The stubborn menace of Albuquerque’s police force

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Homeless camper James Boyd is confronted by Albuquerque police for camping out in the city’s foothills. CREDIT: Albuquerque Police Department
Homeless camper James Boyd is confronted by Albuquerque police for camping out in the city’s foothills. CREDIT: Albuquerque Police Department

In March 2014, two policemen shot and killed James Boyd, a man who suffered from homelessness and schizophrenia, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Boyd’s killing put a national spotlight on officers’ use of excessive force and treatment of vulnerable communities in the city. One month later, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a damning report about the “culture of aggression” within the Albuquerque Police Department (APD), which included a “permissive policy on weapons, under-utilization of its crisis intervention team, overuse of SWAT, and the harsh approaches to ordinary encounters with residents,” as well as a lax system of accountability.

This month, more than two years after Boyd’s shooting and the subsequent release of the DOJ report, the trial of the officers who killed him concluded with a hung jury. But the culture of aggression and lack of accountability in Albuquerque has mostly remained the same. While officer-involved shootings are down, excessive use of force is standard, and people with mental illnesses and no permanent home are still vulnerable.

One of many

When police killed Boyd in the Albuquerque foothills, his death was one of 22 officer-involved killings that had rocked the city since January 2010, as reported by the Albuquerque Journal.

“James Boyd was emblematic of misuse and excessive use of force by the department — extending back many years,” Steven Allen, the director of public policy at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico, told ThinkProgress. Body camera footage differentiated his killing from others, which in turn helped his story gain national attention. At the same time, the DOJ was wrapping up its investigation of the APD, which began in 2012 at the urging of the ACLU.

Within a month of Boyd’s shooting, the DOJ published a 46-page report that concluded most of the 20 fatal officer-involved shootings between 2009 to 2012 were “unconstitutional.” The department also reviewed more than 200 police reports and determined that officers routinely used electrical weapons, like Tasers, in non-threatening situations and used “unreasonable physical force.”

People like Boyd, who suffer from mental illness, were common victims of officer violence. While the report didn’t discuss egregious behavior directed toward people experiencing homelessness, advocates say that people living on the streets were targeted.

In October 2014, the city and police department reached a settlement agreement with the DOJ. The department said it would revise its use of force guidelines, thoroughly investigate use of force incidents, and create special tactical units to approach those in crisis, including people with mental illness and city residents living on the streets. It also consented to adding more crisis prevention and behavioral health training for officers.

But two years later, Dr. James Ginger, the independent federal monitor assigned to keep tabs on the APD, and local stakeholders report that the police department has dragged its feet in making the agreed-upon changes. Excessive force and abusive treatment of people is still permitted, and the department is trying to manipulate the monitor’s findings.

‘Water under the bridge’

“[Field] officers are engaging in a dangerous trend of under use of force,” the APD’s Professional Accountability Bureau wrote in a memo to department supervisors in June. “This refers to officers not using the appropriate amount of force at the appropriate time in an encounter, or not using force at all.” The memo noted that “under use of force” can be as problematic as excessive use of force, because it puts officers, bystanders, and suspects in danger.

Contrary to what the Accountability Bureau conveyed in its memo, Ginger has since discovered an alarming trend of excessive force that’s been underreported and underinvestigated by superiors within the APD — some of which is still directed at the homeless population.

In September, Ginger released a special report that detailed egregious police encounters that happened in 2015, despite the settlement agreement. Within the span of three months, two officers broke a person’s arm, struck a person’s head with their knees multiple times, and broke another person’s collarbone.

The department refers to these uses of force as “distraction strikes” and “distraction techniques,” which Ginger described as a way to “rationalize” not having to report or investigate them.

He wrote:

At this point the monitoring team believes that even legitimately questionable use or shows of force cannot survive APD’s process, since each step appears preconditioned to rationalize or explain away officer conduct. Likewise, it appears to the monitoring team that APD sees many of the missed opportunities as “water under the bridge” and not events that should be reinvestigated — or in cases that were missed, investigated at all. The agency has almost no appetite for correcting behavior that violates existing policy. Therefore, it is nearly impossible at this point to rely on force data that APD reports.

While the use of force incidents detailed in the special report occurred late last year, Ginger’s determination that the APD wasn’t committed to changing its system came just a few short months after the department rewrote its use of force policy.

The APD was also slow to reform that policy, which eventually included language about de-escalation, Allen told ThinkProgress.

“It took them forever to create [it],” he said. “There was no dialogue with the community or other entities that are should-be stakeholders in the policy development process. The monitor really took them to task for that.” Allen added that the APD has since created a better system of communication to facilitate that type of dialogue, although it’s also tried to censor information in the monitor’s reports.

But using force isn’t the only way officers have continued the culture of aggression. This year, hostile police operations targeting the homeless population raised red flags for people living on the streets and policy advocates alike.

In May, officers launched a reverse sting to entrap homeless drug users — several of whom also suffered from a mental illness. Posing as dealers, officers offered to sell six people small amounts of cocaine. Their targets were living on the streets and had few belongings, but offered to give up everything they had — coins, clothing, medicine, and electronics — in order to obtain the drugs. When the transactions were finalized, all of the targets were arrested and jailed for felony drug possession.

One of the targets was white. The others were Black, Native American, and Latino/a. Advocates decried the operation as a nefarious way to punish people with medical and mental health problems.

“For a department that’s constantly complaining about understaffing, this is a bizarre use of police resources — targeting these low-level people for this kind of operation,” Allen said. “And people are literally giving the clothes off their backs and then being arrested for it.”

After the arrests, civil rights attorney Mark Donatelli told New Mexico In Depth, “This is taking advantage of people who have a medical condition known as addiction. It is police misconduct focused on a vulnerable population.”

Then in June, the APD conducted an armed raid of a needle exchange van owned and operated by the New Mexico Department of Health, in its search for two suspects. Plainclothes officers wearing face masks pointed their firearms at the van and people inside, yelling for people to exit and forcing them to lay on the sweltering hot ground.

Police later claimed they didn’t know the van was used to facilitate confidential needle exchanges for homeless people, which is overseen by the Department of Health and Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless (AHCH). The APD also said officers “did not interact with the staff nor the patrons,” but body camera videos obtained by New Mexico In Depth showed otherwise.

Outside of special narcotics operations, Gordon Yawakia of the Albuquerque Indian Center (AIC) says street harassment of homeless people is par for the course. For their general population size, Native Americans make up a disproportionate percentage of people living on the streets, which means they encounter police on a regular basis.

According to Yawakia, a prevention coordinator, police regularly target individuals sitting in public, demanding to see their identification.

“They don’t really have no place to go. So they’re just sitting around and [police will] just come over and turn the lights on and start going through people and run their IDs and stuff,” he said. “If they don’t have no warrants or anything, if they’re drunk, they’ll just tear up their license or ID.”

Yawakia acknowledged that the APD is trying to ease up on the harassment due to the settlement agreement. He no longer sees or hears about antagonistic encounters on a daily basis. Nevertheless, hostile incidents occasionally sound alarm bells.

Recently, he said, officers stormed a homeless encampment near the AIC office at nighttime. People in tents were told to clear out, and when some of them resisted, officers allegedly pepper-sprayed everyone.

Slow progress

“If those very evident, very public cases are happening still, then you know it’s happening on a broader [level] that we’re not hearing about,” Adriann Barboa of Strong Families New Mexico told ThinkProgress. “It’s just evidence of where the department’s mindset really is.”

Barboa also belongs to APD Forward, and is overseeing data collection about Albuquerque residents and their police encounters. The group is currently passing out surveys and canvassing neighborhoods, with the goal of assessing reform efforts over time.

From the information that’s already gathered, Barboa says residents overall want to be able to stand by the police, but still have concerns about the way the APD is operating. They also feel like they’ve been kept out of the loop about the reforms the department is supposed to be making.

If the amount of time it took to change its use of force guidelines and open a dialogue with the community is any indication, it will be a long time until the APD is fully in compliance with the settlement agreement. But people like Barboa and Allen are cautiously optimistic.

Executive Director Jenny Metzler of AHCH, which also belongs to the APD Forward coalition, points to roundtable discussions among police, residents, and stakeholders as a positive sign.

“James Boyd was emblematic of misuse and excessive use of force by the department — extending back many years,” she said. “Now we have this framework with the reform effort, that gives us a place to work at the higher policy level.”

Metzler sees some improvement in community policing, because AHCH works closely with the APD to help homeless people in crisis. She’s heard stories of cops assisting people in need, but also hears tales of ongoing “institutional” and “systematic” policing of homeless people.

“There’s a lot left to be seen,” she said.

Barboa believes the key to future reform is buy-in from top officials, namely Chief of Police Gorden Eden Jr. and Mayor Richard Berry. She says the two have paid lip service to making the agreed-upon changes.

“Rank and file police may like or dislike reform,” she said. “They’re gonna follow suit, because that’s what police officers do. If the mayor and the chief are to really be in this, and really set the culture from the top down, then it would happen.”