Feds Find Albuquerque Police Used Unconstitutional Force In Spate Of Fatal Shootings

CREDIT: AP Photo/Juan Labreche

In this Oct. 26, 2013 photo, a wrecked Albuquerque Police Department cruiser and body of a suspected shooter are seen at a Phillips 66 gas station in Albuquerque, N.M., following a high-speed chase and an officer-involved shooting.

Of the 20 fatal shootings by Albuquerque police between 2009 and 2012, “a majority of them were unreasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” a U.S. Department of Justice investigation concluded Thursday.

“We found that officers used deadly force against people who did not pose an immediate threat of death or serious harm to officers or others, and against people who posed a threat only to themselves. In fact, sometimes it was the conduct of the officers themselves that heightened the danger and escalated the need to use force,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels at a press conference Wednesday, finding that the Albuquerque Police Department engaged in a “pattern or practice of excessive force.”

The investigation began in late 2012 after a spate of incidents elicited community outrage. Among the incidents that triggered the investigation was the shooting of an Iraq War Veteran who was holding a gun to his own head outside a 7-Eleven and a traffic stop that devolved into a low-speed chase involving an unarmed man.

The investigation only covered incidents through 2012. But just last month, a chaotic 10-hour protest erupted after police shot and killed a homeless man who was unlawfully camping in the Albuquerque foothills, and then another man outside a public housing complex less than ten days later. As of the day of the protest in late March, there had been 37 police shootings since 2010, 23 of them deadly.

In addition to using deadly force when not warranted, officers also used less lethal weapons such as Tasers inappropriately in more than 200 instances “against people who were passively resisting and non-threatening or who were unable to comply with orders due to their mental state,” the DOJ found. The report also found that officers frequently employed a “higher level of force than necessary” during encounters with mentally ill individuals in crisis.

In one non-deadly incident that generated public outrage, officers kicked a suspect in the head more than 12 times and beat him with a baton while one officer held the man down on the ground. When the incident was over, video footage shows the officers giving each other a celebratory “belly bump.” The officers were fired after the video became public.

Albuquerque has seen a particularly high number of shootings. New York City, by contrast, saw about the same number of deadly shootings for a population 15 times as high, according to the ACLU of New Mexico.

Deadly shots by police officers are a regular occurrence around the country, particularly against the mentally ill and minorities. While national data is not collected on police shootings, available data and news reports suggest excessive force rarely results in discipline, let alone criminal charges. The DOJ report adds to the evidence of this trend, finding that instances of improper force were “neither identified nor addressed by the chain of command.” “In nearly all of the incidents that we found problematic, we did not observe any findings by any supervisor—from the sergeant, who is a patrol officer’s immediate supervisor, up through the entire chain of command—that the officer’s use of force required corrective action,” the findings letter states.

DOJ’s findings letter also cites an “aggressive organizational culture,” and deficient training as causes for systemic excessive force — both problems commonly associated with excessive force.