The United States Department of Justice announced last week that the Albuquerque Police Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law. APD officers have shot 37 people in the last four years, killing 23 and wounding 14.
The 16-month investigation revealed that police officers in New Mexico’s largest city kicked, punched, and violently restrained nonthreatening people — many of whom suffered from mental illness and some of whom were disabled, elderly, or drunk. The Justice Department found that APD’s policies, training, and supervision are insufficient to ensure that officers encountering people with mental illness or in distress do so in a safe and constitutional manner.
Officers were found to use tasers on people who are passively resisting, non-threatening, observably unable to comply with orders or pose only a minimal threat to the officers. For example, APD officers fired a stun gun at a deranged man who had doused himself in gasoline, setting him on fire. They also fired tasers at a 75-year-old homeless man for refusing to leave a bus stop, at a 16-year-old boy for refusing to lie on a floor covered in broken glass, and at a young man so drunk he could not get up from a couch.
The investigation showed that APD officers too often use deadly force against people who pose a minimal threat and that officers’ own conduct often heightens the danger and contributes to the need to use force. A video of the APD’s fatal shooting of James Boyd, a homeless man with a long history of mental illness, on March 16, 2014, shows officers using a flash-bang grenade, a Taser rifle, a police canine, multiple beanbag rounds, and firearms. APD Chief Gordon Eden told reporters at a news conference that the force used against Mr. Boyd was justified after officers responded to reports that an individual was camping illegally — which the Department said demonstrates that “more work is needed to change the culture of APD.”
“What we found was a pattern or practice of systemic deficiencies that have pervaded the Albuquerque Police Department for many years,” Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general for the department’s civil rights division, told reporters last Thursday.
APD suffers from “inadequate oversight, inadequate investigation of incidents of force, inadequate training of officers to ensure they understand what is permissible or not,” she said. As a result, the Police Department had engaged “in a pattern or practice of violating residents’ Fourth Amendment rights” and of using deadly force “in an unconstitutional manner.”
The Justice Department’s letter details 44 remedies for these department-wide deficiencies. Mayor Richard J. Berry has said he would like a federal monitor appointed to ensure his department complies with changes that are eventually agreed upon by the Justice Department, city officials, and the police union.