that it has become — in addition to off-the-charts rates of police shootings, headlines from Schultz’s tenure include officer harassment of gays, retaliation against whistleblowers and witness intimidation. Perhaps the city also wouldn’t still be dealing with the fallout from the bad hires made during Chavez’s second go-round as mayor.

And perhaps James Boyd and a good percentage of these 42 people might have avoided getting shot.