City Notorious For Excessive Police Force Promotes Officer Implicated In Tasing Of Homeless Man

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.

A month after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report that found a spate of unconstitutional excessive force incidents by police in Albuquerque, N.M., the city police department promoted an officer embroiled in one such incident in which a homeless man was left disfigured by repeated Tasing.

Foothills Area Commander Timothy Gonterman was one of two officers promoted last week by the Albuquerque Police Department’s new chief, Gorden Eden. In 2006, a jury found Gonterman and two fellow officers had used excessive force against plaintiff Jerome Hall and awarded him $300,000. Hall said he was handcuffed without explanation and held against a wall during the 2002 incident. He alleged in his lawsuit that the officers beat him, banging his head against the wall, punching, and kicking him. They later shocked him numerous times with a Taser, causing Hall numerous “severe burns,” and singeing off part of his ear entirely.

Gonterman was one of two officers promoted to the new rank of major, as part of a move to curb excessive force in response to the DOJ report. But in announcing Gonterman, Chief Gorden Eden did not mention the incident. He reasoned instead that one of the flaws cited in the DOJ report was lack of supervision, and that Gonterman would provide that supervision and oversight in his new role.

Hall, who was shot to death several days after the jury verdict, was a disabled, homeless, U.S. army veteran and former medical technician who struggled with substance abuse. He says he was stopped by officers without explanation. The police department accused him of catch-all offenses that included public nuisance, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and trespass. “They treated me like an animal because I was black and homeless— like I was less than nothing. It was a public lynching in modern times,” Hall said after the 2006 verdict.

Gonterman told the Associated Press that his actions more than 12 years ago were a mistake, saying, “I have learned from that mistake. I have taken responsibility for it,” but he attributed the mistake to new stun gun technology and lack of training that he says is now available. Gonterman says he now provides training to others on using “the minimal amount of force necessary to make an arrest.”

But while Gonterman’s incident occurred in 2002, the April Justice Department report identified more than 200 instances between 2009 and 2012 in which officers used Tasers or other weapons less deadly than a gun “against people who were passively resisting and non-threatening or who were unable to comply with orders due to their mental state.” The report also found that officers frequently employed a “higher level of force than necessary” during encounters with mentally ill individuals in crisis. DOJ did find that lack of supervisor action in response to police force incidents was one primary cause of the city’s epidemic. But it also cited an “aggressive organizational culture,” and deficient training as causes.

The Justice Department’s findings last month came on the heels of a 10-hour protest in Albuquerque over the prevalence of deadly police shootings and other instances of excessive force. As of the day of the protest, there had been 37 police shootings since 2010, 23 of them deadly. Another individual was shot and killed by an officer just weeks later. The city has seen about the same number of fatal shootings as New York City, which has a population 15 times as high, according to the ACLU of New Mexico.

The new promotions are part of Albuquerque’s response to the report. It also recently started using lapel cameras on officers, and Eden said he plans to hire many more officers.

The Albuquerque Police Department did not return a call to ThinkProgress for comment.